Finding Center: Studio Visit with Sara Waters
"It’s about verticality and horizontality, visually and psychologically. Being active or being passive: it’s about survival on a daily basis. It’s about lying down or getting up.”
As we watch artist Jon Whitfill perform a resin-pouring demo in the back portion of Sara Waters’ immense studio space, sunlight pours in through the raised garage doors, the sounds of Jon’s son Jack playing basketball in the backyard flow over us, and I know that I am being given a treat of some kind. The environment we are in is so comfortable, so warm. Even Sara’s son Zach, visiting after returning from a European tour, is bringing popsicles out. This should come as no surprise, because Sara has let me, as well as a host of other MFA and BFA students and studio artists, use her gallery spaces and living spaces for exhibitions for little to nothing. I have found a piece of heaven, and am absorbing the unpretentious hospitality that Sara and her space emit.
I met Sara back in 2007, with Nola Richards’ Design I class at LCU. We went on a field-trip to Slaton, and Sara graciously let us tour her studio and living space. I was immediately struck by the immensity of her work in scale, structure, and surface. Her large, canoe/nest/doorway-like forms were reiterated in her paintings, and were incredibly inviting, even (and especially) to an undergraduate group of primarily “flatwork” artists-in-progress. Even more alluring were her sculptures derived from plumb-bobs, devices used to find center, which hung suspended in 20 foot lengths from the sunlit, lofted industrial gallery space.
I bring up the interview, and Sara says she’s “not good at this kind of thing.” Throughout Jon’s demo (he’s her former student, by the way) Sara is sarcastic, an eager student, and, still, an educator. At one point she tells Jon he “needs to lighten up,” and that “drips are curious phenomena. Sometimes they are magnificent, sometimes they are pitiful, it’s hard to tell which when you’re working. You initiate a work, and it may lead you somewhere, but there is not promised destination. Drips are one way that artmaking talks to you. You allow a dialogue, you can’t dictate based on an idea that may have limitations.” After the resin-pour and a few smoke breaks with Jon, Sara begins to tell us how she ended up in the tiny town of Slaton, Texas.
“When I first came to TTU (see...I’m going way back), part of my job was the studio. At first, that narrow room that visual studies uses now, B13, was my space. Student demand and my tendency to help (I had two babies by that point), made me search for another space. Since my studio was between the two clay rooms, when I had time to work, students would come knock on the door.” After working in two different spaces in the downtown Lubbock Depot District Sara landed in an old candle-making factory originally built as a furniture store in Slaton in 2003. Eventually she acquired the entire building with the living space adjacent to her studio, as well as two other buildings on the Slaton Square including Waters’ North, a gallery/studio/living space, and the smaller hat-making studio next door to her primary residence. Sara says now that she’s retired from teaching, she’s thought about moving to other places, but with her daughter and grandchildren in Lubbock, it would be silly to leave.
“Also, I could never duplicate what I have here,” she says as she gestures at her buildings. “I guess I don’t need the North space, but it has thrived for students. Long story short- I’ve said that about four times- I couldn’t leave here. Besides, I’ve always thought of Lubbock, since I came here in ’77, as a place to live and to venture out from. Our airport is a breeze.”
She mentions some of the places she’s travelled, for residencies, or other art-related endeavors: England, France, Scotland, Japan, and more. “Artist residencies are extremely exciting to me.” As she’s sharing this with Jon, Vicki Bee (our photographer for the day), Zach, and me, it dawns on me that this interview is serving us, not her. She is passing down her strategies for how-to-be-an-artist, and in some ways, how to be a human being. She is a risk-taker, but she maintains her center, the studio, much like the “Plumb-Bob” works, hanging all over her studio gallery space.
Sara shares that in her time in the Shetland Isles, she diverged from sculpture and used her time first to walk, to write, compose music, and embark upon two new projects. They are the Imprint Project, and the 1965 Geography Book. She says of that time, “On my walks I began to collect random pieces of discarded rusted metal: hooks, springs, and all kinds of different machine parts. I began to do a series of simple still-life drawings with them. At the same time, I was working on the 1965 Geography Book. It was an old book, and the pages had browned. Drawing on white paper had bothered me. One day, I submerged my paper in leftover tea water, and stuck a glass over it to hold it down. The next morning, I had the imprint of the clean, white ring on the brown paper. Hence, I did each object I collected (29 of them), using the same process. The imprint of the object remained. So, there it is. That is what I mean by responding to process. I didn’t set out to, but I was able to identify the object without drawing it. It became more real than the illusion that drawing can be. Or might be.” The 1965 Geography Book was a large collage (9x5 feet) of images from the 1965 Geography Book that she brought home in parts, and assembled the final piece in the United States, suspending the large sheet. Over this she laid heavy plastic, and printed the word “tolerance,” obscured by the plastic. “The reason ‘tolerance’ was chosen, was the significance of all the people in the images, and how we need to be tolerant of each other.”
Knowing that she received her MFA in Ceramics/Sculpture from Indiana University, I ask about what other mediums she has incorporated. Sara replies that she uses “anything, which is exciting, but also very exasperating.” She speaks of the ongoing discussion of clay as sculpture, and the problems with the elitist academic culture that she experienced early in her studies, saying “painting” in a high-falootin’ tone. Sara talks about Judy Pfaff’s presentation at the recent Texas Sculpture Symposium at Tech, where Judy mentions Ursula von Rydingsvard, who only uses one material and technique, whereas “Judy Pfaff would use whatever to suit her ideas. I at once envy and dismiss a linear way of working. In teaching, I gave parameters. It would be easy to use glue, but don’t, and see what you come up with.’ I gave myself parameters, too. I think at a certain point, though, limitations made me stubborn.”
Sara pauses for a moment to reflect, then says “I know I’ve got some great stories on Jon,and I know he has some on me.” We laugh, and she goes into his background as a student who entered her senior sculpture class, with no studio background whatsoever.(his degree was in Biology and Chemistry). She talks about the merits of being a mature person, how life experiences may inform the student. She recalls a semester where he took all three Art History Surveys, and laughs. She says she doesn’t think just anyone could do that. “How can you read all the requirements for three of them? But, Jon is highly intelligent.” It is apparent that she encouraged Jon, and helped him nurture the artist side of himself in those early studio years. It seems this day has come full circle, beginning with Jon giving us a demo, and ending with Sara demonstrating her fostering of art, her love for teaching, her love for the studio.
I haven’t had to ask many questions, her narrative has answered nearly everything in my little notebook. The only thing I want to talk about now is her content, where her work itself has come from, and where it is going. Sara replies that her work is mostly about visual verticality, horizontality, and balance. She describes the process of meticulously finding the center of mass in her plumb-bob sculptures. One time, she missed the center on the horizontal platform, tilting the suspended sculpture, so she placed a vertical object on the surface to correct it. “Horizontal, and vertical!” she exclaims. Sara also mentions that she was a “ferocious reader of art criticism and mags” both for her work and for her students, and lately she has had the luxury to read novels. She remarks about how you can look back on your work, and its significance is more apparent. “Ideas are reinforced, concepts you come to initially at an early stage. It’s simple, really. My work, whether it’s buckets, playing fields, pitchers, collectors, farm tools, funnels, troughs, or plumb-bobs: all are devices and strategies for survival. It’s about verticality and horizontality, visually and psychologically. Being active or being passive: it’s about survival on a daily basis. It’s about lying down or getting up.”
Images provided by Victoria Marie Bee
For a full gallery of images, click here >>>
by Hannah Dean