About the Author

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Interview with the Artist: Sassa Wilkes

Above Sassa Wilkes appears with two of her paintings
Photo Credit: Toril Lavendar

Sassa Wilkes is a 37-year-old artist, mother, and teacher living and working in her home state of West Virginia. She consistently shows her personal work in galleries, as well as working as a commissioned sculptor and painter in her home studio. 

Sassa is also active in her community as Vice President of the non-profit Barboursville Arts & Wellness Council and Program Director and teacher of its Gallery and Community Studio, /Māk/ Art. 

She is currently publishing a serial art novel called Qualia in weekly chapters leading up to an April 6, 2019 exhibition at Steptoe & Johnson in downtown Huntington. Her writing and other works can be found at www.iamsassa.com

August 20, 2018
Interview by Andrea Fekete

ANDREA: I remember the first time I saw your name online, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce it until we finally met at your studio where you teach and create, in Barboursville, West Virginia. Your name is so striking and unique. For our readers who’ve not yet met you, can you tell us how to pronounce this beautiful name?

SASSA: Just exactly the way it’s pronounced in “Sassafrass.” Also, my mom thinks it’s funny to call me a "Sass-hole." That might be easier to remember.

ANDREA: What did your family and place of origin look like, if you don’t mind sharing. Many artists credit their upbringing and family (or lack of) as a big influence on their work. Is this true for you? In what way?

SASSA: Definitely true for me. I grew up in a pretty quiet little neighborhood called Williamsburg Colony, which is just a few minutes outside Barboursville. 

It used to be farmland, and when my sisters and I lived there we called it “the end of the world” because there’s only one way out unless you want to take the river. Almost every house on the street I lived on had kids around my age, and we grew up playing in the woods and making things

I lived with my dad, mom, and two sisters, and was gifted with another sister shortly before being old enough to move out. My parents and sisters are all very intelligent, creative people in their own ways, but I was mostly influenced artistically by my mother and grandmother. 

Neither were career artists, but both are insanely creative and applied it to everything- drawing, gardening, cooking, quilting. They both made everything around them more beautiful.

ANDREA: Tell us about Sassa. Where have you been and where are you now in your career as an artist?

SASSA: I feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives already as an artist. I have an educational background as a sculptor and art educator. I worked in a steel shop constructing a sculpture for the riverfront for a couple years. Taught fine art at Cabell Midland High School and “retired” a bit early after three years, as well as teaching studio art and art education here and there at Marshall University.

I’m also Program Director of /Māk/ Art Gallery & Community Studio, and I teach a few classes there and run the local Art Walk. My work in the gallery is very part time, and much of it is volunteer work that I’m fortunate and happy to be able to do. 

The majority of my time is spent painting, sculpting, and lately learning to sing and writing a serial novel. I’ve finally learned to embrace the fact that I will never be able to settle on one medium. I try to consistently show my work, and sales and commissions have been good enough to keep me doing it.

ANDREA: What is the role of MAK in the community? What projects and activities are currently happening or offered there?

SASSA: /Māk/ was started through the Barboursville Arts & Wellness Council, which I’m now Vice President of. We are a small, young non-profit with very little funding as of now, but we all have our hearts in it. The Council is responsible for the Community Gardens in Barboursville, as well as wellness programs in schools, and we have a really impressive Youth Council that has been receiving recognition for their work too.

I teach drawing and painting classes here and there and started an Art Walk in town last year that is going well. It’s the last Thursday of each month, except the super cold ones, and pairs local artists with businesses who host a show for them for the evening. 

We usually host a poetry reading or other literary event in the gallery afterward, and have been partnering with Alchemy Theatre Troupe and local musicians to host mini performances in different locations during the walk.

I’ve also been working with teachers of other forms of art to set up classes in the space. I’d really like for it to become a true community studio that can help incubate and share creative ideas of all types. We are just wrapping up a fiction writing course by local author Sheila Redling, which I am thrilled to be a student in. 

In October, Alchemy will be using the space for their production of Love, Loss, and What I Wore. I’m really excited to see what else we can do with it.

ANDREA: How did you begin your career as a visual artist? What was the first thing you remember creating in your life? Do you remember when you decided art was the direction for you?

SASSA: I’m sure the first thing I created was some hot mess of cardboard and duct tape. I was always making some strange structure when I was young, and though I didn’t see it as art then, I do now. I think art was always the direction for me, and I don’t really think it was a choice, though I do remember one period where I had to choose a path educationally and chose art. 

I was returning to college as a 28-year-old mother of a young child, and felt a lot of pressure to get it right and be able to provide for my son. I was torn between art and nursing and it was such a dilemma for me. Do what I love, or do what would guarantee me a job with decent pay.

Not only did I choose the scarier, less-guaranteed art path, but I majored in sculpture, an area that only had ten majors at the time. Right after graduating, that voice of fear and rationality re-emerged, and I immediately enrolled in a Masters program in art education so that I could pursue steady employment.  

I filled in after that for the Art Education professor at Marshall for a year, then taught at the high school for three years. I learned so much during that time that I don’t regret a minute of it, even though it wasn’t ultimately for me as a career path.

ANDREA: According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, women are paid less than male artists, three of the top museums in the world have never had female directors. Work by women artists makes up only 3–5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, and 34% in Australian state museums. Of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007–2013, only 27% were devoted to women artists. 

So, women are woefully underrepresented in the visual arts, just like in literature, film, and music. Do you have thoughts about these disparities? Their origin? Their future? And most importantly, the role, if any, they play in the career of emerging women artists?

SASSA: I first looked into statistics like these while teaching in public school - I did a lot of social justice projects with students. Together we learned a lot about the work of the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists who are really good at bringing discrimination like this into the public eye. I had this image on my classroom door:

I remember feeling shocked by the numbers. I obviously knew sexism was alive and well in the world, but I think I was just naïve in thinking that art was a unique, open-minded field that wouldn’t suffer from the same issues. When I really got into figure drawing and painting, and began looking at contemporary artists in this category, I did notice that the huge majority of them were male. 

And I often felt torn as I admired their work. I’d love their palette choice and style, for example, but find the presentation of their female subject matter to be, I don’t know, icky. Like it didn’t feel to me to be honoring the subject as a complex human being, but had more of a “male gaze” thing to it. 

I think beauty can be appreciated and depicted in a ton of ways, but when a narrow depiction that feels a little like objectification is the norm, that’s upsetting to me.

I think the origin is like anything else, the same reasons sexism exists in any part of our world. I am hopeful for change, because I know that groups like the Guerilla Girls have done a lot to improve those statistics in recent years. 

There’s a part of me that feels angry that it has to come to women in gorilla masks taking time out of their studios to point out to the world that they’re here and hold museums accountable for underrepresenting female artists, but I mostly feel positive about it for the future and am truly thankful for what they’re doing.

Personally, I feel fortunate to not really have many instances of feeling discriminated against as an artist in that way. I am and have always been very aware of sexism, and have experienced it myself in a lot of ways. 

Below: Painting by Sassa Wilkes

"I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some arbitrary thing like gender decide for me what I can and can’t do with my life." 

I’m naturally drawn to a lot of things that are more often socially sanctioned “for men." I chose a male-dominated field in art school and was the only female welding in a steel shop full of men. I ride a motorcycle. I love construction, woodworking, and fixing things. 

It’s not that I’ve never felt uncomfortable or aware of the reality of those stereotypes, but my response to my own discomfort seems to be to run towards it and bring it all out into the light no matter how much it might make me squirm at first. And I think in some ways that if women go in full force and make no apologies for being there, people can adapt.

That’s not to say that I think women who do feel held back as artists due to gender just need to adjust their attitude or something. There’s not one easy fix for something rooted that deeply, but it is a place to start and is one thing that we do have control over now. 

I just feel lucky that the right  circumstances fell into place for me to feel comfortable challenging those ideals so that I can do what I want to do, and I’d definitely encourage other women artists to challenge them as well. 

Make no apologies and show up wherever you want to be. Place yourself there and know that you have a right to be there and assume that others will respect you for the good work you do, whether that is welding or embroidery or museum curation. If that all fails, then reassess and assemble some troops. 

But try that first, always, because it is true. It is really important to hold people and institutions accountable for gender discrimination, but I think its also important to make sure you’re not letting your expectations of being discriminated against keep you from going for what you really want.

ANDREA: Do you ever respond or react to these gender disparities in your work or in your teaching?

SASSA: I have made a point as a teacher, especially with young students, to talk about it and emphasize it in our work. I’ve always encouraged students to respond to their personal experiences in their own work, and I really enjoy using art as a vehicle for discussions like this with young men and women. I don’t see it as completely one-sided. 

It’s different for men, obviously, but issues like this affect everyone negatively. I’ve always tried to present it in a neutral way and then sit back and listen, or wait to see the responses in student artwork. Honestly, the attitudes of high-school-aged kids on subjects like these made me very hopeful for our future.

As of very recently, I am West Virginia’s Regional Coordinator for the Feminist Art Project. I’m excited to find ways to incorporate issues like this into the work I’m doing at /Māk/.

ANDREA: Do you believe these inequalities in the art world are felt by women artists in small towns or small cities like Huntington, WV?

SASSA: I think any inequality felt in the art world is felt by every artist, regardless of location or gender. The world is so much smaller than it used to be. I am inspired daily by artists I’ve never met all over the world.  When artists are underrepresented due to their gender, everyone is missing out on their influence.

ANDREA: What’s most surprising or beneficial as a working artist in a small college town and/or what about it is most difficult or challenging?

SASSA: I mostly see benefit to being a working artist in a place where that is less common. I really enjoy the opportunity to introduce people to art in ways they may not have ever experienced it, and I have a lot of opportunities here to do that.  

Most of the time I’d much rather have a conversation about art with a non-artist, or someone who would consider themselves “unqualified." I usually end up hearing a much different, more interesting perspective.

A lack of spaces dedicated to showing work could be seen as a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. The businesses I’ve worked with for Art Walk have been wonderfully accommodating and eager, and my next solo show is in a law firm full of some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Neat people with blank walls are everywhere, you just have to look for them.

ANDREA: Do you believe your chances of success as an artist, both financially and critically, are impacted at all by your gender? The Appalachian region? Can you speak to this?

SASSA: Personally, no. My definition of success may differ from others, but I think I am the only person who can limit my chances at it. If I decide someday that my success is defined by whether or not I’m selling out a show in New York, I might feel differently, but I doubt it. For now I’d be thrilled selling a show out here in a non-traditional location full of interesting people, then going back home to an affordable place in the mountains. 

I’m sure some artists would disagree with my standards of success, and they are welcome to do that. I’ll be painting and writing and landscaping and hanging out with my family and my dog while they do. It’s all relative.

ANDREA: What artist or works to you recall falling in love with early in life? Who are biggest influences artistically now?

SASSA: I don’t recall falling in love with any artists early in life. I have always loved making things and drawing, and when I was younger I think I identified as an “artist” because it was the direction I felt pulled in. I had so much creative inspiration from my mom, but didn’t know of any working artists and didn’t grow up with the internet to introduce me to contemporary artists. So I guess I was just playing the part, trying to find my identity. 

I remember saying Mark Rothko was my favorite painter when I was young. I didn’t know shit about him, I just saw him in an art history book and thought it would be cool to like him. Now I find his work and life quite moving, so maybe I was predicting the future. I think when I was young I was pretending to be who I really am now.

The first artist I think I truly fell in love with was Kiki Smith. I loved her use of tons of different mediums, and the way she spoke about her work. Jenny Saville was a painter who always influenced me as well. Now I am constantly influenced now by contemporary artists. 

I keep a revolving list of my favorites and look at new work every day. I can’t get enough of it and have been known to stalk them via email until they respond. I’m currently obsessed with Daniel Sprick, who may be my favorite painter ever. 

I love the subtly surreal quality of his work, and I really love listening to his thoughts about it. I’ve listened to his documentaries so often while I work that I can quote them. Daniel, if you’re reading this, holla back.

ANDREA: I’m intrigued by your work that uses your own image. You create lots of self-portraits, both in paint and photography. Why self- portrait? What can you accomplish using self-portrait that you cannot in the same way using other models or means?

SASSA: I think art in its simplest terms is always a self-expression, so it feels natural to use my own image. My current work is very closely related to my personal life, and reflects changes that I am purposefully making within myself. Sometimes in those cases it doesn’t feel right to use an image of someone else. 

Most of the time, though, I have depicted myself out of convenience or necessity. I’ve always favored working with portraiture and the figure, and I’m the only one who is always available and willing. There is a very big difference in the way I look at myself in the mirror when I am observing for a drawing vs. when I’m getting ready to go somewhere or looking for any other reason. 

I have spent so long training my eye and mind to ignore everything but the shapes I see when I draw from life that it really doesn’t feel like I’m even looking at myself. I might as well be looking at a vase.

ANDREA: Who or what informs your work the most? Real life? Fantasy? An intersection of both? If yes, how do these interact and manifest?

SASSA: I think both, and they occasionally interact in pretty literal ways. I had one show called Before I Wake that was based on dreams and nightmares I have had, many of which were during episodes of sleep paralysis, which is something that I’ve experienced a handful of times in my life. It has always produced the most vivid, memorable dreams. 

In those cases, I was depicting ideas that I actually hallucinated while technically awake. It is a terrifying but incredibly interesting phenomenon. Otherwise, I have an extremely active imagination and am definitely putting it to good artistic use with my current work. I think it always at least starts growing from a seed of reality, though.

ANDREA: There is a focus on lights and glow in your exhibit Qualia. I LOVE it. It’s unlike anything I’ve personally seen. What’s behind this? You call it experimental sculpture. What makes it experimental, specifically?

SASSA: Thank you In my recent work, the light is definitely symbolic for a lot of things I’m not quite ready to share. I call it experimental because some of what I’m doing is definitely not the result of years of practicing a craft that I’ve perfected down to a step by step process. 

"It is literally me in my basement, allowing myself to act on playful impulses just to see what happens. Like, I wonder what interesting shadows might happen if I wrapped a person in LED tape."

Light and shadow are not innovative muses for a painter, but they are the most interesting physical quality to me in any representational art, especially in figure and portrait work. I think it is just my personality to push things as far as I can, so I’m testing the boundaries maybe. If I could light someone from the inside just to see what it would look like, I would….hmm.

ANDREA: Below is the image you use to advertise your upcoming show in Huntington, WV. Can you tell us about this engaging piece? Why is it used in the ad as opposed to another?

SASSA: The work I’m doing now is about finding the light. That can mean a lot of different things to different people, and it shows up in a lot of ways in my story and artwork. I think that’s all I feel ready to say about that at the moment 

ANDREA: Do you create every single day? Why? What’s its value? Drawbacks?

SASSA: I do, in one way or another. If I’m not painting, drawing, or writing, I am probably building some strange structure in my back yard or practicing some kind of music. I can’t help it. The value of a daily practice of a specific type (like a small daily painting) would be the increase in skill. 

Working often and quickly seems to be the best way to get better at anything for me. The drawback for me might be that I am interested in so many things that sometimes it is hard to prioritize and I can be easily distracted. 

But I’ve learned ways to deal with that, like making sure I create deadlines for myself that I know I won’t miss. The value of creating something every day in general is my life. I can’t imagine living otherwise.

ANDREA: I know you strive to work constantly. Do you find inspiration daily? If so, where or how? Is it “found” or can it be sought?

SASSA: I am inspired by everything and everyone I come in contact with in some way. There’s a definite myth, especially among newer students, that you have to have a good idea before you start. No you don’t, and you won’t get one if you sit around waiting to be struck by it. 

"If I’m feeling uninspired, it is very quickly remedied by doing something creative anyway. You have to show up."

ANDREA: What do you do with a piece that isn’t working? Is there a point in which you abandon the project? Is there even as such thing as “not working”?

SASSA: There are lots of things that don’t work, maybe even the majority of ideas the first time around. As I’ve gained years of practice it happens less and less but it is still pretty common. I’ve become a much more patient artist in the past couple years, and I usually work these problems out in the planning stages. 

I have many, many notebooks full of ideas that have never come to pass because they just weren’t working. It’s pretty cool how some ideas can resurface much later and work perfectly. Sometimes the issue isn’t an aesthetic one…sometimes it’s timing.

ANDREA: Does a “sense of place” inform your work at all? The descriptor “Appalachian” is really hot right now in visual art, literature, music. It’s everywhere. Do you own this label? Why or why not? What are your thoughts about this trend?

SASSA: I have never described myself as an Appalachian artist, though some of the places I spent time in and family 

I grew up with are as “Appalachian” as it gets. It’s not a term I don’t like or would resist, but I’ve never used it. It would maybe feel unnecessary for me to say, in the way that it would never occur to me to call myself a female artist. I think every experience I have ever had informs my work so I don’t know that I would even know to highlight place as something more.

I haven’t thought much about the term, though I have noticed people referencing it lately, and the popularity of depicting it in labels, t-shirts, etc. In general, my impression of that is that it seems to be a positive thing from what I can tell, though I honestly haven’t looked into it enough to really have an opinion. 

It is an interesting topic though. I’d love to hear what others think. I guess I might only feel the need to reference that in a larger context. Maybe I live in a bubble.

ANDREA: What was your last exhibit like in comparison to your upcoming?

SASSA: It was a comparative snooze festival. I am thrilled with how that body of work turned out, but my show in April is going to be bananas. I’m letting myself explore all kinds of new exciting things: projected sculptural animation, touch sensor activated works, immersive video installations, and performance, as well as interesting new approaches at more traditional painting. I’m so excited.

ANDREA: If your wildest, most sought for dreams came true as an artist, what would that look like?

SASSA: I think it would look a lot like what I’m doing right now. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

ANDREA: How do you know when a piece is finished? Does a piece ever feel “finished”?

SASSA: I usually know when it was finished by looking back through the progress photos I took along the way. More often than not, it was finished several steps before I called it done. Knowing when to quite is something I’m always working on. I don’t remember who said it, but I heard someone say that it’s done when it’s 75% done. That’s probably pretty good advice.

ANDREA: As a novelist, I believe the story will tell itself to me, as if it has a life of its own. Is there a sense of your visual art speaking to you at all in that way? If so, how do you listen?

SASSA: Absolutely. Ideally, I am working with a very open-minded attitude and can pick up on unexpected shifts while I’m working that can spark new ideas. These can be really drastic, where a project takes on a completely new life, or super subtle. 

Even when painting a commissioned portrait that I know more or less what the basic outcome will be, when I’m paying attention I am surprised by little things like color mixing or mark making. I’ll notice something happen and let myself explore it awhile on purpose, and hopefully keep reigned in enough to finish it strongly either way. It’s really hard to “listen” to that when I’m stressed or over tired, or hungry. It’s good to be in a really healthy, calm state while I work.

ANDREA: Do you sometimes strongly dislike your own work? If so, what have you done or do you usually do with these pieces?

SASSA: Not really. When I’m dissatisfied with a piece it is not really about the work; I’m usually disappointed in myself for not working in the best way I know how. I’m practiced enough now to know that I can make things that are pretty good and will accurately convey an idea I have as long as I am patient and work in the right way. 

It took me a very, very long time to get there. I don’t like to waste time, so as painful a process as it has been for me, I have forced myself to become more disciplined about how I work from the start so I’m not spinning my wheels to only end up with something that isn’t right. 

If it’s not working, I take a break and do whatever I need to do to refocus before I come back, and then I can fix it. I am a very scattered, messy person by nature. When I first started painting it was a horrible struggling mess and I wasn’t sure what the outcome of any given session would be. I would just hope it was a good one. 

I think I’ve matured a lot in my process, though it is a constant work-in- progress. I’m cleaner and more organized, and I take the time to properly plan things. Relative to the amount of time I’ve been making art altogether, these are really new habits that have increased the level of my work enormously. I’m dedicated to improving my work habits even more, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to see what I’m making in a year.

Also, I don’t think I ever really “like” or love my own work, either. I don’t know if it is really possible to be affected that way by your own artwork; It’s more that I’m proud of myself for the successful execution of it. I think once I’m done with it it isn’t really about me anymore, but I do feel very genuinely happy when other people connect with it.

ANDREA: How do your larger exhibits come together? Accidental or planned? Do you create lots of pieces and wind up realizing you have enough for an exhibit or start out with an idea for an exhibit and work from there?

SASSA: I usually start with the exhibit date, because I need a deadline. I work very well once that is in place, and can organize my ideas into cohesive pieces and pace myself. Without a deadline, I’d be likely to get so absorbed in some random thing like building an outdoor movie theater that I’d look up ten months later and realize I haven’t made any money in awhile 

ANDREA: Do you believe art can be an act of resistance or protest? How?

SASSA: It feels to me like art in itself is an inherent act of resistance. It doesn’t make a lot of biological sense to train yourself to look at something hard enough to be able to accurately draw it, or to make up songs, or write a play. 
Sculpture by Sassa Wilkes

"I think creative people are actively resisting our position as animals who temporarily exist on a planet that is constantly recycling life. We want to feel something. We want to make something bigger than us.

In a more literal sense, I think because of its capacity to evoke strong emotion, art is the most effective form of protest.

ANDREA: I saw this image above and I really want to know more.  What’s going on in this photo?

SASSA: That is my son and I at a solo show I had at the Esther Allen Greer Museum. We were being ridiculous and pretending to make a very moody statement and take ourselves too seriously 

ANDREA: You’ve been posting writing lately. You post a chapter every week to an ongoing story. Tell us what you’re working on now and where we can read?

SASSA: I’m publishing a new chapter of a novel called Qualia every Sunday morning at 6 am. It can be found at www.iamsassa.com/qualia. I’m only three chapters in and it is already changing and taking turns I didn’t expect, so I am really excited to see where it ends up. 

It is a science fiction story, and is extremely symbolic of things in my life. I’m challenging myself with it in so many ways, one of which is that I am writing it as I go, so every new chapter didn’t exist until a week before its release. It is the ultimate deadline for me.

The prologue was written by the main character on April 6, 2038 (I will be 38 on April 6, the day of the show opening, which coincides with the release of the 38th chapter) and is a look back at the past 243 days, at the beginning of which she buries her nine year old son in the woods. 

Obviously, it is mostly metaphorical. I plan to publish it as an e-book, but it will probably never be printed due to having so much interactive content. It has music, images, and soon video embedded. I really want it to feel immersive, and the show opening will add so much for people who have been following along. 

You definitely do not have to have read the story to appreciate the opening as a standalone thing, but there will be really cool surprises there for people who have read it.

ANDREA: Online, you described this piece (above) as sculptural experimentation. It’s beautiful. What are we seeing here and how does this piece play into your upcoming show Qualia?

SASSA: This is a box I built out of mirrors and a series of LED lights. The gesture relates to an upcoming sculpture idea. I use photos as a way of sketching my ideas, so this one is similar to me jotting down a note. It’s me saying, remember what this looks like. I like this.

ANDREA: I love this image (above) so much for the colors, the expression, the possible symbolism. This is a photograph of yourself but what other mediums? Tell us about this.

SASSA: Similar to the box, this is a kind of sketch. I was wondering what it would look like for an image to appear as a kind of kaleidoscope, so I took the picture and used an app to duplicate it. It is just manipulated digital photography, but I really love the shape that happened in the center. I think a composition like this might make a neat painting, though I don’t know that it would be of me.

Photo Credit: Sassa Wilkes 

"I was mostly influenced artistically by my mother and grandmother. Neither were career artists, but both are insanely creative [...] drawing, gardening, cooking, quilting. They both made everything around them more beautiful."

ANDREA:What comes next for Sassa Wilkes the artist? The person? What can we expect next? And how can we best keep up with your work?

SASSA: Lord, who knows. I never would have guessed in a million years that I’d be tinkering with lights and touch sensors, or learning operatic singing. Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m excited to find out. You can always keep up with me by checking my website, www.iamsassa.com.

Photo Credit: Sassa Wilkes