Artist In Solitude: Sarah Graves

One of the greatest luxuries an artist can have is time. A day in which there are no tasks to be completed, no one to see and nowhere to be. While some struggle with solitude, I find inspiration in isolation. There are hours that seem like days spent chasing ghosts, reflecting, pushing, pulling, stretching and trying not to tear.  Teetering between tenses; past, present, future.  Feeling raw, vulnerable with no distractions except the ones you allow yourself.

I was in a race with the sun on my drive out to the coast, in a rush to arrive and get settled. The lights were on upon arrival and for a moment I thought that someone may be inside. I stood inside the threshold for a few moments and waited before entering fully. The stillness of the air and the sound of nothing., I felt no one’s presence in the house. I was alone at last. I unloaded all of my things in the downstairs area. Afraid to spread out too quickly, I stuck to the main floor the first night.

As I settled in for the evening I tried not to think about the time and space that I’d been given. It was a weight that I couldn’t acknowledge, it meant I had to perform. I’d written down some goals before coming out to the house and already I felt the lightness of being removed from my daily responsibilities. The house seemed so large and it fully encompassed me and made me feel safe. I finally fell asleep about 1:30am.

I woke to the loud sound of a train, it sounded like it was across the street- because it actually is across the street. Stubbornly, I tried to ignore it, but the sound returned minutes later and I decided that it was time to get to work. The weight of expectation turned to excitement- there was so much to do today. Where do I start? I swore I saw a shadow of someone walk by the window but when I leapt out of bed I discovered only a vacant field.

The house felt so big and empty filled with space and time. I find myself wanting to fill it, fill it up with myself. Spread myself out into all of its crevices. Assured of no influences I feel safe as though I can be the truest version of myself without judgement. The house stands tall and holds me and I want to fully inhabit it. I want to press into its walls and against its windows and know it. Within these walls I can contain my secrets and creations and anything can happen. I’ve always liked being alone, I felt relief and comfort in the quiet.

I absorb things around me, sometimes too much and sometimes I have trouble holding onto my own self. I take on the feelings, thoughts, influences of those around me and I constantly have to keep them from becoming a part of me or attaching to me in some way. Being in solitude helps restore, it allows me to build back up my energy and my thoughts, my sense of self. It makes me strong again so that I can give of myself again. I can feel myself starting to fill up inside to expand into the space around me, to fill the expanse of the entire house until it can’t contain me.

I spent the day working on a new project called the Inquisition series which meant really that I spent the rest of the day researching the 12 plagues of Egypt. In my childhood I remember so vividly being influenced by the imagery in biblical stories. I embellished on them in my minds’ eye, being scared into obedience at the age of seven or so. The first plague is the water into blood in the Nile River- killing all of the fish. I had an idea to use the bath tub at the house to recreate some type of faux bloody scene.

Maybe it was all the creepy imagery but I slept horribly and the next day, I woke up with vertigo, not knowing what day it was, or what time or even where I was or what I was doing here. As I drank my morning coffee and started my day I recognized the feeling as blockage. Creative blockage-  thoughts were not flowing through me. I was trying too hard to control the final product that I wasn’t allowing for the process to take the course it needed to.  I had to let go, I had to stop trying so hard to control this first image of the series. Do I use dead fish? I had some ideas of how to make the water look like blood in black and white. It just didn’t feel right, though -  it was a very forced image, too set up for my taste.

I wanted to be comforted by something familiar so I organized some of my older negatives, old friends. As I sat and drank coffee I remembered that I had brought a ton of books with me so I did some inspirational reading for an hour or so. I felt better. I decided it was time to go for a walk and pick up some clams to make clam chowder later for dinner. A change of scenery might do me good.

An idea came to me while making dinner that evening - I’d try using the clam shells from the clam chowder down at the beach to create a more natural bloody water image. I started to think about the next plagues: swarms of locusts, frogs, gnats, hail, darkness, death of all first born children (this last one hit especially home as a child, as I am the first born). Strangely, I have envisioned some of these for a long, long time. I looked up and re-read some of the verses. I’d see how the blood to water images came out and go from there. I sketched out a few compositions for the locusts and the first born plagues.

After dinner I took the clam shells down to the beach to pour them out in the sand. The sand was dark and wet as it was low tide. I made some images with three different formats hoping something would work out. The light was nice and even but the water and sand didn’t quite translate into blood despite my using a jelly bath bomb that was black to dye the sand and water surrounding the clam shells. These photographs didn’t turn out quite as I envisioned but it got me started on this series. I’m grateful to learn what didn’t work as much as what did work.

When I get stuck I’ve learned to not keep pushing through but rather to let go. Sometimes our instincts are to push through relentlessly and this may work for some but I have found that as soon as I relinquish control the ideas can flow through me.  Almost always some inspiration comes through when I’m not too focused on making it all work. While I was at Girabaldi House and I couldn’t stand to work on the Inquisition series anymore I turned my attention and concentration inward. I made a lot of large format self-portraits at the house during my stay. They were mostly reflective of the last year as I had some time for introspection. I made some more images that I’ve added to an ongoing project called The Honeymoon series; I like the idea of adding to this series indefinitely.

It is so important to make the time to reconnect with yourself and your creative process. I am so grateful to have had been allowed the time and the beautiful space to create and play. My first steps of this series would not have happened otherwise.