Back Story: Sarah Sargent, A Life in the Arts

“Back Story,” a web-only feature, profiles some of these quirky and hard-working folks who tell the stories you read in the magazine. Some of them have more to say about their subjects than can fit into the finished feature. Some have humorous tales to tell about what it takes to report and write a Virginia Living story. And some just have amazing life experiences we think you might like to know about. So that’s what you’ll find here—the story behind the story.

Virginia Living art columnist, novelist and former gallery curator Sarah Sargent is a self-proclaimed seeker of the “strange and startling” in contemporary art. We talked to the Wellesley and Columbia-educated art historian—who wrote about conceptual folk artist and “punkster” Steve Keene in our October issue—to pick her brain about contemporary art in Virginia. Whip-smart and witty, this talented writer calls ‘em as she sees ‘em, and, as we found out, what she sees is a burgeoning statewide art scene.

VL: You worked at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City and for artists like ceramicist Eva Zeisel. So why move to Charlottesville?

SS: New York is a wonderful place, but it can be very wearing if you’re in the arts. I was looking for a different lifestyle. I was born in Washington D.C.—my father served as a commissioner of the SEC under President Eisenhower—and I grew up in New York, in the city. But my family spent a lot of time at a remote place in Maine, and in Ireland, so I am used to rural places. Charlottesville is rural but urbane, that’s what appealed to me.

VL: You worked as curator of Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville for six years. What attracted you to that space?

SS: The freedom I had to be daring. It’s a non-profit contemporary art space and though the work is for sale, the focus wasn’t on selling so you could present work that was really challenging.

VL: What drew you to a career in the arts?

SS: I’m a visual person and I come from a long line of people interested in the arts. My uncle is chair of a university art department, my cousin is a teacher and an expert on Monet and my grandmother—from Bangor, Maine—was a spotter for Israel Sack, the antiques expert. Growing up in New York we went to museums all the time. I think I went to the Metropolitan Museum once a month all during my childhood and we always had really nice art in our home—it was a part of our life. Plus, I react incredibly quickly to art, it’s visceral for me.

VL: When did you start writing?

SS: You have to have strong writing skills as an art history major, but my writing really started to happen at Second Street Gallery. We were putting together a show, and the catalog essay for one of the pieces—a massive site specific piece—was a disaster. The artist didn’t feel like the writer really got her, so I had to step in and write it on a very short deadline. It was difficult, but I did it. I’ve also written a novel, with my sister, and have another one in the works.

VL: What’s happening on the contemporary art scene in Virginia?

SS: When I talk about contemporary art it’s of this period, but not all art that’s being produced contemporaneously is contemporary art. Contemporary art is new—it’s not derivative, it’s not regurgitating the same thing over and over again. It’s taking art in a new direction. There is some incredible contemporary art being produced in the state.

VL: Who are your favorite contemporary artists with ties to Virginia?

SS: Steve Keene, who was in Charlottesville but is now in New York—I’ve always loved his work and his philosophy that everyone should have art in their lives. Then there is Robert Stuart who I wrote about for the October 2010 issue. His work is incredible. He’s an abstract painter working in Staunton.

I also love Megan Marlatt—she’s a fine art professor at UVA. Her sense of humor is slightly twisted and there’s a wonder about the world that comes across in her work. She’s like an American Frida Kahlo. A series she’s working on right now made from mountains of plastic toys is a comment on the indulgence and wastefulness of our society.

Then there is Ashley Williams who just finished a fifth year at UVA as an Aunspaugh Fellow. Her work is truly strange and startling, her pieces almost look like flesh. She uses oil on mylar and creates these creatures reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, but they’re monumental. I also love James Wall’s flora and fauna series, and his portraits.

VL: What’s on the horizon for you?

SS: I’m working on another novel and busy marketing the first one I wrote with my sister, a family saga set in Pennsylvania and Vietnam from the 1960s to the 1990s. My new novel is based on historical fact – it’s a fictionalized story about an artist. But that’s all I’ll say about it, it’s still in the embryonic stage. I love to write… the thing that’s fun about fiction is you start living the story. The characters come to life – you start to think like them.

I’ll also be writing about Beatrix Ost, a German-born visual artist, film producer, screenwriter and actress who lives in Charlottesville and New York City for the next issue of Virginia Living.

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Follow the links (and see the slideshow) to see more work from some of Sarah Sargent’s favorite contemporary artists and visit some of her favorite galleries:

SteveKeene.com

RobertStuart.net

MeganMarlatt.com

TheStudioVisit.com/Ashley-Williams

JamesWallStudio.com

1708 Gallery | 319 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23241,  804.643.1708, 1708Gallery.org

Second Street Gallery | 115 Second Street SE, Charlottesville, VA 22902, 434.977.7284, SecondStreetGallery.org

Momenta Art | 359 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211, 718.218.8058, MomentaArt.org

Pierogi 2000 | 177 N. 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211, 718.599.2144, Pierogi2000.com

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