Sleep, Parenthood and Art: an interview with Sarah Irvin

Detail of the installation of The Sleep Series.

Detail of the installation of The Sleep Series.

Anne Smith: In my first encounter with The Sleep Series, I noticed how quiet and serene it feels. Then, as I spent more time with it, I began to understand all the frenetic activity implied by the piece: the way the baby’s brain is active and growing even in sleep, for instance. There is also all the activity of your making, as an artist and mother, with these brief windows of time (which could end at any moment) in which to work. How would you describe this piece? Do you see it balancing ideas of work and rest?

Sarah Irvin: I find it difficult to put a concise label on this work. In a basic sense, this piece is defined by limitations and in turn re-defines those very limits. Creating these paintings was a very direct response to having a one-month old baby and being the primary caregiver. I wanted to paint, but found it incredibly difficult to settle into a rhythm of working in very small increments of time that I had no control over. I chose to create work that was “done” when the available time was done, in this way the work was about the constraints and only exists because of those constraints. I worked this way for about two months and slowly transitioned into using the time to create different work without realizing it. Looking back it is multi-faceted. In one sense, I see the work as a visualization of my available time during those two months, in another I see it as a personal reconciliation to a new set of parameters as an artist and so on. I want to avoid the words “work” and “rest” when describing my time. I want to be well rested and I want to create rigorous work. The way my time is specifically broken up is becoming less relevant. I just move forward. The idea of leaving home to go to a place of work and returning home to a place of leisure is a fiction.

AS: What compelled you to measure your baby’s sleep in this way — with strokes of blue watercolor in rows, versus, say measuring with a timer and recording the time that way?

SI: I had watercolors at the ready because they are easy to set up and clean up. If your palette dries out, you can still use the paint later. This flexibility was what I needed. I used tick marks that were similar to marks in drawings I made while I was pregnant and not feeling well. I saw them as an indicator of the passage of time and like letters that form words in a very long, unreadable sentence. Recording every minute of sleep in a chart as hard data would have been obsessive, and I like to think that this is a more poetic record of early parenthood. Also, sleep is definitely a bluish, grayish, purplish, so color of the paint was an obvious choice.

AS: Where does the voice of a parent or mother fit into contemporary art today?

SI: If you look for it, you see that parenthood influences the work of many artists. This topic is as relevant as any other. However, first person accounts of parenthood as visual art are not typically acknowledged by major art institutions. It is important for artists to keep making work that engages critically with the experience of parenthood and for institutions to recognize and exhibit this work. If artists and curators take a chance and accept this as a valid topic, we will see what comes of it and no one has to figure out if, why, how and to what extent it is being ignored.

AS: What books have you read lately that have been part of your thinking around this project?

SI: The last three books I read were The Mother Knot by Jane Lazarre, Feeding the Family by Marjorie DeVault and Family Man by Scott Coltrane. Right now I am reading The Mermaid and The Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein.  I try to consume as much writing as I can about parenthood from as many angles as possible.

Note: The artist answered these questions while her daughter was sleeping.

Congratulations to Fenwick Gallery Assistant & MFA Candidate Anne Smith

Congratulations to Anne Smith as she graduates with her MFA from the School of Art! We will definitely miss her. She did an amazing job this year. Anne accomplished so much during her year in Fenwick Library and the Gallery. From installation to curation, from gallery prep to the gallery website, artist interviews to book selection, and everything in between! We wish her the best as she starts her next adventure.

The Sleep Series by Sarah Irvin

November 11, Late Afternoon Nap, by Sarah Irvin

Visit the gallery between now and the end of June and you will encounter a long series of methodical watercolors spanning the entire length of Fenwick Gallery.

The exhibit is called The Sleep Series and it is one series in a larger project by Mason MFA candidate Sarah Irvin. As Irvin says in her statement: “My current project-based series is entitled A Bringing Forth, derived from the Latin root of the term post-partum. In this work I respond directly to my experience of parenthood through naturalistic observation as I record, and document the care of my seven-month-old daughter. The work is enabled by and exists within the context of motherhood.”

The watercolors are composed of a series of blue lines like tick marks. Indeed, they mark the time that Irvin’s infant daughter spent napping on various occasions. Installed in a row approximately 50 feet long, the work is a powerful meditation on the time, waiting and work involved in caring for a child.

The show is up through June 26th, 2015. Find out more about Sarah’s work in this project-based series at


Verbal/Visual reception a success!

Thanks to Reference Services Specialist Chris Magee for capturing the reception in this photo.

Thanks to Research & Reference Services Specialist Chris Magee for capturing the reception in this photo.

A great time was had at the reception for Verbal/Visual on Tuesday. Thanks to all who were able to attend!

The show is up through this Monday, May 4th, so stop by if you haven’t already. The following week, we will be installing an exhibit of exquisite drawings by MFA candidate Sarah Irvin… check back soon for more details.