Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Sarah Valeri Interview

Sarah Valeri
of the band Colorform Music and Live Art

interviewed by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino

(Photo Rob Domingo.)

Something occurred to me during the Colorform show at Fontana’s back in August: because of the lighting situation, that is, while there are lights trained on the stage, there are no lights trained on you, there are no lights on the audience and you are virtually in the audience when and where you are performing, so while there are lights on the performers on the stage, there are no lights on you, so you are virtually drawing in the dark, down on the floor, there, in front of the stage. So I imagine you can barely see the colors of your chalks, can barely distinguish one color from another—it’s as though you were color-blind—and yet your drawing comes out so colorful, and the colors fit. And it occurred to me, given that (besides your work with the band Colorform) you are a teacher and in the practice of art therapy: you have special-needs students, and some are blind, and they are drawing with colors they cannot see: it occurred to me how to some degree you are experiencing as they experience. . . . Watching you draw, during this same performance, I think I noticed that at points you were moving in time with the music: there were several points at which the music took on this fast rhythm and you seemed to take flight along with it. Do you consciously move to the music, or, does something inside you take over, or: watching you draw, you are in a way dancing to the music. . . . What’s going on here?

Well, yes it has actually been described as dancing to the music. So when I draw live with Colorform I unroll a very large piece of paper on the floor or tape it to the wall if I can get away with it. I need as much room as I can to be able to use my whole range of movement, so the paper is usually the length of my body at least. The band has performed everywhere from crepe shops, church birthday parties, bars, galleries, lofts, DIY showcases, and even a cathedral. So lights and materials can change a lot depending on the venue. I am accustomed to drawing in the semi-dark. For a long time the colors would surprise me when the lights came back, but now I know the difference between orange and red with the lights out.
 The immediate mix of the music and movement is the whole idea. I really enjoy isolating those sensations for the moment and I don’t pay attention to much else. Because it was shocking at first to draw in front of people I had to create a sort of separate space for myself from everything else. I remember that I didn’t recognize songs that I heard only while I was drawing. I would ask the musical band members about a “new” song and they would tell me that they had played it at the last 5 shows. Now I am much more at ease, able to wave at folks occasionally while I draw. I draw much faster and feel less and less controlled and more curious about what might happen.
 I work as an art therapist at a school for children with visual impairments and other exceptional needs. At school we only focus on their work and mine has nothing to do with their process. Many of the students have some sight, so they might be interested in color, but usually intense color, or specific contrasts of color. The only time a child without any sight has asked me to help them find a specific color was when they were making a gift for someone who says they like that color. Many adult artists adapt their methods to make work for a sighted audience, but for the children to be able to interact independently with the materials, and make choices based on their own experience we focus on pressure, shape, weight, balance, pattern, forms, space, etc. There is plenty room for them to work without color. If we are going to have an exhibit I will try and make sure they have monochromatic materials so that sighted visitors will not be distracted by the color and miss out on all the great things the child did with space and touch. I’d like to see more exhibits that feature sensations that can be mutually shared by the kids and the visitors, without anyone having to translate or be dependent on someone’s description.

This idea of “Live Art.” This’s quite a concept. This is art in distinction to “performance art,” theatre, dance, indeed any choreography that is repeated night after night. Your art is totally extemporaneous—before our eyes you are transforming the noun “art” into the verb “to be.” Would you fill us in on the birth of this concept? Was it born at the same time the band was born? How did the band come together?

Kate Logan sang and played guitar with Matt Logan who played cello and composes. Later they met Ben Deibert who added more guitar. I heard them play at a place called R&R Bar on its last night open. At the time I was living in a big loft in Bushwick and I asked them to play for my open studio. Later I asked if I could draw along with the band, and being the easy going folks that they are, they let me. So I drew with them on Halloween night of 2006 at Kenny’s Castaways. Matt was dressed as a shark and Ben was Disco Stu. Kate was a Cereal Killer. My friend Hilda was there dressed as a cop. And then I just came with them to every show. And that really is it.

Dreams (and the unconscious). Dreams and art: they have a lot in common, the dream (its visual images, its emotional content, its conceptual phenomena) and the work of art. In regard to both the dream and art, we can say that “content” is represented not realistically but psychologically. And for instance, and even in strictly mechanical terms: there is distortion, condensation, symbolization—the representation in terms of symbols, and in terms of difference, in terms of opposites. Both the dream and the work of art speak in a language of symbols (in figure, in color, in gesture), both may be said to reflect the fundamentally subjective nature of the mind, and both may be said to be the product of a psychic discharge. And for instance—and here I’m jumping to an extremely sophisticated proposition—the dream and the work of art both specialize in disguise. Do you ever talk about your dreams in public—or, isn’t that exactly what artists do, or rather what they do when it’s working. . . ? What role, or roles, do dreams play in your art, and in your life? Do you keep a dream diary? Do you “cultivate” your dreams with, for instance, melatonin? Do you consult a dictionary of symbols (pictorial and otherwise)? Do you specialize in disguise?

Oh dreams. I do miss them since I moved to New York and my sleep was relegated to short bursts of total blackout. If only work could wait until about ten. There are some recurring dreams from my childhood that have provided a lot of symbols and characters that I think have sort of walked on out of that environment and into their own identity. They have gathered their own memories and priorities now and may not be what they were when I first met them. And of course, many animals. I can’t help it. It wasn’t until New York that I even allowed any manmade items to appear in a painting, only living things were allowed. It’s hard to ignore all the non living things around you in the city. They make up so much of the landscape.
 Certainly I think a lot of my artwork can serve as a substitute for a dream with all of the discovery and release. All the creatures and symbols do carry a lot of significance that I don’t necessarily want to spell out and if I try to manifest them explicitly they will lose some of their dimensions. So the mystery surrounding the symbol isn’t a disguise, it helps keep the air circulating, keeps evolution possible and allows some unheard of things to hitch a ride. The metaphors don’t lie, but it loses some transformative power in explanation, and they know it.
 See this little piece from a writing project Susan Scutti and I participated in:

 I’m writing year long agendas, applications that have to describe what I would paint for a year if ____________ organization offered me a studio space. It’s like writing a little novella about mythological beasts, which is mostly true. Then I have to get the fairy book owls and wolves, snakes and moths to stand together at a podium and write their campaign speeches. They don’t like it one bit and they are threatening to go rogue. “Broken arrow!” yells the owl and cannonballs off his paper. He doesn’t really yell, he is just telepathic in a very intrusive way. And the sheepdog pisses on all the application and turns off all the lights so the moths begin to cry. 
 I’ve also become aware that people will read these entries. I am much more used to images. They squirm silently in the lower brain. Their impressions are strong, but not feasible in a court of law. The owls are willing to take a little blame for the murders and jubilations they commit, though they don’t care who they take down with them. The woman wrapped in quilts is still trying to protect the innocent.

Serenade. (c. 2012. Ink on paper, 11” x 14”)
The sum of her days. (c. 2012. Silk dyes, graphite, ink on paper, 10” x 30”)

In both your drawings and your paintings, your subject matter, the images and characters and events, seem to be born of dreams. Such as we see in The sum of her days, which is subtitled “alligator love,” and in Serenade. The words that come to mind are fable, fabulist, fantastic, phantasmagoric. Your drawings seem more “figurative” than your paintings—your painting seem more like Action Painting, Abstract Expressionism, although even in your drawings some of the lines look to me like “drippings,” I mean in the way they arc, the arc given by your gesture. . . . But not only “figurative,” your drawings, for instance as we see here in Serenade and in the series of works you’ve entitled The Stories, there are narratives. You are a storyteller by way of pictures. Would you tell us the story behind this drawing, Serenade, and behind this character, Monk? And if you will, who is Hester? Who is Spinnerette?

Yes, I actually meant to write down words in some sort of eloquent sequence but I just keep drawing finer and finer pictures. It helps me think, and I have done a lot of reading during this time, but little writing. Eventually there will be writing that responds to the images. My friends are getting tired of hearing me talk about it. I think they may not believe me at this point. I will redeem myself. Be on the lookout for the Fugitive’s Astronomy Club.
 Very simply the little monk is of mysterious origins, but he appears in a monastery that has managed to preserve medieval history on a cold island. He really grows into a sweet anomaly in the middle of this dark priesthood, and eventually he is cast out and exiled for his happy go lucky gait. It’s based on my research of an actual monastery in the White Sea. I imagine that as he found himself flung into a fast, falsely lit world he would be a little hungry for stars, and so he might, out of desperation, sing out to the streetlights.
 Hester collects sounds. To the neglect of everything else. That is all I will say about her now.
 The Spinnerette is the most practical of all of them and willing to be a bit cruel if necessary. I think Hester and the Monk might be able to cross the sea in a rowboat, forget to eat and be none the worse for it, but the Spinnerette doesn’t let that happen to anyone. She makes sure everyone is fed and she’s willing to bring down the unjust. And she doesn’t delegate.
 As for the aesthetics of these drawings, yes they are more specific, and there is a little less room for travel. I’ve had some trouble actually getting used to it. They are more illustrative because it’s an image turning into writing, but also there is the simple limitation of motion that has effected how I make them. I made my paintings in a studio where I had room to hang five large oil paintings, leave my paints strewn across the floor, scribble on the walls, and paint on all the paintings simultaneously. This was a very rich time for me, to have that freedom of movement and some day I will have it again. For right now I draw in my apartment, which is actually smaller than the studio I had to give up. So my drawing is limited to a small space and the movement comes mostly from my wrists. I spent many hours in stillness making those drawings this summer. In the summer! I can’t believe how much time I spent sitting still. This has never happened before.

I think I’m particularly taken by The sum of her days. And to fabulist and phantasmagoric and born of dreams I want to add symbolist. There is the whole aspect of the excitement of the art and the music happening together, there is a spectacle aspect to that, the impact of the drawing, the “Live Art” going on in sync with the “Music.” There is that whole aspect of your work but when one sees such as The sum of her days one finds an introduction to a whole other side to your creativity. I want to point out that this piece immediately reminds me of two works by Gustav Klimt, they are his Female Friends (1904-07) and the Salome (1909), and in particular the Salome. There’s real tension here between what is representational and what is abstract—and as though this could stand for the tension overall between your “Live” works and your more studied “studio” works—but more than this you manage something quite remarkable, and which you also share with the Klimts: glitter! It’s the light reflected, first of all, in her necklace, bodice, of beads. You manage that so well. When did you begin to do that? Was that taught to you? That’s quite a technical achievement. How familiar are you with the Klimts I’ve cited? “Glitter” is welcome because glitter sets off rapid eye movement, involuntary rapid eye movement, and this is pleasurable (whereas that which absorbs the light absorbs the eye and causes fatigue and to turn away). Is this a self-portrait? Is there a story behind The sum of her days? Why the alligator? Why, “alligator love”? The alligator uses submersion and stealth to approach its prey, has that anything to do with love? What’s her story?

Well, I was just looking at this drawing and it is really only pen and ink and a little pencil if you notice. There is no glitter or special technique to be found. I am familiar with the Klimt paintings and would not associate them with this drawing at all. There are colored detailed patterns certainly, but for different reasons, and this image has nothing to do with Salome or the predictable, old seductress of myth. She may be drawn with an intense stare, but she is such a predictable figment of the imagination. Like a 20 second film that only repeats forever. Actually I like some of Klimt’s study drawings better. I rather like the alligator and would rather look at the whole thing than dissect it.
 There is a story behind The Sum of Her Days, I’m sure. I doubt I’d get it right if I tried to tell you. I drew this as part of a series on Love Spells, it is true. When I began to think of things I could put in the “spells” I realized I didn’t like them at all. A “love” spell is usually a wish to make someone do something that they apparently have chosen not to do. If it worked it would be, at best, a cruel puppetry. So none of the drawings are love spells really, but gifts. The alligator is more well rounded than you give her credit for. (“Alligator love” was merely a bloggy quip, not a subtitle.)

What was your education in the arts? Do you have any formal training? When did you realize that you loved to draw? Was there encouragement for you to pursue a career in the arts? What turned you to becoming an art therapist?

I drew by myself as a kid. It was my own thing and I don’t think I ever met any artists until college. I looked at some art schools, but I wasn’t interested in showing anything. I studied education and my school started an arts program my sophomore year. The first couple years the classes were made up of a hodgepodge of students taking electives, and it was run mostly like informal drawing sessions until they hired more professors. Really it just assured that I had some non negotiable drawing time. We had painting class in an old stable by the woods and drawing class in a portable. I have fond memories of those places. Now I hear there is a sophisticated, tricked out art building and theater.
 So that’s when I first picked up oils and made terrible paintings. I learned to stretch a canvas from the Utrecht’s catalog. I’d love to take the time to develop more sensitive skills in this area, but that’s for people who don’t have to work.
 I did exhibit occasionally after school. I was living in Nebraska for a while and multicolored nudes were not welcome. Really. I did most of my painting in a dark basement with lots of field mice and wolf spiders. There may have been about ten people who ever saw them.
 I came to art therapy by accident. I had been teaching in Nebraska and I was fed up with No Child Left Behind. Both pointless and punitive. So I decided to get my doctorate and work towards making policy. I found out about art therapy while I was searching out programs of study, and it made me think of the unacknowledged power of meeting people eye to eye. So in the end I declined the programs that accepted me and moved to New York to get my MA in art therapy. While it is very creative work, those experiences are completely separate from my personal art. It might be easier to make art if I had some free flowing free lance work, but if I am going to spend so much time working I need to do something that I can truly involve myself in.

See/hear Sarah Valeri “Live” with the band Colorform Music and Live Art at their EP Release Party December 7, 8pm, Parkside Lounge, LES, NYC.

Sarah Valeri is online at

  Colorform is on Facebook.

  Thank you, Sarah Valeri.

 Copyright © 2012 Sarah Valeri & Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

E·ratio issue 16 is in production. Proofs are on the way. If you are awaiting a reply to your submission, please know that one is coming soon. E·ratio is still reading and accepting for issue 16.


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Contributing editor Joseph F. Keppler (center, smiling) is a sculptor, a poet, a theorist and essayist, a member of The Seattle Group and an astute observer of the scene in Seattle, WA. Read his essay—The Mallarmé Project: an examination of a yearlong series of art and writing in Seattle—in E·ratio 15.

See photos of his sculpture, here.