John Sarra, artist and painting professor at Washington University, watches as we take over his dining room with extension cords, recording equipment, and heavy black cameras atop tripods. Sitting down, he handles the wires of his microphone with humble discomfort, as though in disbelief he’s the one being interviewed. His mind is constantly taking inventory of the surroundings: the subtle streak of sunlight on the windowsill, a pile of junk mail, a fingerprint, or an unfinished thought are all recorded and stowed away for later, as though the garret of his mind is littered with rolls upon rolls of film. Sarra has made a life of these moments, archiving as many as possible with a precision that emerges most clearly in his paintings. “What I’m trying to do is find the truth or veracity of what I’m presenting, because I am interested in the vitality of my own work and feeling that it’s presenting something that is true, relevant, and applicable. Not everything starts out that way, but a lot of times the path of art making for me is trying to find the point where it becomes that thing, and then knowing when to stop.” With the verbal facility of a linguist and the calmness of a Zen master, he offers his meditations on art and creativity from a privileged vantage point. “It’s all an act,” he says, laughing.
On this street in the highly polarized area north of Delmar, the primary case study cited for many a debate about the extremes of St. Louis-area segregation, Sarra has also been quietly restoring his beautiful, century-old home for over ten years. “I’ve repaired, repainted, or refinished nearly every floor, wall and ceiling,” he says. Without really meaning to, he defies the expectations of what we’d presume to find in this area of the city.
Originally from Las Vegas, his step-father was in the United States Coast Guard, and he lived in six different states before landing in St. Louis to pursue a Master’s degree in painting at Washington University. “It was kind of just a wonderful relief not to actually be required to leave a place. I didn’t really quite know what to do with that, except stay, try it out. I can hardly believe how long I have been here now.” He compares the impulse to create to a voice craving to be heard, with an unwavering compulsion to do justice to those archived moments. “A lot of people get quite adept at not listening to that voice, and I think a lot of what artists try to do is to cultivate a sensitivity to listening to that voice, even if it pushes you in directions you might not want to go.” That impetus to indicate a presence in the world, to interact with it, and to communicate commands Sarra’s work. “People know desire. It compels you, and motivates you.”
Several of his paintings line the walls, many of them depicting household objects, chairs, rocks, pieces of wood, bits of paper, or his young daughter’s art projects, each one delicately rendered with an obsessive desire to be truthful to the qualities of each object. They become full of life, as someone took the time to render a bit of paper with scribbles, scraps of wood, or a small tree made out of tissue paper. Someone obsessively captured the reflective qualities of a drawer, the dark chasms of a rock, the frayed edges of paper, and the fragile bones of a bird hidden by tufts of feathers. To fully understand Sarra’s method, it is vital to comprehend the depth of his appreciation for objects. While he collects and archives moments, so do the objects in his paintings. An object becomes a vessel that not only holds its own presence, but indicators of others.
At the table where we sit, you can just make out some small etchings in the wood that appear to be letters, remnants from when his daughter was learning to write, followed by a handprint that elucidates when the light touches it at a particular angle. “A really close friend of ours came down and through an impulsive joy of seeing the surface, she just reached out and touched it, and she had olive oil on her fingers. She left a perfect handprint in olive oil on this raw wood surface.”
Markers of previous life weaken what we typically think of as a successful aesthetic experience, “but actually for me, they’re building into this object a kind of history and tradition, a kind of love and relationship, which is more than you think a table should ever contain,” says Sarra. At that moment, when we pay attention enough to be able to look closer, to see the “flaws” of an object as indicators of life, a transformation occurs. “This stops just being an object of practical value, in the same way a painting can stop just being that thing that is pretty colors that you can hang on a wall.” This is how Sarra constructs meaning out of highly complex objects, masked as mundane. They become anthropological experiments, encrypted with presence, absence, and signs of life that accumulate as they continue to exist in the world. This becomes the work of the artist: to allow that transformation to occur, he must tend to each aspect of the subject matter with extraordinary care. The artfulness is not only in the end product, but also in the obsessive process required to successfully translate that multi-dimensionality. His paintings “try to pull in this other stuff, this relevance, relationship and applicability that emerges through materials getting acted upon in the world.”
Although they may be successful representations, Sarra acknowledges that paintings only function as impressions of the subjects, never capable of truly becoming what they depict. “You’re trying to present a well-formed substitute for something else. To me, that’s what art is to begin with. It’s not so much being the thing itself, that’s trying within its own means to communicate that thing, but also with this implicit limitation of never quite being able to be that thing. That is art’s kind of wonderful harmony with a kind of sorrow and loss that’s all simultaneously wrapped up in this joy of experience.”
Sarra’s home is perhaps the largest object-artifact of all. It is filled with his presence: the surfaces are covered with constellations of fingerprints, layered over quarter-sawn oak doors, floors, moldings, and short-leaf pine floors, the gleaming wood free of any dark knots. “It’s become a pretty amazing extension of my art making to restore, to renovate, to take something which many people might have considered to be at the end of its life cycle and to breathe new life into it, and the quality of life that can’t exist in new things, but can only exist in the restoration of old things.” He describes the experience of living in such a sensationalized part of town as, “the best and most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with. People literally said to us, ‘You’re crazy.’ I guess because I’m not from St. Louis, I didn’t come into it with either the same stereotypes or the same body of what might have been assumed to be factual knowledge.” This unbiased perspective highlights just how deeply the judgments are ingrained into the native St. Louis psyche.
But rather than attempt to start a revolution, Sarra and his wife simply saw a space that greatly appealed to them. “We didn’t buy a house on the North side to make a political statement or to go in and change politics. We bought it out of some very visceral imperatives of what we wanted out of our own life. I guess we didn’t have either the bias or the common wisdom to avoid the risks.” This illustrates one of the many reasons our creators are absolutely essential to progress: Sarra didn’t approach the issues ingrained in the location of his home with the stereotypes of a native or idealism, but as a creative with an uncontrollable impulse to process and interact with the world. “I came at it as an artist who basically revels in potential, and what I saw was a tremendous amount of potential for someone who’s trying to get creative, extended use out of very little financial means. This is what most artists do. They try to get a lot out of a little.” Sarra’s experience is a phenomenal case study of the possibilities that can occur, when either intentionally or unintentionally, we are willing to let go of burdensome judgment.
“Just about every day I go out here on Delmar and I pick up trash. Most people don’t like to do that. I don’t like to do that. And yet, I recognize its value. What took me longer was to recognize that other people recognized the value of me picking up trash in my front yard.” While working in his yard, Sarra began archiving his findings, compiling and cataloguing objects that found their way into his yard for a piece called Cloud Studio Herbarium, a gallery of objects, papers, and bits of mail. Again, sort of by mistake, Sarra started to see a change happen around him. His neighbors began to come out from behind locked doors to talk while he worked. “It was somewhat revolutionary for me to spend time in my front yard in a neighborhood where often people would come in and lock the door behind them, and that’s how it stayed. That’s how communities develop is you spend time with each other, that’s how relationships exist, is through time spent.”
Perhaps one of the most striking features of Sarra’s approach to art, and to life, is how the two coalesce in a way that is not at all mutually exclusive. No matter how supposedly insignificant or unrelated, there is potential for artfulness in everything. He urges his students to live this way, to cultivate a life that searches for truth, and dives into the world in order to accurately reflect that truth. “There has been and continues to be tremendous risk in that sort of work, but I’m happy to say that it has played out pretty nicely for us, that we actually have been fortunate to be a part of the upswell of an entire community. That often starts in really unglamorous ways.”
For more information about John Sarra, visit www.johnsarra.com
Featured paintings: Still Life with Wooden Food, 2008, Loveseat, 2010, Throw it Higher, 2011