All posts by Anne Smith

About Anne Smith

Graduate Assistant for Fenwick Gallery

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.

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.

Artist Interview: Sarah McDermott, Part II

… part II of my interview with artist Sarah McDermott. See Part I here

AS: Do you feel that, having experienced the stream, does that change the way you think about the area, or how you experience it when you drive through?

SM: Yeah, I mean for one because this project ended up being me mapping my experience of the stream, so it was kind of a personal, perception-based thing. But also, while I was getting to that point, I ended up exploring a bunch of other things, so I learned a lot about the history of the area.

Actually, right next to the stream, there’s this place called Tinner Hill that was the first rural chapter of the NAACP. So that was pretty fascinating. There’s actually a little, tiny historical marker there that you could just totally miss.

So, delving into it just gave me this increased sense of depth of the area, but that was kind of tangential to the project. And also, realizing the extent to which the stream had already been mapped — because when I did start to look there were FEMA flood plans, there are soil maps, you know because if it’s a certain soil quality, you need to build in a certain way. It’s all related to development. So you know, humans managing to live beside what used to be a very changeable, dynamic urban water system, but now they’re trying to constrain it so that people have an easier time dealing with it.

So I actually ended up talking to like fifteen different government agencies who all have different interactions with this stream. That was really interesting to me to be like, we have a really big government! It’s deep! There are government biologists, there are people related to sewerage, related to water quality, related to the flood stuff, related to development issues. Every component of that stream has already been inspected and mapped. I mean, I never had any ideas that this was a wild stream, but it was like, there is nothing that we don’t try to control about this stream or that we don’t try to understand or map. There is no element of it being wild.

AS: The data they’re collecting is of a certain nature that is measurable, but your map is more about that experience of being interrupted or fragmented — you know, there’s a history that their maps don’t capture.

SM: Yeah, it kind of falls into a funny territory. I’ve had people ask me, “can I use your book as a guide book?” I mean, you can try but I definitely took artistic liberties. It’s that funny thing of, ok, I have this concept that’s constraining my project to give it form, but I’m also interested in making a beautiful object. So, this part?

This is two signs mushed into one. It’s one sign that had the Quarry Inn on it and then another sign that was an arrow. And I thought, well, I don’t really want to do both signs, but I want there to be a sign with an arrow in it and I wanted to do the Quarry Inn because I want it to be a clue to this section right here.

So, you know, I took liberties in terms of that kind of thing. So, it’s not really a map, it’s not really a guidebook, even.

AS: Yeah, that’s a thing I enjoyed about the work, like the other work that was in the Artists’ Maps show — it takes that kernel of an idea of a map as something that could orient, or not necessarily be geographically connected, but give the lay of the land metaphorically, even, about some network of data that’s collected by an artist. I enjoyed the way that people took liberties with that idea.

SM: There is a lot of work being made now that’s about data. I don’t know quite what to think about it because, you know, the maps that I was using, they’re supposed to give you knowledge for some sort of purpose. This is much more diffuse. It’s referencing knowledge and our desire to know, reflecting more on that desire rather than the actual knowledge.

So it’s interesting, all this data art is kind of reflecting on our desire to know, to contain, to understand, I think.

And then, also, graphically it can just be really fun. This constraint that you’re putting on yourself. That’s always the challenge when you’re doing any kind of project– what are the boundaries of this? What is the start and what is the end? Anything can turn into anything. It’s so hard to know, like if I’m doing research-based projects, it’s hard to know: where do I stop that research? Where is my little insertion point into this giant topic? Working on something like data or a map is really a very constrained way to look at a topic, so it’s liberating in a sense.

AS: One thing I think that ties together a lot of the work in the exhibit is that, like a traditional map, the artist has to filter the information, or say: this map is about this type of information. How did you decide what should go in and what shouldn’t?

SM: Well, I basically decided based on which parts of the stream I could access. Every page of the book sort of functions as a vignette. [paging through the book] This is this section of the stream and this page is this section of the stream. It’s not like I took out a ruler and was gridding it out. It would be a different project. It was totally just how I thought it would function visually that made me decide that, ok, this width of a page represents this much of the stream. And it does something kind of funny because it equalizes every part. Because each page is the same width, it gives each part the same weight.

Above, detail of a fold-out spread in McDermott’s book Channel & Flow.

But sometimes I included, in between — like this section, where it goes underneath this building, this was the very next thing, but in between here and here, there was all this other stuff that maybe I couldn’t figure out how to represent graphically, or wasn’t as interested in. And I really liked the juxtaposition of certain things between these two. So it was definitely like a back and forth between what I actually saw in that moment and what kind of object I wanted to make.

I wasn’t following strict rules. And that’s probably an interesting project, like no matter what the outcome, it is what it is. It’d be less product-oriented; I just happen to be fixated on the book as an object. I want to make objects that I want to hold over and over again, because in some way, they’re beautiful, as opposed to being strict, “that’s what I saw, so that’s what’s there.”