Sarah Gay O’Neill
Interviewed in March of 2016 by Michael Crockett
SARAH GAY O’NEILL
Hometown: Boston, MA | Current town: Somerville, MA | Website: CLICK HERE
1. Great to have you on board Sarah! Everyone at CHROMA is very impressed with your body of work. Would you go into detail about living and working in New England? Did you attend art school in the area? Please share with our readers how New England may or may not affect your art.
Thanks so much! I appreciate being invited to show alongside so many other great artists! I did attend art school in the area, though I took a multi-detoured path to arrive there (like so many other artists).
I was born in Connecticut but moved to Wyoming when I was 5. I actually made a short animated film about this experience: (https://vimeo.com/88723782). The significance of the experience is that my parents drove a hearse as our family vehicle in the early 80’s… Anyway, back to what I was saying. So we moved to Wyoming, then in 8th grade, my parents decided they missed New England but didn’t want to move back to Connecticut, so they moved to Vermont.
I spent my high school years in Vermont, attending a high school with a super sad art program. When I say sad art program, I mean, we had one art class… it was like… basic drawing and we only ever drew still lifes. The Worst. Needless to say, upon graduating, I did not know art was something a person could make a career of “professionally”. I always loved drawing and knew that it was something I needed to do, but didn’t know I could create a career out of it. Through high school, I was never really steered toward any career. When I graduated I had no fucking idea what I wanted to do. Honestly, I had a legit plan to become an EMT. So after graduating, I stayed home a year while my friends all went off to college. I took core classes at a community college and worked as a cocktail waitress at a pub. I had no clue where I was going…
Fortunately, my best friend, Chris O’Neill, who I am married to now, was attending Maine College of Art in Portland. Through seeing him study art, I realized that I wanted to do that too. After one year of community college and 0 art portfolio, I realized if I wanted to go to art school, I needed to develop a portfolio and raise my grades (which were terrible in high school- save the few classes that I loved and excelled in Biology & Art.)
After one year of community college, I went to Castleton State College (also for just one year) and from there I finally built a portfolio, raised my grades, and made my way to MassArt! It was a long road to get there… but to be honest, I think I was better for it. So many high school students rush to college and then take it for granted because they don’t know any better. By the time I got to MassArt, I was really hungry to get an art education.
I realize I just went off on a wicked tangent about my New England heritage. New England effects my art in a number of ways. I am deeply inspired by history and artifact. New England is so old, I am constantly being drawn to the stories that emerge from our past. The architecture, the folklore, etc. What’s not to love and be inspired by about New England?!
2. Some of your work involves the layering of images over one another, such as a mountain range with chairs... Could you tell us more about this theme in your work? Also, describe some other themes you find yourself working with.
My love of nature is a huge part of my personality, as is the awareness of the confinement/detached way we live in our modern life. The layered drawings represent tension I struggle with always wanting to be outside but understanding my necessary ties to our fast-paced, material world. We are the only beings on Earth who have to ‘pay’ to exist on it…? Why?
Like many artists, my artwork is a way of expressing what I can’t always put into words. Sometimes feeling hypersensitive to how removed we are from nature/natural ways of urging me to commit the feels to paper.
Other themes I explore pretty frequently involve my morbid fascination with how temporary our lives are. I am intrigued by abandoned spaces/objects in the way that they outlive us. We go about our day-to-day worrying/caring about whatever thing without much consideration for the constant passing of time. It’s a little hard to describe in words… so again, I commit the feels to paper.
3. Mixed media is a term heard frequently these days; do you see yourself as a mixed media artist? If not, what inspires you to play with different tools and mediums in one piece? What are your favorite mediums to work with?
I am definitely a mixed media artist; I am also a wicked multi-tasker/ADD person. Haaaa.
For me, working in mixed media (both 2D & 4D - time-based work) is a means of not letting the work get stagnant, i.e., I get bored easily when working in one medium. For me, working in many mediums is the easiest way for me to express whatever it is I am saying visually.
My favorite mediums vary from piece to piece, but my go-to materials are design markers, brush pens, colored pencils, water & oil paints, graphite… collaging materials. I really use a little bit of everything. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with spray paint!
4. Your work lives comfortably in the world of fashion. Can you share with us some experiences you’ve had working in this field as well as where our readers can find more of your work!
Over the past few years, I’ve been invited to do various live drawing/painting events for clients such as Jo Malone London, Saks Fifth Ave, Neiman Marcus and a few others.
It’s been an interesting change of pace to my normal world. I feel a bit like a tourist at times because as mentioned before, I am not a very materialistic person. So it’s very curious that this is a big part of my life now! I really appreciate the times I do these events because it tosses me into a world not many of us starving artists get to experience. When I first began doing these events, I was very nervous (see the various points in this interview where I mention how I am not a very fancy/materialistic person). So when I first was invited to do these, I was very nervous that I wasn’t cool or rich enough to be a part of that world. Something I’ve come to learn over the past few years is that art (good art) is the great equalizer when it comes to class. Money can buy most things and experiences… but it can’t buy taste or talent. People, regardless of class/race/gender/etc/etc/etc all love art, and not everyone can do it well. So in a weird way, going into the fashion-fancy pants world with some art chops, makes me feel like a superhero. I am somewhat untouchable when I do these events… because I can do something that not many can do. It’s awesome. I feel very lucky.
5. You are an avid bike rider in Boston. Does this lifestyle influence your art ever? In what ways has using your bike as transportation in the city affected your art career?
This is a great question, yes, I am an avid bike rider! I think riding a bike in the city influences my art in my thinking. By riding a bike, I choose to not be dictated by the rules of the MBTA schedule or to be reliant on someone else to get me where I need to go. Riding a bike offers me the freedom to go where I want when I want. Being self-propelled and self-motivated translates in relying on myself to make my work happen.
6. You are also an animator, can you share some experiences animating your work. What challenges exist when you take your work into that new area?
Growing up in a very Irish-centric family, I have always been surrounded by people who like to tell stories. Animation is the beautiful marriage between art and storytelling. I wish that I did it more than I do, to be honest. The process is such a labor of love, that I often feel overwhelmed and psych myself out and quit before I even start. So for me, animation is that thing I wish I did more… but can’t ever seem to start. Every once and while I’ll get super motivated with an idea and animate something, but that doesn’t happen enough. Life gets busy, and like I mentioned earlier, I get very ADD with ideas, so I get bored quickly and animation can’t flourish with that mind. It requires a lot of patience and finesse. Hopefully, one day I’ll commit to a project and make something cool. It’s been a few years… YIKES!
7. You have a partner in crime that is also a talented artist. We’ve noticed you both have been drawing each other for years! Can you talk a bit about that and how you two motivate each other to find your original voices, as well as maintain a creative partnership?
Ha, yes. Well, to be honest, Chris draws me way more than I draw him, simply because his drawings of me are awesome, and whenever I draw him, I feel really weird about them. For me, it’s hard to draw people that I am close with. It’s hard to explain, but I guess because I am a spongy sensitive person when I am close to someone, it’s hard for me to commit their likeness to paper. For me, knowing them is so experiential, that I have a hard time translating it so simply. I draw strangers with much more ease simply because I can look at them and commit what I see to paper. To draw someone I care about, I have to sort through my feelings, and those can distract my mark-making in a way that makes me self-conscious.
We motivate each other in our differences, I think. We both know how to push each other in ways that we maybe wouldn’t go on our own. Chris is very analytical and keeps to himself, whereas I am a dreamer and always searching for stimulation. He grounds me, and I expand him (I think). Somewhere in there, our artistic voices are influenced by the tension. With all that said, we most definitely share similar aesthetic taste in things, so we’re always sharing ideas, artists, and stories that we come across.
8. You have worked within a collective in the past, please share that experience with our readers who might be interested in learning more about being involved in a collective group setting.
Ah yes, my beloved Rifrakt. Rifrakt came at a most fortuitous time. I was a recent college grad struggling in the post-art-school-reality. In the early days of our collective, we found solace in supporting our creative endeavors as a group. We set deadlines for work, pitched show ideas, researched venues/places to present our work, etc, etc. Rifrakt was/is my art family. We regularly discuss(ed) the happenings in the Boston art community and where we fit into that picture.
To anyone who isn’t sure where they fit into this art world, I totally recommend creating a collective. A collective can create a support system in a world that feels ever changing (the art world that is).
9. Fine art, Illustration, fashion design, and animation… where do you see your work heading in the future? What creative realms would you love to tackle that you haven’t tried yet?
Honestly, I am not sure… I am a very curious person and generally speaking, never afraid to try new things. I sew, I make videos, I’ve dabbled in sound mixing, I play clarinet, I can sing, I used to do theatre. If I had to say, I suppose I hope the future holds more collaborative opportunities. I love working with other artists.
10. Is your sketchbook an important tool for investigating your work? Or do you work spontaneously on a piece?
Oh, my god, I would be naked and lost in the world without my sketchbook! I do everything in my sketchbook: I experiment, take notes, etc. With that said, I do sometimes just jump right into a project without figuring it out in my sketchbook… but generally, my sketchbook is my launchpad.
11. We met you in the city of Somerville, where many artists call home. Would you describe the challenges or benefits you face in a creatively, thickly settled town?
Somerville rules. Hands down, I hope I never have to move. I’ve lived in a few different places around Boston: Bay Village, Brighton, had a studio space at The Distillery in Southie, and now Somerville for 2 years. Of the 14 years that I’ve been living in Boston… Somerville is by far the most supportive, inspiring, nurturing environment in the region. I truly do not think I can say anything bad about it. The city is full of eccentric weirdo creative types and I couldn’t be happier. I love seeing a variety of people from different cultures, ages, genders, races, etc. The diversity here is so wonderful. I love having a plethora of cafes and bars to go to draw interesting people. I love the spontaneous parades that just seem to happen out of nowhere. I love that there are so many cyclists.
Somerville is heaven on Earth.
12. What is your absolute dream client? What project would love to work on that you haven’t yet?
Gosh, I don’t know! I feel so lucky to have big clients like Saks Fifth Ave, Jo Malone London, Neimans, etc. I truly do not know what I could ask for. I suppose I’d love to do some book covers, work for a publisher (maybe…?). But at the end of the day, I am really my only boss and that’s pretty amazing. I am very lucky.
13. Bonus question: let the world know what undiscovered artists are out there and ready to blow up! Who do you like to look at that we might want to check out?
Great question! Well, there are a number of artists who I love. Regionally I would have to say: my best friend and partner, Chris O’Neill; his work is just amazing, strange, inspiring… he can draw anything and make it amazingly interesting. James Weinberg is a good friend and always churning out incredible work. Dan Blakeslee, another dear friend who only works and deserves to make it big and famous! Okay, enough for stroking the egos of a few of my favorite people. Beyond Boston, some of my favorite artists are, Faustian Tarmasz, Carson Ellis, Stacey Rozich, Patti Smith & Cheryl Strayed (their writing), Margaret Kilgallen, and Yuko Shimizu.