A conversation with artist Samantha Sherry about art, life, aesthetics, and the pursuits that make it all matter.
Name: Samantha Sherry
Place of Birth: Chicago, IL
Current City & State: Memphis, TN
Q: So, to give a little color – you and I met in graduate school in 2005. In looking back at that time, how would you describe your work and your practice? How/or do you feel the academic environment enlightened or impeded your artistic development? How/or do you think your work is different creating outside the world of academia?
A: Burgeoning. I had only a vague sense of what I was doing and truthfully never felt secure in myself or my work. Admittedly, I came to art later in my academic career than most so I was still having growing pains, both technically and conceptually. In retrospect I see part of my problem always trying to figure out what I was “supposed” to be making. How I could please the instructors or earn a better grade. None of which prepares you for life after graduation but I think every experience we have adds something to our work.
“School” certainly has benefits but I remember frequently feeling like we were being “hazed.” Hazed might be too strong a descriptor but think about it… we wanted in the club, wanted to join their fraternity. So we paid our money and took our lumps. So much of education is arbitrary and sadly driven by money. Students are forced to into this system and made to comply because they (i.e. colleges, universities, administrators, and professors) have all the power. They held the cards and we needed the piece of paper. I was never fully convinced they wanted our success. Which I guess makes sense, it’s a cut throat business and instructors are insecure too. It’s a strange place to find yourself, training, grooming, and encouraging your competition in a field where careers are built on the “next big thing.” Of course there were the exceptions. The few faculty members who seemed above it; who seemed to be genuinely invested in our growth and development. But outside of the handful of really great artists and friends I met, I’m not sure it was worth the exorbitant and continuing cost (damn you Sally Mae.)
Q: If you had to describe your work now in three words what would they be and why?
A: Varied, personal, evolving.
Q: You note an epiphany you had several years ago, in front of a gallery window while wandering the wet streets of SoHo that stopped you cold. Talk a little bit about this precise moment and how it has shaped you as an artist as well as your recent and current work.
A: When I recount the story it sounds impossibly cheesy, like a scene from some awful rom-com but truthfully that’s exactly how it happened. I had been out of school for a few years, working at our alma mater and not making [art] anything. I rejected every idea, ignored every urge to create, and flogged myself mentally for even considering the subjects I had been mocked for in school. Completely dejected, I was resigned. I’m not sure why it took me so long to give myself permission to create. It is something I still battle, a daily struggle to deprogram and recondition myself.
Q: Talk a bit about your transition from garments, sculpture and installation (with the exception of your recent ceramic series) to primarily two-dimensional works. Was this a conscious decision or what seemed best to fit your ideas?
A: After several years away, I was easing back into creating, 2-D seemed less threatening and the work seemed less precious. Sometimes our choices are made by a forced practicality. Space, for making and storage, is always an issue. Limited access to studios and materials also made drawing and painting an easy choice. Regardless of the materials, the conceptual themes remained consistent.
Q: How do you categorize each medium you work with, i.e.: painting, drawing, ceramics? Do you see them as separate entities or working cohesively? Do the materials dictate the piece or do the ideas dictate the materials? Do you address different conceptual topics in each or are they all addressing the same ideas?
A: The work is definitely connected but pieces should be able to stand independently. Regardless of materials, I’m still exploring the same thematic ideas of identity, family, and memory. Sometimes I’ll try a different media when a piece isn’t communicating what I’d like but often it is simple curiosity or boredom which drives me to explore or experiment with new materials. I’ve worked hard to allow myself the mental and physical space to follow my interests until the next idea moves me. Which happens much more organically now, inspiration for the next piece happens while working on the current one.
Q: I know you have a rich history with horses, even from a particularly young age. How would you say these experiences have influenced you – artistically and otherwise?
A: Outside of family, there isn’t a single thing that has impacted me more. There are things I have only begun to notice or acknowledge as directly linked to my equestrian history. Horses taught me discipline, patience, responsibility. Through horses I experienced deep disappointment and frustration to overwhelming joy and love. They gave me freedom and independence, successes and failures. They showed me the importance of empathy, compassion, commitment, teamwork, and the incredible power of non-verbal communication. Theirs is an influence so tightly woven into my personal development it is imperceptible.
Q: You state that horses are your point of entry into the world, your way of framing, questioning, understanding and commemorating the relationships between memory, family, identity, and loss. Talk about how you correlate the horse to each of these complex domains.
A: They are the visual language that feels most authentic to me. But that doesn’t only include straight-forward equine imagery. Whether I am drawing, painting, sewing with horsehair, creating rust patterns from used horseshoes or creating body parts from clay, each process begins with the horse. Memory, identity, family, and loss are very fluid and complex concepts for me. Horses allow me a consistent and stable point of entry. They provide the foundation for my explorations.
Q: Talk a bit about your process – is your starting point aesthetically always the horse? How do you approach the expression of your conceptual ideas? Is it linear or more chaotic? Walk me through from inspiration to final product.
A: Sometimes the idea has a clear path to creation, with obvious, nonnegotiable materials predetermined at inception. Other times I clarify my thoughts through the process of making. I have grown to love laborious, repetitive, even tedious tasks. The making becomes meditative. There is joy in a process that gives little concern for final product.
Q: You note that you are still thinking about and through the body as a central part of your art process and studio practice, specifically through human and horse forms that establish the experiential space of body as subject, not simply as object. Can you elaborate?
A: Notions of illness, age, and loss have permeated my work. The deterioration of the body and of memory are closely related for me. Utilizing parts of the equine anatomy (including the rust “grown” from used horseshoes) are a way for me to acknowledge and prolong this deterioration.
Q: Is there a point where you find that the horse has become or is a sort-of metaphorical placeholder? Is it meant to serve as a portrait (self/other)? Or is it just a visual substitute for the human form?
A: Yes to all of the above. It is never simply about a horse. They are the visual vocabulary for exploring more esoteric ideas. I am more interested in the anatomy of the horse than human forms. Maybe because it feels safer; a step removed from the literal representation a human body provides.
Q: In your artist statement, you mention that the notion of family and memory have begun to demand a more critical role in recent work, including the collection and reconstructing of memory and the influence of family as the phenomenon that both enables and impedes. Can you elaborate?
A: In the past few years I have lost several close family members and the reverberations of those losses continue to impact and influence me. The desire to understand or commemorate these complex relationships has become an underlying theme for much of my recent work. Families are complicated. For better or worse, I cannot separate myself from them. They free me and contain me. The influence is inarguable. For example my horsehair pieces are closely linked to my mother. She provided a rich history of fibers and sewing, and hair is so loaded with meaning/symbolism it makes it exponentially more powerful to combine traditional approaches with unexpected materials.
Q: In your depiction of horses, some are rendered in a realistic way while others are abstracted. Does this abstraction or blurring of reality correlate to your exploration of memory and family?
A: Absolutely. I’m constantly trying to challenge myself to find better ways to communicate or understand my internal and the external. Sometimes those things are clear and absolute. Sometimes distorted and exaggerated.
Q: Discuss your site-specific installations with the horse hair interacting with the stairs – how do you see the notions of space playing a role with your work? Or do you?
A: For that piece space and place mattered greatly but generally speaking, I don’t create work with a specific location in mind. How the viewer might experience or interact with a piece once it is within their personal space interests me. Things like ‘scale’ matter greatly. If given the opportunity, I would absolutely be interested in exploring installation or site-specific work further. Some of my favorite artists are sculptors and installation artists.
Q: You have a bananas schedule – full of professional and personal commitments that leave little time for making. How do you carve time to make work? How do you prioritize between what you have to do and what you want to do?
A: There is never enough time. Ever. On a perfect day I’m in the studio around 5 am and leave only to go horseback riding. Mornings are always best for me. Unfortunately, teaching interferes with my “perfect day” scenario. But I have to eat (and pay those damn student loans) so during the week I’m up at 4:30 and leave for work around 5 am. That doesn’t leave me much time in the morning for me to create. Learning when I work best has helped me prioritize and schedule tasks. Generally speaking any studio time I can eke out in the early in the day is more fruitful than trying to create after a full day of teaching and evening riding.
Q: Do you think there is room for humor in contemporary work these days? Are we all just taking ourselves a bit too seriously?
A: Of course there is, look at us, we’re hysterical. In all seriousness, I think humor (much like identity, memory, love and loss) is universal. Make work that moves you and it will find an audience. If you’re funny in real life don’t be afraid to be funny in your art.
Q: Who (artists, philosophers, writers) are you drawing inspiration from these days: artistically speaking?
A: I’m constantly referring to my Jenny Saville books and I have a large collection of horse related books (artistic and scientific) that get pretty steady use. Lately I’ve been drawn to portrait and figure artists. I also listen to a lot of podcasts (The Mindful Creative, Artists Helping Artists, The Accidental Creative, and The Unmistakeable Creative are just a few) and am currently reading two books about introverts. And obviously L & M is a fantastic resource for contemporary art inspiration.
Q: Ok, last question. A major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may lose a limb — what works do you rush in to get?
A: Anything from Louise Bourgeois, a Jenny Saville painting, and the third is a tossup…maybe a Basquiat? Or Twombly? Or Egon Schiele? Or Rebecca Horn? Or Ann Hamilton? Or Eva Hesse? Or an O’Keeffe for my mother. Are you sure I can only save three? Maybe I’d just grab two from Louise.
Q: Oops, one more: what’s next?
A: Big picture? I like to make more and ride more.