Art In Uncertain Times: A Conversation with Sara Birns As She Celebrates Her First Solo Show in a Crisis
"I had the privilege of introducing Sara Birns to oil paint just over a year ago," Juxtapoz alum Christian Rex van Minnen enthused about his protege, Santa Cruz, California-based painter, Sara Birns. "To be this young with this kind of talent is insane. I can’t wait to see where she goes, and I feel extremely fortunate to get to play a small role in her journey... Sara is a natural, a phenom."
As big fans of van Minnen's work, we were curious to learn how about the development of this mentor and mentee relationship. Having mastered the fastidious technical method of painting with oils at an impressive pace, Birns' paintings embrace this impeccable tradition as she creates a series of frank, expressive and weirdly endearing portraits. When she announced the opening of her first ever solo exhibition with Richard Heller Gallery on April 4th, presenting work alongside Baldur Helgason (which will now be a virtual tour) we reached out and enjoyed a conversation about her journey, leading to this particular moment in anticipation of her debut.
Sasha Bogojev: Can you describe your introduction to art and painting?
Sara Birns: My mom is also an artist, so she put crayons in front of me probably before I could even sit up as a baby, which lead to drawing almost every day as a kid. Art helped me a lot as I was growing up. I absolutely dreaded going to school. The academic system is terrible for creative thinkers with “learning disabilities”. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t have any problems “learning”. I had different ways of grasping ideas. I didn’t like being told what to put my energy towards, being stuck with a number system informing me on my intelligence level, and kids generally being very mean wasn’t great for my confidence as a kid. Art was where I could escape to places I enjoyed, where I had full control and freedom to observe, investigate, and communicate whatever I wanted, and it was something I was really good at, which felt great.
Do you have a formal art education background?
I wanted to go to a fine arts college very badly, but with pragmatic Jewish parents, a well rounded general education to prepare me with practical job skills was in my cards, and understandable so. I got into the University of Oregon’s fine arts department. Once I was in, I switched majors to Product Design, where I focused on User Interface/User Experience design. That was the path I followed for a long time. I had a lot of anxiety around being able to support myself financially, so art was more of a side hobby while I prepared myself for “the real world.”
Did you ever have any connections or special interest in the traditional oils of Old Masters?
Traditional old master oil techniques have always been this otherworldly, holy, untouchable magic in my eyes. In my younger years, it was something I admired but never thought I could do. These painters had so much influence over the human race. When you think of what heaven is like, or what hell is like, what do you picture? They designed humans’ perception of the afterlife, which is incredibly powerful, creating a vibe that felt so real that many viewers didn’t even notice it was an influence coming from within the painter. And that is achieved with Old Master Oil techniques, the technique that achieves realism better than any other medium. If you ask me, this is where surrealism stems from.
At what point did you fall in love with oils and how long have you been using them?
I actually had never used oils until Christian introduced them to me about a year and a half ago. Straight away I started noticing how superior this medium was to anything I have ever tried before. My time learning how to use these paints has literally been magic. This is where I truly discovered what infinity means. Once I grasped how to do one thing, hundreds of other possibilities suddenly emerged. Then, when I would choose one of those possibilities to follow, another hundred stemmed from that. Sitting with that thought and experiencing it through painting is amazing. It feels like I’m learning a language, gaining the ability to communicate on a level that is (to me) more intense than words. This year I feel like I am getting to know myself and the world better through oil paint. It feels beyond myself.
Tell us more about how meeting Christian Rex van Minnen influenced your practice?
Two years ago, before meeting Christian, I derailed everything: quit my job, dumped my ex, and left the San Francisco area to move back to my hometown Santa Cruz. I saved up to take a year off of work. I wanted to only focus on things that made me happy, which was art. At the time I was mainly working on surreal colored pencil pieces. My mom’s art studio was right next to Christian’s studio, so one day I showed him my work. It was pretty funny because I didn’t know who he was. I just remember walking around his studio and getting this overwhelming feeling that I was walking around God’s office. It felt like a holy experience. As he flipped through my drawings he didn’t say much except “you need to do oils.” I took what he said very seriously, and he helped me get it all going. From then on I have been practicing oils every day, using colored pencil drawings as a tool to make my paintings better. I think, because he could tell I was a weirdo with gifted drawing skills, he was curious to see what would happen if I started using oils.
Other than on a technical level, did he affect your work conceptually and how?
Feedback from Christian is always very technical. He does an amazing job staying focused on feedback to improve my layering process, composition tips, texture tricks, doing a great job trying not to influence my concept discoveries. And that’s what I love about learning from him. I always resisted the teachers who tried to influence my thoughts and worshiped the teachers who see me, know me, and know how to generously lend their guidance to watch some crazy shit unfold from my brain. I’ll also add that I think he has affected my work conceptually in indirect ways. I learn a lot by observing, and watching how raw and genuine he is with his own journey has influenced me to do the same. He has more experience than I do in letting himself be raw. Yes, I think letting yourself be vulnerable and raw to yourself, is something that needs to be practiced, and is something that evolves as you take it seriously. And after knowing how to be vulnerable with yourself develops, it progresses until you die. And then maybe continues after that, we don’t know. But we’re all on the same, yet different journey, of understanding who we are; and to see truths, you need to let yourself see things about yourself that might freak you out, but it’s how we grow. And that’s something I noticed from working around him. There have been moments when he would offer phrases that would help when I was feeling a little lost, like “follow the fire”, as well as reminding me of concepts I was excited about in the past to see what ideas that would spark. Those indirect ways helped me stay true to the direction I want my work to follow in more ways than he probably knows. I also think aspects of my concepts are influenced by my technique, and it is very apparent where I learned my technique. So there is that as well.
Who inspires your imagery?
My relationships with friends and family and people, in general, inspire the imagery. I try to compare people, not to each other but to themselves; such as comparing a friend to the impression I had when I barely knew them, to the impression I have after we’ve become close to each other. When I compare my impressions, It’s almost like knowing two different people. The unknown is uncomfortable, so when we don’t know someone, we try to attach a character made up in our heads to match what we see. And even after becoming extremely close to someone, I don’t think we can ever completely understand who they are because they are changing every moment, as we all are, constantly adjusting and growing from the chaos that happens in life. The work I make is driven from that place. The people I create look familiar, and viewers will assign a character to them. But when looking closer, you notice things are off, which forces viewers to spend more time observing, trying to understand who they’re looking at, being exposed to an essence the person is emitting and building a deeper relationship with them.
How exactly do you build your subjects and how did friends and react to the ways you depict them?
They are amalgamations of real and imagined people. I created each character by combining and manipulating the features of my close friends and family. Working off of pictures I took of them, I first make drawings, altering and exaggerating facial features and expressions in order to create a new, yet familiar essence. Then I paint them, evolving the characters even more by making tweaks to the face, posture, etc. With this slow formula, I can carefully and thoughtfully tamper with a human essence over a course of steps, as well as capture and alter an individual's personal style and fashion choice. It’s super fun for me, I feel like a scientist. Because the people I use are usually people close to me, most are equally as weird as I, and entertained by the new person created using parts of their essence. I always warn them that the paintings will probably turn out very scary. And I’m sure there are unsettling moments seeing parts of yourself assembled in a somewhat disturbing way. But I also feel that there is a lot of honesty and innocence in these portraits. There are good and bad feelings, and it’s fun for me to evoke that confusion with them.
So, the element of weirdness is clearly pervasive in your work. How do you go about creating it?
Weirdness is always important. When something is weird, it means that something is unnatural, which makes it difficult to understand and understand how you feel about it. There are two options in this scenario: shut it out, or investigate. I think it’s important to investigate and reflect on those feelings that made you jump from the weirdness. I believe that’s how we heal and grow, by sitting with those unsettling feelings and trying to process and see them in different ways that will help with understanding. My approach to creating weirdness stems from trying to sit with the elements of life that made me uncomfortable, and quite frankly, freaked out. Being able to depict these elements in a visual way helps ease a lot of my anxieties around the weird stuff. And I must add, weird stuff happens to look cool in paintings!
Do you find yourself self-censoring some of the weird ideas or visuals?
I used to go with random ideas that were visually SO weird and entertaining. But as I create more and more, I am building a deeper relationship with my work and myself andI understand the value of the visuals, vibe, and content. I’m understanding that wherever I put my focus will grow, opening up related intentions as I build upon them. So I want to be very strategic and thoughtful in my process of picking the weirdness that means the most to me. I want to only create visuals that stem from deeper areas of my perceptions and observations of life. So when I get crazy, weird visual ideas, I’ll think about it in light of the other things I’m interested in thinking about. If it ties into the overall vibe that I want to explore and experience, then I’ll push it. If not, that idea will start to seem surface level and I’ll lose interest.
Where do you envision the viewer who is looking at your work?
As the viewer takes more time observing an essence, the viewer unlocks information about themselves. I believe that the more you understand someone, the more you’re actually understanding yourself, but through the light that the other person shines on you. People shine lights on each other, which allows you to see yourself in different ways. You can control what lights you want to shine on you. If someone is making you feel bad, bringing you down, that’s a light that you should turn off. I would love for that to be a message people walk away with. Dump that dude or girl or friend who is shining bad lights on you! Only surround yourself with people that make you love yourself and help you grow in good ways. I want my paintings to give people that awareness because after all, these are just paintings of made-up people, the person you think you’re observing is a reflection of yourself.
How many gallery shows did you have so far, and how did it feel to get a solo at a place like Richard Heller?
I haven’t really shown my work at all yet. The past year and a half I have been keeping my head down learning the oil techniques and discovering a direction I was excited about. I wasn’t ready to be seen until my last batch of paintings were done. And to have a gallery as amazing as Richard Heller want to show my work is incredibly exciting. My cousins were visiting from LA at the time I got the news. My family has watched me as I made some big changes in my life; they’ve seen me get knocked down, and they’ve seen me get back up and work extremely hard, so it was really special having them there to celebrate with me.
What type of work did you prepare for the exhibition?
I had about 6 portraits done before I knew I was having the solo show. I was getting ready to do 3 larger paintings. I wanted to keep growing that portrait process I had done on my last pieces, but instead of just the portrait, I wanted to give the person more context, such as more of their outfit showing, and backgrounds adding to this weird but normal vibe. When I knew about the show, I wanted those 3 pieces to be in it. And I’m really excited and proud I was able to make that happen in time.
Any ideas on how you'd like to develop your work from here?
I’ll always listen to Christian’s phrase, “Follow the fire.” I know my interests will evolve, what I find weird and what freaks me out will evolve, and my old master oil techniques will evolve. I’ll take my time listening to inner curiosities as I grow, and decide how I want to immerse myself in them through my paintings. Following those curiosities and that fire is how I’ll develop my next pieces.
Did you feel the pressure getting such a spotlight and how did it affect your practice?
I did feel the pressure getting the spotlight. But I loved it. I generally put a lot of pressure on myself with or without a spotlight. Pressure makes life move in ways that are more exciting at a faster rate. And having pressure from a source that I was extremely excited about felt good. I pushed myself harder than I have ever pushed myself, I finished three 36x48in paintings in half the time I usually take. I also finished three smaller pieces for the show during those two and a half months. But the real pressure that messed with me was when Covid-19 hit California. It started getting difficult to concentrate with my emotions on high, and anxiety rising with uncertainty and bad news growing larger every day. But I would remind myself that, for me, art originates from being able to escape from the things I didn’t want to focus on. So I would make my mind get lost in what I wanted it to get lost in again, which was a relief on the days I was extra nervous. I’m sad that fewer people will see my work in person during this time, but excited about the virtual tour. The virtual tour will be a great way for art people to come together in a safe way during this pandemic. And for those who couldn’t make it to the show before have nowhere to be, and no excuses to not tune in on April 4th!
Follow Sara at @sarabirns