"Bearing Your Best Beast": An Interview with Artist Sarah Walko
The featured image for our July issue comes from Sarah Walko, an artist, director, curator, and writer who works in sculpture, installation, and film. Her work is striking in the worlds it creates. Here, she discusses her influences, her process, and the relationship between writing and art.
1. What drew you to Split Lip? How does your feature image work with that?
I was drawn to Split Lip because I loved how in the description you stated you were looking for stories that sting and voices that carry, work that risks, is out-there, experimental. I've always had a hard time fitting into any one category because of the way that I work, and I'm also always attracted to writers and artists like this. A big influence on me is the writer Anne Carson, for example. I was floored when I first discovered her -- moving so fluidly between prose and poetry and nonfiction, and her command of language and history and knowledge of Greek, Latin and etymology. Her work is undefinable but with so much soul and an original voice. I read the George Saunders quote recently: "We apply certain kinds of pressure to you, under which you are forced to flee to your highest ground...but hopefully, under that pressure, you leave behind all of the false You's - the imitative You, the too-clever You, the avoiding You, - and settle into that beast, Real You...Real You is all you have, and all other paths are false. And in the best case, Real You is so happy to finally be recognized, it rewards you with Originality." I think this is so great and true -- because being truly original in your work requires not only a deep sense and command of your voice but one that has gotten kind of beat up along the long road of listening and searching and being found -- not for the faint of heart. It eventually means bearing your BEST beast and it's probably going to be weird and risky. So I love publications that lean more towards this than pretty and polished. It is work that can be truly felt, work that is lived, not describing lived.
I guess my feature image fits with that because there are flowers and offerings but on burnt charred wood, that had a whole life of its own before I added a vintage matchbook and finally -- a little bling. It's that mix of learned, a little scarred and still sparkling that I am drawn to. And matches in my work -- which I use a lot -- always offer potential light, or even explosion. I like that tension -- light a candle to read by or touch the flame. I realized recently that some of my influences are mystics: Walt Whitman, Hadewijich II, Thomas Merton, Saint Augustine, and many more. I recently read a beautiful description that was along the lines of how all mystics have a fire that burns with radical curiosity for continuously deepening levels of being and this comes directly off the pages or images in their work. I love any work that exists in that realm of intense aliveness.
I'm so influenced by writers but I also love the book as object and use it in many ways in my work. When I cut pages up, it creates new surprising texts and leaves the viewer with a lot of gaps. The gaps in language are just as important as the words -- placeholders for each viewer to insert their own story or have their own individual experience. I kind of feel like when I'm in the studio I just hear instructions on what things to put together, to put side by side and help usher into the world and then release it to live its own life, having its own affect or resonance with other people that has nothing to do with me. The work belongs to the world. So I think about creating space for the viewer -- I actually have to to keep it balanced because of the very nature of the way I work with so many materials and objects -- it can overpopulate quickly and be suffocating, so I'm very conscious of it. The book in the glass orchestras series and the treasure box was a book on philosophy. I'm always really interested in hearing and reading about other people's questions and answers (more so the questions though) about the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence and how they apply or don't apply that to their life. Cut up philosophy books create a lot more openings in an already expansive conversation, so it's interesting to explore. Lots and lots of doorways.
3. What is the intersection of art and writing like for you?
I had a big breakthrough in my work years and years ago when I stopped keeping my writing and my visual art separate. For me, they are each like one half of a sentence and the sentence is not complete and no one can read or understand the story unless they are both present, holding each other up, creating tension between revealing and mystery. So -- it's a very symbiotic relationship. As soon as I understood I could put a word on a wall and then an object -- say, a camel bone or a piece of moss or an old watch hand -- and then another word and so on and then step back and present it to other people and it resonated -- they could read the sentence that way too -- I finally found how I could work. I am working on several book projects and I do present some visual work by itself, so I still do them both separately on a project basis, but it's the relationship of them together which paints a much bigger picture of the constant broader themes present in my work.
All photos appear courtesy of Sarah Walko. To learn more about Sarah's work, visit sarahwalko.com.