Brings Her Ethereal "Magic" to Louisville
By: Amy Barnes
Artist Sara Garden Armstrong Brings Her Ethereal “Magic” to Louisville Author: Amy Barnes Internationally renowned design firm BITTNERS Inc. will host its first large-scale gallery show in its downtown location at 731 East Main Street, which opens on Friday, October 27. The show, “Sara Garden Armstrong: Landscapes of Breath, Time and Change,” will run October 27 – November 17.
“We have created a beautiful gallery space within our showroom.” said Bittners President & COO, Douglas Riddle. “When I first saw Sara’s pieces from this exhibit, I knew we needed to bring it to Louisville for a show. We created the perfect canvas for this visual art experience here at BITTNERS. The pieces have a quietness to them that is in some ways spiritual and magical. I’m so excited to have Sara coming to BITTNERS and cannot wait for everyone to meet her. She is special."
Below, Armstrong — known nationally for her moving, nature-inspired, and ethereal multimedia forms — shares her artistic inspiration and creative vision with VOICE-TRIBUNE.
At what age did you discover your visual gift? What mediums did you initially use, and what is the progression of these concepts, and combining them?
“I started in my mid-20s. I think everybody has art in them and I've always thought that talent is just a part of it; it's determination and drive that you need. If you do the art, you should be consumed with it.”
“When I started, I did paintings that became sculpture…I've never stayed in one area. I’m dealing with overlapping concepts in all of my work. The paintings are very much about change in time. Right now with the paintings that I'll be bringing to the BITTNERS show, I'm using pigment and abaca fiber. I've been working with fiber and handmade paper for many years. Abaca is a long fiber that can be translucent and also textured. I'm mixing pigment into the paper fiber, and I'm pouring it onto the canvas. The colors change from wet to dry…I’m manipulating elements, I’m peeling things off, I'm adding things back. The process is very much about change and dealing with accidents and also eventually having a finished piece.”
“My work has always been mixed-media; I rarely stay with one or the other. I wasn't a painter when I was a painter...my work didn't stay ‘flat’. When you become an artist when you are a little bit older, you are determined to do what you want to do.” You have a knack for arranging pieces that illuminate and “breathe.” How did you discover your incredibly unique process?
“I used to take the F train in New York and go out to Coney Island, and I would walk right at the edge of the water so that I would be engrossed in the sound. I felt the healing physicality of the water breathing…that was comfort.”
“I began exploring the breathing process back in the early 80s and I was enamored with it. This was the beginning of the Airplayer series of sculptural installations. I had created sculptures that incorporated sound. Breathing is sound. There is physicality to it and I always liked that physicality. When I started working with sound, someone else did the score for the work, but it didn’t relate to the piece. I wanted to understand sound so I began doing it myself. I'm very much about process, exploring in the studio, working on pieces and trying to figure out how they relate and what's happening. It's about being ‘lost’ and then making a discovery. I don't mind being lost, and a little nervous…I think that gives me more energy. I want the work to have an emotional impact.”
Tell us about your self-described idea of nature-based biomorphic abstraction, earth elements, and change. How do you approach each piece, especially regarding the spaces offered? Will you create the pieces on site?
“On site I will be creating two installations; the pieces are already made. For this show, I measured all the spaces; I had a layout from Douglas, and I built a scale model. I hung the pieces in my Birmingham studio, thinking about how they would interact with the space at Bittners, trying to get the sense of walking through the exhibition and what I want the viewer to feel, knowing all along things will change when I am in the actual space.
It is important that the viewer feels a part of the work.”
“‘Nature-based biomorphic abstraction’ is a precise term for what I do. I have done a lot of writing the past couple years, trying to define my artwork and that is a term that seems to fit it best. I work with organic materials, trying to create living environments. I am exploring; I don’t have a preconceived notion of what I want…it is through this process of change that the work develops.”
“There's a physicality involved: my works are pushing toward being a part of life and nature. I feel like my work has this connective thread. It’s about time, change and landscapes. Whether it's interior landscapes of the body or nature, it's all organic.”
Tell us about how you discovered your unique process, and about the ‘Airplayer’ you created.
“My Airplayer series began in 1981 with a piece at PS1 (MoMA), New York City. It was a group sound show. With previous sculptural sound installations, I had always had the entire space to myself. Now I was showing alongside others, and didn’t want to compete with their sound. I started with a drawing that was about air movement and translated it into a sculpture. My piece contained pipes connected to a box by hoses, blowing air onto the viewer, which was sound. The elements were taking shape — sound, breathing, the physicality of air movement.”
“At the time, I was doing renovations in my studio, using sheetrock, which became the material used for the surface of the pipes. I prefer using the materials at hand. In the process of constructing the installation, I became intrigued with both the concept and process…the connection between sound and breathing, and the materials used in the piece to convey the connection. However, only I could see the materials (blower box, hoses), which developed the connection. This would change with the next Airplayer installation, with these materials becoming visible to the viewer.”
When did you incorporate the lighting and kinetic elements? How does this reflect the messages you are working to convey?
“One thing leads to another…I did an atrium piece that was about multiple sclerosis and I had to figure that out. It sent me into dealing with lights and the movement of lights.”
“I was trying to show how the brain works, in an abstract way. The brain has what are called glial cells, which support neurons. In MS, the connection becomes damaged. I discovered that I could use the movement of light to show brain activity.”
“In creating art, you look backward and forward and sometimes don't even realize that you've been using both concepts and materials before, in different ways. I think that's the way life evolves. You work in a lot of natural forms; you start here and then you find out this and that, and you learn different things. You gradually incorporate those things because you know how to do it or how it should be handled, or your creative brain just goes ‘hey, yeah’.”
Let’s add in the extra dimension: the abstract, the shifts in reality. Tell me how this twist came about as your pieces progressed.
“Most of my work is abstract. My recently published monograph is titled Threads and Layers. The layers add to the abstraction. The shifts in reality are in between the layers. It’s always about the whole thing; you say something and someone else hears it differently, and then later it's different.”
“In the exhibit, the viewer will encounter a number of works that convey a shift of reality as he/she walks through the gallery. One of the works, from the Littoral series, is particularly about a shift of reality, in time. I took a series of photographs of shoreline water as it lapped onto a beach. These images were projected onto large paper, onto which I made a series of drawings using graphite and pastels. The drawings are about time and the experience of a place as a changing sequence of moments that will never be again.”
“I was using the material of time as the lines in the drawings. I'm not dealing with space or perspective in that; it's all about the underlines and the hazing out of some of those lines…so that to me is about change.”
You have combined works regarding scientific phenomena with the human condition. For example, working with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, among others. Was there a shift between covering natural processes and tying these processes with the human condition?
“Maybe a shift, but there was already a connection. The name of the piece is Sentient Matrix. I was trying to get my mind around it; ask as many questions as I could and understand the disease. My studio felt like a lab. Eventually, I realized I wasn't trying to discover a ‘cure,’ I was trying to do an art piece. How was I going to portray the disease? How could I do that in the abstract? I had to figure it out, so I made a model, and it was accepted. Then I had to figure out how to build it. How to incorporate the movement of light? I decided LED lighting was the way to go. It worked, the piece was a success and I learned a lot.”
Tell us about the monograph, “SARA GARDEN ARMSTRONG: Threads and Layers”, published in 2020, which coincided with a traveling exhibition of the same name. “Originally the book was to have been published by a university press. They had a deadline that I could not meet, so I decided to publish it myself. Thus began Great Jones Street Press (named after a historic street in NYC where I lived for a number of years). It was a great experience! A team of talented writers contributed essays, and photographers provided insightful images of my work dating back over the decades. A team of editors and graphic designers came on board and three years later, in the midst of a world pandemic, the book went to press. It has received good reviews and everyone involved in its undertaking is extremely proud to have been a part of it.”
Has your move from New York to Birmingham influenced your work? If so, how?
“The move to Birmingham has just been great! I have the space I need and time to create more artwork. I own a building that I bought way back in ‘79; it's an art building with a history of studios and galleries. I live on the second floor and have plenty of space. In New York, I never had such a large space. New York offers many opportunities but so does the South. One of my goals in returning to the South was to make a difference. Another meaning of the title for my book related to connecting the threads of the South—in the art community.”
“My traveling exhibition took me across the state of Alabama, into Georgia and Florida. I am excited to be showing for the first time in Louisville. I will be in town for the entire period of the exhibition and on site at BITTNERS most every day. I am looking forward to showing my work, interacting with the Louisville community, and getting an insight into this exciting city.”
Learn more about Armstrong and her work at saragardenarmstrong.net.