|September 28, 2011 | ART||Posted by James Watkins|
Sara Blake wants to be remembered as an artist, which is apparently one who follows a creative pursuit where skill comes by study or practice. Granted, Sara Blake’s illustrations quickly and clearly demonstrate the results of someone who has dedicated many hours studiously refining their craft and sharpening their skill-set to an acute, dextrous and able point. But to be an artist, and to be remembered as such, requires more than a dictionary definition and the mastery of a brush or pencil.
To be an artist remembered, one must distill the essential oils of their imagination and breathe life into something that would have never otherwise existed. An artist remembered contributes something of worth to the alchemic and progressive nature of mankind. An artist remembered channels their esoteric and enigmatic sensitivities through themselves and into their work, in a creative, emotional and philosophical fashion, which then resonates, enlightens and awakens something dormant deep within the viewers psyche. Like ‘lightning from a clear sky’, an artist remembered is an entity unto themselves and understands, then voluntarily succumbs to the endless void of creativity, offering themselves up as a sacrifice to the discerning gods of their own heaven and hell. An artist remembered recognises the folly of man and chooses to react to it in their own, essentially unique way, whilst generating their own sense of self-worth and satisfaction from within. Their work ultimately, is a manifestation of meaning and an ever evolving time capsule representing a time, a place, a lifetime of reflection and the embodiment of what it means to be human.
Fortunately, Sara Blake is still exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide, and in her relatively short career as an artist to date has laid a strong foundation for a body of artwork that will inevitably grow, develop and prosper – allowing her to be remembered, as an artist, in the truest sense of the word.
Also known as ZSO, Blake ‘lives and loves’ in New York City. Originally from the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia – she attended a small, Episcopal, all-girls school, where she grew up with the same mix of girls for thirteen years. She’s been drawing animals since she was very young and in grade school was thankfully offered private tutorship by her art teacher, who obviously recognised her artistic potential. After spending most of her time at middle and high school in the art and photography studios, she resolved to explore ways to make a living from her imagination. She went on to gain a BA from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualised Study, studying graphic art, studio art, creative writing, graphic design and post-modernism. After leaving university she worked her way steadily up the rungs of her career, starting as a production artist, then an interactive designer, and finally finding her self at the top of the ladder, working as an art director for a global advertising agency.
The position she now enjoys in life has been one she has thoroughly earned. Concurrent to a successful career in advertising, she was moonlighting as a sleep deprived illustrator with a tireless work ethic and insatiable desire to achieve. Often working full days at the agency, then returning home to work into the small hours of the morning on her personal art works, only to get up and repeat the process all over again the next day. After slowly building her reputation as an illustrator, she eventually quit her job as an art director and now enjoys the freedom which comes with being a successful freelance artist.
Her credentials and portfolio have steadily grown whilst her plaudits and CV as an artist are impressive and varied. Her talents have now been utilised by a number of high-profile, internationally recognised clients including TED, Marc Jacobs and Nike. She has been featured as one of the “most exciting female graphic designers and illustrators” around the world by Yen Magazine, and is a member of both the prestigious Keystone Design Union, and renowned artist collective Depthcore. She has spoken at design conferences in Mexico and New Zealand, exhibited her work around New York and had her first solo gallery show with the Friends of Leon Gallery in Sydney, Australia in 2010.
Her written responses in interviews reveal a sensitive, genuine, passionate, motivated, dedicated, inspiring, intelligent and strong woman without one iota of conceit. The time and sense of self she invests into her interviews, despite a ridiculously busy and productive lifestyle, reflect an artist who genuinely and humbly appreciates people’s interest in her art.
Her works are transparent tapestries of fantasy. Her whimsical examples of portraiture are playful, loose experiments – a freestyle fusion of graphite, watercolour, pastel and pixels – unapologetically and effectively embracing the indiscriminate nature of digital manipulation, whilst retaining the artistic integrity and honesty of a hand drawn foundation. Her art is “contour dreaming”, theatrical, organic, dramatic and beautiful… The essence lies within the subtle textures, exquisitely ethereal line work, abstracted environments, complimentary colour combinations and the perfect imperfections that are layered throughout her body of work.
Her seductive temptresses draw you in with their full lips and engaging eyes; they stare back at you, as if they’re questioning everything you know to be real, all the while assuring you everything is going to be ok. To scroll down the page merely glancing her works, is to miss the point. Hold her subjects gaze, there’s a dichotomy of answers and questions suspended in their stare. Allow your eyes to covet and appreciate each piece slowly, like your mouth would a cup of your favourite tea. A cup that starts off too hot to drink, a fact you can be thankful for, because as your tea brews to a suitable strength and cools to a reassuringly drinkable temperature, you can enjoy it freely, at your own pace, as gradually as you like.
hellozso.com – The Digital Playground of Sara Blake.
Words: James Watkins | Photograph: Chris Ewers
Your work is distinctly feminine. It emanates a sensitivity to both tones and shades whilst showcasing a virtual mastery of the subtle, idiosyncratic nuances which allow the drawings of faces to feel real. Your subjects display an array of personality, appearing both engaged and disinterested, melancholic yet self assured….like they’re about to tell the viewer some profound secret. Do you ever startle yourself with the degree of life you can garner with nothing more than your imagination, your body and your tools?
Oh my! What a review! Well thank you. I don’t think I’m ever startled in the sense I think you mean. I’m always very frustrated. I always look toward the future of what I want to be able to create and sometimes my skillset and abilities feel limiting. But there is a sense of accomplishment and peace that comes with completing a piece. It feels like putting the last piece in a puzzle. But in another sense, I am ALWAYS startled by my work because I never really start out with a plan and I never know what something is going to turn into until something inexplicable just whispers “Ok, time to stop.”
You are a human being, as such, your art is only one element of the whole. You’re not just an artist, you live , you breathe, you make love, you have family and friends, get drunk, feel happy, feel vulnerable, you want, you need….essentially all the normal things everyone else does. Do you think people conjure their own ideas and expectations about what an artist might be like as a person from their work? Do you think people have a tendency to elevate artists, particularly successful artists, on unrealistic pedestals?
Yes, you are right, we are all just human and we all bleed red. I do sometimes feel like people have certain perceptions of me that are not true, just as I have perceptions of other artists that probably aren’t either. It’s just a symptom of only getting pieces of the story I suppose. I have a friend who is incredibly famous in his field and at first it was very daunting. I didn’t know how to act when I first met him—it was like meeting a movie star. In a way it almost got in the way of appreciating his work and talking candidly about it. But after knowing him for a while, you realize we’re all really the same, and we’d usually just like to talk about our pets, or food, or tell jokes. The only thing that is really scary to me, is that once you get exposed enough, there is suddenly so much pressure to perform. I started drawing just as an outlet and a way to do something I love that makes me happy. It’s weird when it switches to external pressure. I hope it’s always just for me, and if it makes other people happy too, well even better! Double win!
What are you trying to achieve with your art? / What direction would you like to see your work evolve in?
I couldn’t tell you. I think it’s pretty simple. I just want to make pretty things. And not pretty things in a traditional sense, like a pretty girl or a pretty flower—just something that you maybe want to look at for a second because it catches your eye. I think that’s really all it started as. Now as I’ve been doing this a little longer, I think it’s turned into bigger goals, like wanting to create a body of work, wanting to make 100 of something, and wanting to just see what is possible. I still have no clue where it’s going. All I know is I want to make a lot more of it. Right now I’m really obsessed with decorative arts. I work in advertising as well as a graphic designer, so for illustration I prefer to keep it straightforward. I’d rather it just exist to exist, instead of trying to sell something other than itself.
What do you give to your art, and what, in return does it provide you?
It gives me happiness and makes me feel like I’m alive and like I exist on this planet right here right now, and maybe if I save up all my drawings and put them in a box, someone will know that I was here after I’m gone. I give my art my time when I’m exhausted from a full day of design work. I give it my dreams and my memories, and all the visual things I collect throughout the day that I hope are worth remembering.
You have an obvious amount of immense skill and talent, but like you say in various interviews, the world is full of talented artists producing technically amazing works. How do you rationalise and attach a sense of meaning to your imagery?
I think I just have to invoke my inner “mom” and tell myself that we are all unique and special and the way I draw something will be different from the way you will draw the same subject matter, and that’s what keeps the world exciting. The world would be really boring if we were all the same, and likewise so would art. Even though I’m not always satisfied with my own work, I have to try and remember that it’s still a unique perspective and a unique “handwriting” regardless of whether or not I am pleased with it. I like the rough stuff, the scribbles and scrawls—things that you can really see where someone put their hand to it. What may bother me about my own work, is the same thing I love in other’s, so I have to try and take it all with a grain of salt.
What do you enjoy about creative, collaborative projects?
I love collaboration! Especially with those who have extremely different disciplines than my own. For instance I did a small collaboration with Joshua Davis who works with generative art. He wrote a program and plugged in my art to animate. It was something I never could have done alone. It’s amazing to add that next level. Power in numbers. I only wish we finished it. HA!
What do you love about felines?
Cats are such particular animals. I think I relate a lot to their personalities. They are very independent and project that disposition, but underneath it all, they really just want love (and food!). I think I might be a bit like that myself. Hard candy shell, soft center. And I get really cranky when I need to be fed.
What would you do if you could be a cat in NYC for a day?
I’d ask my owner to get a storefront so I could just sit in the window all day and people-watch. It would be particularly awesome if it was next to a butcher shop and I got leftovers.
If Eugene could talk…..?
I see you’ve done your research!! If Eugene could talk, I don’t think we’d be apartment mates any more. He’s very annoying as it is.
I think first he would verbally abuse me, then 3 seconds later say he’s sorry and that he loves me. Then he’d ask for some food in a very demanding tone, he’d take 2 bites and then walk away and tell him how my menu disgusts him. Then he’d digress into an inner monologue, something rambling and inaudible and grumpy. Then verbally abuse me again, and then come sit on me and say he’s sorry again, can I please rub his head?
The following time lapse video is about sixteen hours of work condensed into seven minutes.
The portrait is of John Lamensdorf, a NYU film graduate who died in a tragic lighting accident on set for a film project in Georgia. The illustration was for a T-Shirt design for the NYU Foundation started in his honor.
“I start my illustration process sketching by hand with pencil and finish with watercolor. I scan and bring my work into Photoshop, usually in several pieces, and from there it’s just freestyle. I try a lot of things, most of which don’t work. It’s a lot of play and experiment. I like to learn as I go.”
What is your earliest memory?
I have a memory standing in the foyer of the house I grew up in. Light was coming in from the window above the door and making really rich colors on the oriental rug. There was a vacuum running.
You say New York is inevitably infused into your imagery. Quite literally the textures of the streets appear in your work via translucent digital layers. Artists are inextricably influenced by their surrounds, how has the city inspired you and why do you continue to call it home eight years after moving there to study?
To be honest, some days it’s pretty hard to explain. It has something to do with the energy. It’s such a melting pot and you start to take it for granted even. But every time I leave for a trip I come back missing it. It feels right, it feels alive, and it feels like the city of dreams. It’s funny—as I say this I’m also just starting research to take a year off to live in the country and do nothing but draw. But I’m pretty sure I’ll be itching for the insanity of the city immediately.
When are you at your happiest?
When I’m eating a good meal. When I’m 3/4 through a drawing that seems to be going well. When I hit “Print.” When my head is resting on the one I love. When I’ve started a run. When I’ve finished a run. In the fall. In the spring.
5 things you love:
Adventures & traveling
Long walks with a new album on shuffle
Being out of my element
5 things you don’t love:
“Photoshop has unexpectedly quit”
A favourite book: Wuthering Heights. I’ve been in love with Heathcliff since I was 13
A favourite film: Lost Highway, or really anything by David Lynch
A favourite musician/band: It would be sacrilege if I didn’t say Radiohead. I’ve been an obsessed follower since The Bends.
Can you describe your process, from starting with pencil sketches, to adding watercolour then sending into photoshop? / Why do you choose to start your pieces in the tangible realm and finish them digitally?
I’ve always been a doodler and a drawer, but I never really felt I could get anything to a place where I felt happy or felt like it was finished. I’ve always been a horrible painter, but I’ve always loved working with color. What a conundrum. Around the time I was really immersing myself in illustration I was also learning to use Photoshop. Something seemed to click there and I was able to achieve the richness in color that I wasn’t able to get on paper. I was also coming out of a degree at NYU reading lots of Baudrillard and postmodern authors, so I really liked the idea of layering colors and textures from my camera into an art work and just embracing my “hyperreality,” if you will. Something about it all around worked. Or at least that’s what my colloquium professors wanted to hear. I think also the fact that I am a neat freak and that Manhattan workspaces are very small folded itself into the process somehow too. The way I work allows me to be very compact as long as I have a scanner.
Whose imagination would you most like to explore? If you could jump inside an artists mind and body and paint and draw all day, whose would you choose and what do you think you’d draw?
Oh gosh–this is a tough one. I mean I have barely even begun to get comfortable and explore as me, that’s a lot to ask to step into someone else’s consciousness! I’m pretty happy staying me since there still feels like so much new stuff to try as me. I think if I could see the world as someone else for a day I’d want to be someone a lot smarter and wiser or be a child again. Or someone blind or deaf. I really like seeing and hearing, so I don’t think I’d want this to be a permanent arrangement, but it would be really special to experience the world through someone whose experience, senses, and perceptions are so different from what I know. Or the ability to see extra dimensions would be pretty amazing. Can I say Donnie Darko? Do fictional characters count? OK Donnie Darko. I want to draw those wormholes.
You studied creative writing as well as art. You’ve drawn portraits of Biggie and Bob Dylan (both master lyricists) , and reveal traces of literary interest in the pages of your blogs with E. E Cummings’ poetry, you’re a fan of Chet Baker (a fantastic songwriter) and have mentioned your favourite book as Wuthering Heights (an interesting choice). With an obvious passion for words, do you think your work has poetic undertones?
I don’t think it’s intentional, but I guess maybe there’s a little part of me that still wishes I was more connected to literature. Word play is always something that has just made me melt. Several years ago when my schedule started getting especially tight, I had to start making the choice to draw or to write and drawing and looking at art always won over writing and books.
How do you express yourself with writing and how is that different to the way you express yourself visually?
I’m sorry to say that I think my ability to write has more or less atrophied. I used to be very diligent about keeping a journal, but the written entries have gotten farther and farther apart, and have more or less been reduced to scribbles, notes, and grocery lists. But in general my writing is much more straightforward in subject matter and story. With my art, I think you only get one snapshot of the story. I think in both my writing and my art I use the 3rd person as a vessel to explore feelings. I used to write stories about myself in 3rd person quite a bit, I’m not sure whether to avoid responsibility for my feelings or in an attempt to preserve some sense of anonymity, but I do the same thing a lot with my girls. I can let the art be about them, not me. It’s freeing.
Art, particularly visual art seems to be one long succession of breakthroughs. The times when something clicks in your head and something becomes stylistically obvious, or you feel like you’ve finally resolved a technique or idea visually. Can you describe your last ‘breakthrough’ moment?
I think my breakthroughs are measured in very small increments and would probably mean nothing to anyone other than me. It’s little things like learning how to draw eyes right. Then learning how to draw eyes that feel like something unique, then after learning how to draw them right, it’s about learning to draw them slightly wrong again. Most recently I’ve felt the most excited about what I’ve been learning with color. In the past I’ve done very very bright pieces. The color has been all over the place (because I had no idea what I was doing). Lately I’ve been exploring a more controlled color palette. It’s been feeling more dramatic and I’ve been happier with the work.
You’ve developed an international following and have received worldwide recognition from not only fans but from people in high places and positions of creative influence. How does it feel after all the hard yards of practicing and work to be recognised, and how do you remind your ego to keep it’s pants on?
Haha! Oh man, well thank you, I don’t know about all that though. But I think it’s easier to keep an ego in check if you are never fully satisfied with where you are. I have a hard time living in the present, and in the present I don’t feel like I’ve ever done a good enough job. I live to get excited about the next thing, and the thing after that. And in the end, it doesn’t matter what other people say, it matters if your own work brings you satisfaction without the praise of others. I don’t think little kids start drawing to hear the cooing and praise of their parents or teachers, they start drawing because it makes them feel good and it’s fun! But it definitely feels good to hear “good job” once and a while, I think we are all our own harshest critics at the end of the day.
You have travelled internationally to talk at art and design events. You describe yourself as being a shy person. How do you feel about public speaking and what would you like your audiences to take away from your presentations?
I’m actually sitting in JFK airport right now to go speak in Auckland and I’m pretty terrified. I’m painfully shy, and the more people, the worse I am. But that’s OK. I’m only responsible for representing myself, and I think that representation should be honest. I’d feel worse about trying to pretend to be an overly confident and outgoing person that I’m not. I’ll be talking about illustration, something that is a pretty solitary and introverted undertaking, so I think it won’t be too much of a surprise, I just hope people can forgive my soft talking and nervousness. I work with tools that any fairly digital person has and anyone can do, so I hope people walk away inspired to show the world their own perspective.
Do you think there’s a danger of too much digital art diluting traditional illustration and leaving the fundamentals behind?
I used to be afraid of that because personally I prefer traditional arts over purely digital arts. But I’m not so concerned any more. I think there will always be something very visceral and human that connects people to things made on paper without technology. I think there will always be a demand.
Can you explain the feeling of ‘illustrators block’?
For me illustrators block is more just being scared to fail at a new drawing. I could draw the same girl over and over and over all day long until I’m old, and I probably will. It’s more about how I draw her. Usually I try and fully embrace making mistakes, but block happens when I don’t have time to mess up and instead I get cold feet. It sucks and it’s a waste of time. Once I just say fuck it and jump in though, it goes away in an instant. It’s just the clean white page staring back at you that is murder.
“I dreamt the Earth was dying and I took off on my horse alone to make footprints from New York back to my home in Virginia. I became lost in a dark forest. I was frightened and without direction, but had comfort and company in my animal. But when I got my bearings, my horse fell ill and died painfully. Its enormous head slumped on my knee, and I wept with its body for days. I never made it home.” – This is quite an intense and arguably symbolic dream. Do you dream a lot?
I have the worst dreams every night, all night long. I don’t usually share my dreams like that, but for whatever reason I really wanted to record that one. I never have good dreams. They are always apocalyptic and traumatic. I feel like I always wake up exhausted but wake up happy to be alive because I’ve survived floods and fires, and monsters several times over in my sleep. Dreams do sort of stay with me throughout the day though. Dream residue. Sometimes I think there is something wrong with me.
What are your views on the subconscious mind and dreaming as to what it reveals about us as a person?
I watched some cheesy documentary a while ago on dreams. It talked about how there has to be some evolutionary purpose for people to dream—it’s our subconscious’s time to problem solve for possible conflict in the future. Dreams are a survival tool. In that sense, I guess my dreams make a lot of sense, but also reveal a lot about our fears. We dream about our fears because we want to know how to deal with them if they become real. But most of the time they are totally crazy and irrational—but that doesn’t mean we aren’t legitimately scared of them. So yea, dreams are all about fear for me.
You photo-document your life relatively thoroughly. What do you enjoy about photography as an artistic medium?
I do like to document my life, but I feel like I do it very specifically. I like be overly conscious that it’s a photo and that its not reality and wasn’t how the moment actually happened. I color treat things a lot or crop things that were much different than how I actually saw it. I like my memories better. I don’t want photos to take that away from me. I want my photos to feel hazy or dreamlike or only part of the truth of that experience. Slightly prettier or hazy and very much incomplete.
Can you describe the feeling you have when you’ve just finished off a piece that you’re really happy with?
Cool, now I can work on the next one.
What keeps drawing (pun) you back to portraits of woman?
Girls are pretty. Big sad eyes and pouty lips and untamed strands of hair. It will never get old and there will always be a new way to draw the same girl or girls (I hope). I think it’s also a way to role play a bit and put yourself in a character for a moment for as long as it takes to make the drawing.
You describe the influential nature of art as being like a joint, that everyone hits and passes on. Whose smoke-rings have left traces in your aesthetic?
It’s probably more a collective influence. Especially in this day in age, we consume so many images on a daily basis that it’s hard to claim that anything is totally new and never ever been done before. I think it’s more like “What’s your take on this thing that has been a thousand times?” I think you can even do that within your own work—like hey I’ve drawn a bird or a girl 300 times—how do I make this new one unique in some way. I pick up textures from all over the place, patterns from Japanese wallpapers, type from old signs, girl faces from art deco styles, animal ideas from ancient folk art.
You talk about utilising mistakes, having no expectations going into a piece and the essential beauty of being alone with nothing but a clear white sheet of paper and a pencil….Can you describe the feeling, when you first put pencil to paper when you have no idea where you’ll end up?
Like falling in love with someone you don’t know yet. Once you’ve figured it all out, it’s still fantastic, but the butterflies aren’t really there any more. The beginning can be so amazing.
What kind of people do you feel drawn to?
Sincere people. Honest people. Adventurous people. I’m really shy but I thrive off people who are just slightly more extroverted than I, but still not so overbearing that I just shut down completely. I love people that care about something deeply, it doesn’t matter what it is, but passion is one of the most attractive things in life.
Healthy mind, healthy body. You run marathons (as well documented by your photographs of your bloodied and blistered feet). Apart from the obvious health benefits of exercise, what do you love about running?
I feel like I barely get a minute to myself in my day to day life in New York. Even when I’m at home drawing, I’m still plugged into a work email address, a personal email address. bombarded by and participating in who knows how many social networks, answering the phone, etc. I always feel like I’m drowning under my “To Do” list. Going for runs is the one part of the day that I’ve carved out time to ignore everything else. I guess it lets me trade responsibility from my body to my mind—my mind gets to rest and be at peace and my body goes on auto-pilot. I’m not a fast runner, I’m more of a meditative runner. I get the most excited about new projects and undertakings when I’m running and I’m able to work through personal puzzles during this time. It’s like dreaming with your legs moving and your eyes open. I’ll be a runner until my knee caps pop off. It’s the best.
The arresting photographic portraits of yourself reveal a healthy woman covered in a vast canvass of graphic tattoos. Again, you describe yourself as being shy and mention you don’t often enjoy the images cameras create of yourself….one can only presume these shoots challenge you in a cathartic way and thrust you out of your comfort zone. Do you think it’s important to test and push ourselves through the things we fear and overcome them to grow as a well rounded person?
How do you want to be remembered?
I hope that I live a life with passion. I hope somewhere along the way someone saw something I drew and it made their day a little more colourful. I just want to be remembered as an artist.