The Movement of Memory: An Interview with Sara VanDerBeek

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Ruby Waldo: As an introduction, my first question is about how you came to study at BSA. What was your initial sentiment towards the school, and what attracted you to attend?

Sara VanDerBeek: When Dr. Simon was founding the school, he told my father and mother about it. I was little at the time, but my mother Louise VanDerBeek continued to remind me of it as I was growing up, and when I was in middle school, she encouraged me to apply. I remember my first day and only knowing one person in my class (Carrie Gillman, who later became my best friend), so I was intimidated and a little overwhelmed by all the cool older art students in the halls. But I was also in awe, the place was filled with creative activity, and soon I was drawn into the classes and wearing thrift shops clothes and hanging out with my best friend, Carrie, and other close friends who were actors and dancers and was in enthralled with the place.

R: As a student, I’ve found Design I and Art History to be two of the most impactful classes. I really value the time spent studying color and design theory, as well as learning about so many important artists. I’m curious as to which classes you feel taught you the most and/or what you’ve found to be most valuable about the school.

S: Art History with Mr. Kent was crucial and very impactful to my understanding of art. I really appreciate that we learned of the very foundations beginning with Cave Art and through many epochs and eras moving forward up onto contemporary art. I learned a lot from drawing class, and later when I was Junior and Senior working with Mr. Flores in mixed media. I think, in some ways, my interests haven’t moved that far from the work I was making in his class.

R: Although there is a genuine effort made to immerse BSA within the Baltimore community, I find that, like any institution, the school has the tendency to become bubble-like. As a student, how did you feel toward Baltimore culturally or as a community? Did you find yourself involved outside of BSA?

S: That’s a good point, and it’s also hard as a student to focus on work and also engage outside of school, given how much time and energy is required to do well in school. I took African and modern dance classes outside of school, but that took place near the school, and that was my first exposure to being involved in something in the city but not in school. I loved it and loved meeting the different dancers and musicians. I used to join protests and marches in the area somewhat frequently too and remember leaving the school midday and going down to city hall to protest on the day the tapes of Rodney King’s brutal beating were broadcast. I appreciated that the school also made real efforts to connect us with practicing local artists, and that, to me, felt like we were connecting with a larger community through workshops or artist talks with those artists. Some of my experience of these events was what led me to want to do the workshop with the senior art class.


R: BSA’s moving in a direction to adapt to the art world as it evolves in the 21st century. A “Strategic Plan” has been introduced that will put an emphasis on collaboration and innovation. As a successful contemporary artist, how do you feel about the push the school is making?

S: I am not familiar with the plan so I can’t comment on it directly but I think collaboration is very important to making art. Most every project I have worked on has involved various forms of collaboration. As a student, working across media also seems important to understand, but I do believe in in-depth training in particular areas of study in order to be truly grounded in your understanding of the medium(s) in which one chooses to work.

R: In recent months, I’ve grown really interested in Anni Albers, a textiles artist for the Bauhaus. She expressed some fascinating philosophies about the importance of the artist’s dialogue with his or her materials. Albers stated that art and craft could be equal and that direct experience with material is necessary. With that in mind, I have two questions–

1. Can you recall any of the major influences you had as a young artist?

S: I am a big fan of Anni Albers myself. She was a great artist and teacher. I particularly like her silkscreen prints. In high school, I loved Gaugain and Matisse, having seen their work at the BMA growing up. Once I went to college, I never studied painting again, but we painted a lot at BSA, and I looked to their work for their use of color and continue to enjoy how Matisse approached the human form. I also remember looking at artists using collage and working politically. A very important experience for me was visiting Mining the Museum by Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society. That show for me was ground breaking and remains incredibly relevant.

2. In your exhibition at the BMA, your sensitivity to the material of marble is made clear. In addition, your practice often incorporates photography in a very sculptural way. As a working artist, what value do you find in working with tactile materials and/or the hands-on process.

S: My training at BSA and then at Cooper Union emphasized the importance of a knowledge of materials and the significance role they play in the meaning and overall impact of an artwork. I think, as an artist, understanding materials and working closely with them is important. This includes the materials involved in a photographic practice. I think of photographs as powerful objects as much as they are images.


R: Much of your work is heavily based on research that you’ve done, and it’s clear you have a strong appreciation for history. At the same time, your work tends to be visually simple. What challenges do you find in communicating with your viewers in such a way after you’ve developed such an extensive understanding of the subject, material, and/or narrative?

S: This is something I am continually trying to balance- how much I edit and how much of the research I present in the work. So I would say its an ongoing challenge that is not easily defined but is often on my mind when I am finalizing and presenting work in an exhibition. I want the resonance of the research and the process to be felt, but I also want the work to feel distilled and focused yet remain open to interpretation.

R: You seem to act as a sort of curator when assembling your work. A lot of decisions must be made about how components of your pieces work together and how they’re presented. With that in mind, how do you feel about the abundant need for curation in 2015, particularly on social media platforms? There seems to be an obsession with deliberate decision making for aesthetic purposes, especially on Instagram or even Facebook.

S: I don’t have accounts with any of those social platforms, but I see their value, and I also see the impact they have had on visual culture, and I’m still trying to process what to make of it all.  As an artist, I think its important to be mindful of the larger visual landscape in which we live and work, so I look to ways in which I find these platforms are having positive effects. One way I think that is true is that Instagram, in particular, is encouraging people to take pictures, to think about their compositions and to think about how images are an important form of communication. Where it concerns me is when it becomes about status and elitism.


R: For your exhibition at the BMA, you were inspired greatly by the architecture in Baltimore and the rich history marble has in the city. You were able to synthesize Baltimore’s urban environment and your experiences within it to create your show on the walls of the museum. In a city such as Baltimore, where nearly a fourth of the population is below the poverty line, how do you feel about the exposure of art in the community and the exclusiveness that museums and the art world often have, not only in Baltimore but throughout the country?

S: I think access to free and good education is the path to equality. Our public education system is in dire need of help, and often it is art that is cut first from the programming. I used to work for a program that put artists in public schools, and we consistently saw that art training helped improve literacy skills, as well as absorption and re-tension of information in other academic areas. I don’t think there would be such a big divide between institutions such as museums or other arts venues if art was integrated into everyone’s education, and I don’t think there would be such significant divides in our nation’s cities and communities if everyone had access to good schools and a well-rounded, free education. I think artists could play a more crucial and critical role in making this happen if they weren’t, themselves, often struggling to survive in this current economy.

R: John Waters once said, “New York is full of normal people who think they’re crazy and Baltimore is full of crazy people who think they’re normal.” As a reflection on the recent time you’ve spent here, and as a Baltimore native who has lived and worked in many different cities, what do you find is most special (or crazy) about Baltimore?

S: I remember on one of my trips preparing for the exhibition at the BMA, I was in Mt. Vernon, photographing and walking around the area. It struck me how much it had changed since I went to school there. It was really cleaned up, and the park was verdant and green. My memories of it had always been somewhat bare and scraggly. I was happy for the activity, but also a little worried it was losing its character, and as I was thinking this, this guy rode through shirtless on a dirt bike, going at breakneck speed, nearly vertical solely on his back tire.  It was mesmerizing and, to me, felt like the spirit of Baltimore.


Special thanks to Kyle Tata for photographing the exhibition. 


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