beinArt Interview with Sarah Petruziello
At one time, the space that Sanoctrah Petruziello used for creating art consisted of a nook in her apartment, but art takes up no small corner of her life. Her childhood love of drawing never wavered, and she earned a BFA in graphic design and another in drawing and painting, as well as an MFA in painting. Petruziello has nurtured the artistic impulses of others through teaching even as she has dedicated herself to her own work. On her website, she maintains a meticulous blog interweaving her drawings, photography, and musings on art in many forms. Sarah Petruziello’s drawings capture moments keenly observed, made compelling through their elements of connection and conflict, tension and flow.
Julie Winters: You’ve cited Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner as influences on your work. Are there specific pieces in which you felt their influences manifest, or is it more that having read these authors informs your way of observing the world around you?
Sarah Petruziello: I first read Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories when I was 13 years old – perhaps not the best choice for summer reading at such a tender age! From the perspective of a teenager, the bluntness of O’Connor’s writing, the twisted tales, and the warped characters made for a seductive, influential read.
I did not read O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood until I was in my twenties, and I was smitten with her brilliant command of the individuals in her stories: they haunted me because she perfectly captured the distorted perceptions of an insular and intolerant existence. Likewise, she crafted a very dark slice of the South that may seem theatrical to some, but it was all too true for me.
Faulkner’s work holds a similar attraction – particularly As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary.
As authors they both had an acuity to detail and characters that fed into my love of embellished, descriptive narrative, but most importantly, they did not shy away from the darkest elements of human nature.
JW: In your artist’s statement, you noted that in the past decade, you’ve gone from creating pieces reflecting mostly personal experience to creating pieces that reflect more universal experience. Several of your works seem to be a commentary on some aspect of womanhood, spanning the spectrum from the seemingly mundane – the use of cosmetics – to the very deepest – the fragmentation of the greater sisterhood in “Daughters of Lucy (lost, abandoned, and torn asunder).” Let’s explore each of these. What motivated “Painting My Face” and “My Vanity”?
SP: I suppose that “Painting My Face” and “My Vanity” do evoke the mundane; both works were done while my children were infants and toddlers, and I think at that point in my life I was jaded by routines. There is also a bit of play there, too – the idea for both of those works came from the irony that at one moment I am putting on makeup in the bathroom mirror and in another I am literally painting my face on paper. Both art and cosmetics have a touch of the fraudulent and contrived.
SP: The drawing “Daughters of Lucy” is based on the Australopithecus afarensis fossil skeleton that has been named Lucy. Seeing the casts of her skeleton in museums is a particularly moving experience for me—there is some connection to the greater chain of history and time, and there is just this fantastical and implausible coincidence that her skeleton is actually available for us to see today. A few years ago while in the Cleveland Natural History Museum (which, by the way, has a nearly perfect direct cast of the skeleton made shortly after Lucy was found), I just had this moment of clarity – a brief and fleeting deeper sense of awareness that comes about every now and then (an Aha-Erlebnis! moment) – and I knew that I really wanted to draw her, connect with her in a way that I only get when I study an object carefully and with great attention.
A few weeks later, listening to BBC news reports on violence against women in the Congo—the brutal rapes against entire tribes of women and female children with weaponry and the malicious intent to prevent the tribes from procreating – I had this sickening feeling of grief combined with a moment of disgust at humanity and a sense of female connection and helplessness. [It] was at that moment that Lucy came to mind: a female representation of perhaps the mother of all of us (symbolically, of course), and it was from this vision that the Lucy drawing began. The hands are of women I know – all artists – and the translations (and corrections of some of those translations) were provided by some of those women and other individuals in my local community.
Since this drawing was completed, I had the opportunity to see the actual Lucy skeleton in person, and I took my six-year-old daughter as well; she shares my fascination with evolution and natural history. As goofy as it may sound, seeing Lucy was as moving as any work of art I have seen – perhaps because of the mythos that has surrounded her since she is the star of fossilized human ancestry.
JW: Your work also reflects a connection to the natural world, whether it surrounds characters, as in “Cottonmouth and Magnolia,” or is literally part of them, as in “Root” and even more directly in “Thinning” and “Sprout.” How has this aspect of your work evolved?
SP: I have always used elements of the natural world as visual metaphors. I spent most of my childhood alone and in the woods: I am deeply attracted to nature, and it fluctuates between the realms of the spiritual (in the manner that Ralph Waldo Emerson described in Nature) and the systematic because I was the child of a scientist and this was how I was taught to perceive the world.
In “Cottonmouth and Magnolia,” the magnolias are synesthetic in that they evoke both smell and memory of a specific season and place; in “Sprout” and “Thinning” as well as “Root,” the elements of the natural world become metaphors for man’s attempt to manipulate nature.
There is not a consistent reason for my use of nature; perhaps it is that there is a transcendent truth and beauty that nature evokes. But I have noticed that these metaphors from the natural world have become more prevalent in my work as I have grown older, and because I am living in the suburbs, I miss the awareness of seasonal cycles through the movement of the stars and the related noise of wildlife.
SP: I am, and really always have been, a drawer (draftsman? Is there a correct term?). My love for drawing is primarily a sensory response to the feeling of pencil on paper.
Aside from a few tubes of gouache for a color theory course, I got through 5+ years of art school having never purchased paint; my professors were willing to let me draw in pastel during my classes. I literally stopped working in pastel and started with graphite the last two weeks I was in art school.
The two things that led to shifting my medium happened at the same time: I was losing my graduate art studio and would have to work out of my home, and I actually read the health labeling on the pastels.
And during those two weeks there was a very vivid moment when I was projecting a black and white Super8 film that I had created for a film class on my studio wall and I thought to myself, “I want to draw black and white and I want it to be that large,” so I dug out a roll of Arches that I had purchased for pastels and some graphite pencils and went to work. I found that it was a perfect medium for me as far as scale and my studio situation, and at the time, I was creating more portrait-based narratives and with sharp pencils I could get into fine detail.
Although I continue to discover the properties of pencil on paper and my drawing style seems to evolve from year to year, I have come to a point where drawing is second nature and I can effortlessly get out ideas without struggling with the medium, so I have not felt any need to change my medium of choice.
JW: In an interview you gave last year about your local art scene, you suggested that artists should have their own websites. What effect has having a web presence had on your sense of art community and audience?
SP: I was totally out of touch with my friends and other artists in the pre-Internet, postgraduate days, so I felt as though there was not an art community; I went into my studio alone and I was alone when I came out – no one saw my drawings until I had them up in local venues or galleries. By contrast, I like having my work visible to friends and other artists shortly after creation, and I like seeing what others are creating. The Internet has also introduced me to artists and subsequently [allowed me to] exhibit in places that otherwise would not have been accessible to me.
I have argued that viewing art online belittles it to a low-resolution image and not an object with which an individual can interact in space, and personally, I am not sure that everyone gets the sense of scale of my own drawings when they see these little 4- by 6-inch jpegs online. But I have to say that I really like the fact that there is no Curator of the Internet: an artist’s presence is not limited by gatekeepers such as galleries; anyone can go to an artist’s website and look at that artist’s work from nearly anywhere in the world. Copyright issues aside, I rather like the fact that the Internet allows for such access to creativity.
SP: It is not a direct interpretation of the myth, but I do reference Pandora in that drawing because I was intrigued by the idea of hope as all that remains. In spite of all the evils that poured forth into the world, there is still optimism. And children do not have such a cynical view of humanity; most are unaware of politics, nor [are they] worn down through life experience.
JW: You acknowledge having gotten your BFA in graphic design to appease your parents but have noted that you are lucky to be able to pursue your art with the support of like-minded friends and with the understanding of your husband. How does this affect what you are likely to pass on to your children about pursuing their passions?
SP: I do believe in the principle to “follow your bliss”; if you do what you love, you will love what you do and be very successful in your endeavors. It is also important to understand that success cannot be extrinsic—it must be intrinsic—and your life must accommodate a balance between work and art. Perhaps there is a bit too much enthusiasm in that outlook, but I would rather have children that are happy than ones who are driven by materialism. It is better to have a day job and createeme what you want in your spare time than to totally abandon your passions for the expectations of others.
JW: One could take the view that in “I am the Consumer,” (right) the images of the things consumed seem to flow out of the woman as well as flow out as well as in. Do you think that there’s a degree to which this piece shows that we reflect back what we take in?
SP: When creating that piece, I was thinking along the lines of personal culpability: consumerism does not exist in a vacuum. Our lives revolve around the consumption of food, air, water. Globalization has also intricately woven geopolitical events into our own lives—every product we buy from socks to diamonds has a ripple effect throughout the world and an economic, cultural, and political impact even on the tiniest scale. A specific example is the image of a Nigerian oil rig in that drawing – at the time I was thinking about how we displace the potential for a devastating environmental impact to poorer countries such as Nigeria, and we rarely consider how and where we get the oil we use. I find that image rather ironic with the current anti-drilling “not in my backyard” sentiment as a result of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
JW: In your blog is an entry entitled “Who Does She Think She Is” (title from a movie by the same name) in which you touch on the challenges of pursuing your art while also being a mother and having a teaching career, as well as the effect motherhood has had on the kinds of things you depict in your art. You wonder whether “the emotions and experiences of motherhood are an acceptable art commodity in the disproportionately male-dominated realm of galleries and museums,” and you answer that question with a resolute no. Why do you think this is?
SP: I have no absolute answer. And when I look at the statistics compiled by the Guerrilla Girls—comparisons of art auction prices as well as women represented in major museum retrospectives— it is simply maddening that little has changed over the past 40 years. I remember being incensed by the edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art that was used during my art history courses in college because some of my favorite female artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Remedios Varo, Camille Claudel, Frida Kahlo, and Suzanne Valadon were sidelined—and by sidelined, I mean not even mentioned in the edition!
I am frankly not surprised that the utter marginalization of women and the artwork that they produce still exists. American culture thrives on shallow, perfectly styled celebrity: intelligent female role models are few and far between; those that are successful run the risk of being berated for the most trivial of reasons (from hair to clothes to whether they are moved to tears in a diner during a political campaign). Contrast this against a world where millions of women are not allowed to work, drive, or even show their faces in public; there is no middle ground presented in the mass media. I do not think that the “art scene” is necessarily immune to this disparate dichotomy and as such, the social issues that many women artists may delve into (grief, childbirth, poverty, abandonment, war, basically Kathe Kollwitz’s entire body of work) are overlooked.
JW: Your blog also mentions that since becoming a mother, you don’t see your art as your “baby” particularly. Does this have an effect on your approach to a particular work or to your body of work in general? I suppose what I’m asking is whether this view affords you greater freedom to create by acknowledging a level of transiency.
SP: It is how I have come to view my art in general: for me it has become more journal-like, less precious, and yes, I think there is a level of transiency to everything. Although on a more conceptual level, I understand that art is really the only tangible thing that remains of a culture as time passes, I also think it is totally irrelevant in the universe at large. I have found that I care less and less about my art as an object and I am more interested in just moving through my thoughts and documenting on paper as I go in an obsessive kind of way.
This view is very incongruent with what is considered to be successful in the art world today. And I do not want to give the impression that I do not care about what I do (obviously I do, or I would not spend hundreds of hours a year drawing), nor do I want to give the impression that I undervalue the drawings that I create. But since I have become a mother, I am less concerned with what is considered to be successful; I find that I am totally indifferent and out of touch with the art world (I am 15 miles from New York and I have never been to the Whitney Biennial, nor the Whitney for that matter, nor any art fair), I do not go to art galleries (unless I have a friend exhibiting work), and there is a total freedom in personal creativity when that whole scene just doesn’t matter. This does not mean that I do not share what I create online or exhibit my finished drawings locally; I just don’t mind if the major galleries or critics never look my way. Regardless, I will still make drawings.
JW: What is it that you hope viewers will carry away from your work?
SP: Hopefully they stop and look at the pieces; I have watched people walk by “I am the Consumer” in an art gallery without even glancing at it, which I find totally fascinating, particularly since it has shiny crystals stitched on the surface and some rather graphic imagery. Frankly, I would rather have a negative reaction than see people who do not look at the art on the walls. I just do not understand people who do not look at art, read books, or listen to music.
JW: Is there anything you can share about works in progress or shows you’re involved in?
SP: For the past few years, aside from exhibiting in local shows for which curators have requested work, I have focused primarily on drawing. I am in a constant progression of drawings; there is no set agenda or plan and I just continue to work on what motivates me at the moment.
My peripheral work in progress is the “Strange Tales from My Little Black Book” series, which is a selection of my sketchbook drawings that have been resolved into more finished, albeit tiny, pieces. This series came about because I have a lot more sketches than I have time to develop into large-scale drawings. Working in my sketchbook has been inspiring because the drawings are rendered without references in a highly illustrative style from stream-of-consciousness imagery. And honestly, they are fun to draw.