Sarah Urist Green
Starting in the eighth grade, I kept a journal that was part-journal, part-sketchbook. This first drawing looks to me like a journal entry – where I'm trying to think about the different sides of myself. It’s an important step to work through, I think, as a younger person. While it’s a little painful to look at from an adult perspective, I remember I really liked this at the time. When I look at this now, I can see it’s before I had taken any human anatomy classes, where you learn that if you draw the head as an oval, the eyes are in the center of that oval, so there’s that little tiny foreshortened forehead! But it creates a certain effect, which works fine here.
I loved to draw, and I think that’s often a lot of people’s way into making art and working with art. I’ve always loved pencil, and in 2012, I curated a show called Graphite that included a wide range of work from very different artists, all using graphite in very different ways, from sculpture to more traditional drawing to artist's engaging graphite's capacity to conduct electricity. I’ve always found graphite to be very seductive to look at. I love the softness you can create by smudging it, and also the burnished effect you get when it's heavily worked. For me, this drawing is a good place to start with my own artwork, because it uses pencil, it’s exploring representing the self and other people, and it's straying from depicting the world as it is.
I make a show called The Art Assignment and I believe in the power of assignments, but I feel like when you’re in high school, making stuff that’s just for you can free you up to make better work without the pressure of showing it to others. It’s also interesting if you think about making things for yourself now, in the context of the social internet, as opposed to in the the ‘90s when I made this drawing. Now I feel like there’s a much more porous membrane between things you make for yourself and things you make for others. I could completely imagine if I were a teenager now, making this drawing and then taking a picture of it and posting it on social media – which isn’t bad! I think it’s great to share your work, and it’s much less awkward to post it to social media than to actually sidle up to somebody and be like, hey, do you want to see my journal drawings? If you make something assuming that nobody is going to see it, then you can decide later whether you do want to share it.
I make a show called The Art Assignment and I believe in the power of assignments, but I feel like when you’re in high school, making stuff that's just for you can free you up to make better work without the pressure of showing it to others.
All through high school, I wanted to be a graphic designer when I grew up, so I interned with an art and design teacher. The teacher I worked with was fantastic, but she was completely analog, so she taught me old-school design techniques. I got a set of Rapidograph pens that I was completely obsessed with. I took meticulous care of them and cleaned them all the time. All the lettering for that poster is hand-done, and I loved that analog feel. I did learn Photoshop and Illustrator shortly thereafter, but I like that physical tactility that you get from this kind of design much better than something that’s purely digital.
The poster was not for an existing festival. I made it up, which I think is kind of funny. I have no recollection of why I came up with this particular concept but I think it’s kind of great, and it’s also interesting to think about today, and what is and is not different from July of 1997 to 2017. This poster makes me happy, in part because I feel like I actually kind of knew what I believed in then. It gives me a bit of comfort that I was on the right track.
The title I remember giving the painting was The Girly Room. I painted it my freshman year of college at Northwestern, in a painting class with the painter Ed Paschke. It’s a simplification of my childhood bedroom and the poster that hung above my bed. The real painting here is by Archibald John Motley Jr., and it’s in full color. I had a very feminine room growing up, and it took me until college, going away and then coming home, to realize how strange it was for me to have this poster of this painting on the wall above my bed in my very girly room in Birmingham, Alabama. Motley's is a great painting, and I was right to like it in high school, but I wasn’t thinking about context very much. Your first interactions with art tend to be completely inside of the work – completely inside of the frame and the scene and what’s happening. Seeing this in a gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago surrounded by related works is completely different than it being a reproduction in a golden-hued frame in my bedroom. And so, I think I was starting to understand how those details are important, what it meant for me to have this in my room, and to think about how critical context is. At the time, it’s something I made that I thought was kind of funny, and that the teacher really liked, so I hung on to it. But now as an adult looking back, I see why the teacher liked it.
I wasn't thinking about context very much. Seeing this in a gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago surrounded by related works is completely different than it being a reproduction in a golden-hued frame in my bedroom.
In college, I became really obsessed with drawing lines – it’s something I just felt compelled to do. I’d enjoy making the small decisions: Are these lines going to touch? Is this line going to go over here? Is it going to stay put? Is it going to try to behave? Is it going to try to be different? I think there’s something really special about just finding a way of mark-making that you enjoy. Maybe it’s not your best work, and maybe you don’t know why you’re doing it, but maybe over the course of time, you figure out why. When I was in college, I went between making very figurative representational drawings and making paintings of lines. I made hundreds of paintings of lines. I did it in oil, and I did it in ink, and I used lots of different mediums. The artwork I like best tends to be very conceptual, and to have an intellectual aspect to it, but ultimately the art that I actually wanted to make is different than the art that I liked and found interesting.
I think you have to find some sort of balance between what you’re inclined to do and what’s challenging for you. I think that it’s really important as an artist to have a reason for doing what you’re doing, but also to allow yourself to change. I was thinking about one of our Art Assignments from Sonya Clark, called Measuring Histories. She gives this assignment that’s two-sided: she asks you think about an aspect of your personal or cultural history that is hard to imagine, and then select a material to quantify, measure, or actualize that history. Or she says you can do the inverse, which is to do something familiar to you for as long as you can, and then measure it to see what it lines up with from your personal or cultural history. I think I could have made those line drawings more interesting if I had asked myself: How many lines was it? What does it line up with? How is this related to my world and my life?
I think there's something really special about just finding a way of mark-making that you enjoy. Maybe it's not your best work, and maybe you don't know why you're doing it, but maybe over the course of time, you figure out why.
Collage is something I still really enjoy doing, and it’s an approach I really enjoyed from high school on. It’s a way of making that a lot of people are comfortable working in, sometimes not even considering it art. For me it’s always been the most fun way of working with the least amount of pressure. To scour magazines and find images you’re attracted to and make a catalog of clippings. It can almost be a social event, something you do with friends. I made the collage in an art class where we were supposed to explore the idea of the way the eye moves around the page, so I was looking for things with lines in them or pointing in certain directions. I don’t paint anymore, and I draw very, very rarely, but collage is something that I find I can always go back to. I remember when I was making art more seriously, collage would be an exercise that would free me up and make me a little less stuck inside my head.
The reason why I’m still involved in the arts today is that art is a wonderful place to work through ideas and think about perspectives. When I was in high school I was working through that for myself with my own art, and now as an adult I find studying art is an amazing way to understand other people and their opinions. And I think in high school I was making art as a way of trying to understand myself, which is a worthwhile activity, but it doesn’t go away when you’re an adult. I found that my interest in art was better served through curating shows and making a web series about other people’s art, but the ability to work through your own ideas in whatever medium is most productive for you is an extremely worthwhile pursuit throughout life.
Sarah Urist Green is creator and host of The Art Assignment. She is the former curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where she curated the exhibitions Graphite and Andy Warhol Enterprises, among others. While at the IMA, she commissioned installations by Spencer Finch, William Lamson, Ball-Nogues Studio, and Kate Gilmore, and was instrumental in developing The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres. She is the editor and co-author of Andy Warhol Enterprises (Hatje Cantz, 2010) and Graphite (digital catalogue, 2013). Sarah holds a master of arts in modern art history from Columbia University and a bachelor of arts from Northwestern University.