As fans of Sarah Letteney's work, we jumped at the chance to take a peek into her studio and pick her brain (not literally, as her art suggests) about her drawings, her studio life and, well, all that blood.
When did you start making art?
Publicly, pretty recently. I definitely wasn't the kid who jumped up and declared "visual artist!" when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. And even as a teenager, art school wasn't really something that I considered. I studied psychology, and worked as a counselor for years. Most of the drawing and painting I did was an outlet for getting to know myself and was kept private in my journals until, oh I don't know, maybe five years ago? I took a community print making class and became more comfortable with sharing what I was making and really, what I was experiencing emotionally. People responded (usually with uncomfortable laughter!), and when I started hearing "Oh yeah, I totally know that feeling," or "This speaks to me," about things I drew when I was struggling, or heartbroken, or trying to find a way to laugh out those feelings, I remember getting super charged. Like, Oh my god, this is such a cool tool for communicating, and all of a sudden, I don't feel unheard or alone. And maybe that feeling is mutual. That intimate connection you share when someone experiences something you've created and has a reaction, any reaction, is what has fueled me to keep sharing what I'm making.
What is a typical day like at your studio?
Geez, it's pretty wonderful. My studio is in the South End, in The Hive Studios, with eight other really talented artists. We all work with different mediums, but each one of us is just so ecstatic to be there together, creating on our own, or bouncing ideas off one another. Or brainstorming together. It's so cool, and just a straight up beautiful space. As far as what a day at my desk, or sometimes underneath the desk for a change of scenery, looks like, it's always different, and I love that. Definitely sketching and inking, sometimes screen printing, and most recently I have been devoting extra time to seeking out collaborators or companies that are a good match with my illustration style. Trying to get my work out there, and have it be seen is a big goal right now. Well, that, and making what I love doing in the studio fit seamlessly with what I love doing outside of it. If I can create later in the day so I get a hike in on a sunny morning, I feel like I'm living the dream. And a few weeks ago, I got to paint all over the Pitchfork Farm delivery bus, which meant my "studio" for a couple days was on a ladder, in the sun, down at the Intervale. I mean, come on! I could get used to that!
What was it like going big with the Pitchfork Farm truck? Has that opened up your interest to scale?
Oh my goodness, yes, it was so much fun! I get giddy just thinking about it. I had never drawn or painted anything larger than probably 11"x17" before, so when Eric, Rob and I started the conversation about painting the bus, it totally felt like I had a crush. I was definitely a little nervous, but in that really excited way when you're learning about something new. Having a crush might be the best feeling ever, right?! I think that's why I'm wanting to move in the direction of more freelance, editorial illustration work. The turnover is quick, and the subject is always changing so it keeps things exciting and interesting, and that manic energy of deadlines definitely fuels me in the studio. But yes, painting large scale was the best new challenge and it's been added to my list of summer to-do's. "Paint everything!" So, anyone have a wall for me?!
Tell us about the blood.
Oh, the blood! Very alive in my illustrations, especially the series I did for Art Hop last fall, "A is for Accident," where each letter stood for a potential bloody mess. A is for Avocado; B is for Bicycle, G is for Garbage Disposal (my personal favorite). Well, fun fact: In real life, I can't handle that kind of bloody accident scene. My knees go weak and I'm not much of a help if you were to say, oh, stab an oyster shucker through your palm (true story: O is for Oyster)! So really all of the bloodiness, for me, is an attempt to laugh away the anxieties of life's constant, taunting "What ifs." But last year, my grandmother passed away, making my biggest "What if" a reality, and it's been really neat to see my art evolve with me through this loss. I'm just going with the flow here as blood has taken the backseat the past few months and other characters and colors step in to express new growth and hurdles. It's kind of fun to see change in my life show up on paper in that way. And it creates excitement to think, What's next?!
Who or what was your biggest inspiration early on?
Looking back on the art and authors my parents introduced to us as kids, I can definitely see where I pulled inspiration from. We had art on the walls from my grandfather, Johnny, who also used mostly black ink to illustrate, and we read a lot of Shel Silverstein and Brian Andreas as a family. I can see their playfulness with human emotions and simple line drawings in my own work. I had a bit of an addiction to scary books growing up, so Stephen Gammell, who illustrated the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, played a huge role in shaping the horror-driven part of my imagination, and I still just love his work.
What is it about Vermont that keeps you coming back?
I definitely asked myself that question a month ago when it was May and still snowing! But really, I just can't seem to stay away for very long, despite the never ending winters. Any time I've found myself living on the west coast again, my mom sweetly reminds me that years ago I said, "I'm just the best version of myself in Vermont," and it is absolutely true. It's the amazingly creative and supportive community we have here. It's just in a league of its own. I am constantly inspired by and in awe of all the driven folks in Vermont who are growing their businesses and creating and collaborating. And I do love that some days it feels like an episode of Cheers and walking around town is all "Hi! Hey! Hello!" The people and the land of Vermont are magic, and it will always be my number one.