The last time we saw Sarah Mikenis was at the opening reception for Everything We Ever Wanted, our summer group painting show. Soon after the opening Sarah headed off to Maine for her residency at Skowegean School of Painting & Sculpture. Now back on the West Coast, she shares some of her insights and work from her productive and eye-opening summer. Thanks for letting us in on this special place, Sarah!
Gabi Lewton-Leopold: Have you ever attended a residency program of this type before?
Sarah Mikenis: I attended a four-week residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2011. While very different than Skowhegan, working in a new environment away from the comfort of your home and studio, meeting and working alongside talented artists from around the world, and having space and time to concentrate on your work were present in both residencies.
GLL: How were your days and evenings structured at Skowhegan?
SM: On a typical day I woke up and had breakfast sitting outside by the lake around 8:30. I made an effort to walk up the hill to upper campus and start working in my studio by 9:30. I worked in the studio in the morning until breaking for lunch on upper campus at 12:30 or 1. After lunch I might stop by the library porch and browse a book or just drink coffee and chat. Then back to the studio to work for the rest of the afternoon. Everyone on campus had some job during the summer, so two afternoons a week I worked in the fresco workshop cleaning tools, mixing plaster or pigments, or helping prepare the walls in the fresco barn for new large paintings. Also, once a week for five of the nine weeks we had individual studio visits with one of the resident faculty members.
Dinner was down the hill by the lake at 6. After dinner was dependent on the day: I might spend the evening in the library relaxing and reading books, watch a DVD in my room, or head back up to the studio to work late. There were a lot of evenings spent hanging out and drinking beer in the Common House. Some nights there might be video screenings in the Fresco Barn, and Friday nights were lectures by visiting or resident faculty artists. Saturday nights there was usually a dance party, and other evenings there might be a special event like a Red Farm dinner with a visiting artist or an opening with wine and cheese in the Fresco Barn.
GLL: What was your most challenging moment/time during the program?
SM: I think the most challenging part of the residency might have been the lack of solitude for me. There are challenges to being out of your comfort zone, away from your family, your partner, your apartment, your studio, and your usual way of doing things. But as an introverted person, being thrown in the middle of 65 participants plus faculty and staff for every meal and every event, and having a roommate for the first time since college, was certainly challenging. Of course that feeling of being slightly uncomfortable and being constantly surrounded by artists is what creates this amazing, buzzing, vibrant environment and makes the entire experience of being at Skowhegan what it is, and I find myself really missing all those interactions and exchanges now that I’m home.
GLL: Now your most rewarding/exhilarating….
SM: By far the most rewarding part of the experience was the friendships that I formed and the truly incredible generosity of everyone that I met. Generosity is a word that I continue to come back to again and again when I reflect on my time there. I found it in many forms, from people being so generous with their time, energy and ideas in studio visits, to the commitment of the resident faculty to the participants, to my roommate and friends going out of their way for me with acts of kindness when I was dealing with some personal things while there.
GLL: What was a surprising/unexpected aspect of the experience?
SM: I wasn’t expecting to find such a heartfelt emphasis on community while I was there. The individual artist and focus on making work were of course extremely important, but building relationships and seeing the class as being part of a continued support group for each other became an essential part of the experience.
GLL: Did the time and environment lend itself well towards experimentation within your practice? If so, how did your work change?
SM: I think working in a new studio, in a new environment with new people inherently changes your ability to approach your work in a different way. Plus, having all day to work without worrying about school or work or cooking or cleaning just simply allows the time and space to think and physically work through more ideas than is possible while in school.
When I got to Skowhegan I knew I wanted to get working right away, whether or not I had the perfect idea of what to get started on. I had a vague idea that I wanted to make abstract paintings that looked like purses. The result was three pieces that ranged in their representation of purses from quite literal to much more abstract, but all of the pieces took my work in a direction that became more sculptural and object-like than any work I had made before. Suddenly I was finding ways to bend, fold, braid and cut canvas into different shapes, and play with the materiality of paint to create surfaces that felt like leather, metal or paper.
Leaving the constraint of the “purse” and thinking more broadly about fashion, the construction of garments, and the conventions of painting, I made three more works that continued to explore a tension between painting and sculpture. I felt really free and excited about ways that I could cut, fold, and reattach the canvas to itself, make a painting that looked wrinkled, or a painting that was bulging and stuffed. The paintings that I showed at Nationale in June in Everything We Ever Wanted were still lifes painted from objects I constructed out of foam, papier-mâché, fabric, and paint. I feel like I’ve come full circle in the past year in some way as the paintings themselves have become more like constructed objects that also still play with illusionistic space.
GLL: Can you tell us more about your interactions with the other artists? Did you find some kindred spirits and what was their work like?
SM: Interaction between artists was happening all the time, whether it was conversations at dinner, talking on the library porch, or impromptu studio visits with one another. We also had other more structured time to talk to each other about our work. I mentioned that we had weekly individual studio visits with resident faculty, and we also met with one of the visiting artists for an individual studio visit. Twice during the residency, at week four and at the end of the summer, there were open studio days to walk around campus and see everyone’s work. Halfway through the summer the painters began a Painting Happy Hour as a good excuse to have a cocktail before dinner and exchange group studio visits. We also began another small informal group that exchanged studio visits centered on our shared interest in fashion and the various ways fashion informed our work. Resident faculty Sarah Oppenheimer’s partner Noga Shalev is a clothing designer, so we had the opportunity to see her studio as well as take part in a fashion shoot with some of her newest designs.
There was an incredible diversity of practices among the residents. During the first week we had a marathon slide show where all 65 participants presented their work. I remember sitting in the Fresco Barn, being so blown away during those slide talks at the talent and intelligence gathered together in one place for nine weeks. That being said, there were several artists that I shared particular affinities with for various reasons, three being Sophie Grant, Linnea Rygaard, and Anna Queen.
Sophie Grant recently finished her MFA at Hunter and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Sophie is an abstract painter, and although her work is different from mine I found we shared a lot in common dealing with creating tension between illusion and collage. Sophie is really masterful at playing with and confusing what parts of the painting are painted, what parts are collage, what is cut out or what is behind versus in front. We shared an interest in color and pushing our palettes to be a little bit “wrong” in some way. We really enjoyed sharing thoughts on how we thought about materiality of paint and application of paint. Sophie is currently working with pours and staining and creating shimmery surfaces. She was also experimenting with creating shaped canvases while at Skowhegan, and taking the canvas off of stretcher bars completely to explore hanging and draping the canvas in different ways.
Linnea Rygaard is from Sweden, and makes larger than life abstract paintings heavily influenced by architectural spaces. Her paintings work with perspective and pushing perspective in ways that created at times a believable, but also impossible space. Her work also plays with design and pattern, although in different ways than I work with pattern, and the paintings oscillate between tight, rigid, almost trompe l’oeil areas to really loose, luscious, painterly applications of paint.
Anna Queen graduated from MICA and currently lives in Maine. Anna’s work incorporates found materials; mostly building materials found in hardware stores, as well as ceramics and fabricated pieces. I was particularly drawn to the way Anna utilized light, reflections, and transparency, and combinations of colors in her work. She played with arrangements of materials as well as expectations of materials and gravity, like making cast concrete appear as if it were crinkled paper.
GLL: Did the experience change the way you think about community and studio practice?
SM: The support and encouragement at Skowhegan really reinvigorated my belief in the importance of community among artists. There is a built in community in grad school that is really comfortable, but Skowhegan felt like a call to action for getting outside of that school group and finding ways to build community at home in Eugene and Portland. It definitely poses a question for myself about how I can reach out and develop relationships around me, what are other ways to interact besides gallery openings and artist talks, and how can I be more generous with my time and energy?
Also, since we’re talking about community, please take a moment to check out www.skow2015forlife.com. Upon returning home after the residency, Jeff Prokash, a fellow participant, learned that during his absence his brother, Tim, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Participants, faculty, and staff have donated work on this site that is available for purchase to help the Prokash family and Tim’s treatment.
GLL: What was your favorite thing to do on your “down time”?
SM: On a beautiful, hot day there was nothing better then walking a couple steps from my cottage to the lake, swimming out to the dock and lying there for an hour or two. Also, sitting on the library porch, drinking wine by the lake after dinner, doing yoga on the sun porch in my cabin, and Saturday night dance parties.
GLL: Maine: Give us three words that describe that place for you.
SM: Fireflies. Loon calls. Space.
GLL: As you move forward with your last year of grad school, what parts of your experience at Skowhegan do you take with you? What lessons/mantras/ideas are in the forefront of your mind?
SM: There is a weird pressure lurking in the back of my mind right now that this is my thesis year in grad school so it is time to really buckle down and make work I “understand” or “good” paintings for my show. I think one of the most important lessons I will be holding onto this year is embracing that feeling of not knowing, of being slightly uncomfortable, of not fully understanding something while I’m making it. I remember a conversation with my roommate, talking about how some of the paintings I was making felt really dumb and ugly, and she very wisely reminded me that those dumb, ugly things, the things we fear, or are really unsure of, are probably the best things happening in the studio.