Sarah Cain: Really and Truly
I’m seated across from Sarah Cain and in the course of our conversation it dawns on me that I’m talking with a real and true artist, which admittedly is an odd thing to think. I’ve spoken with a variety of artists, each and every one of whom I could describe in the same way: as a real and true practitioner of the arts. With others, however, it’s possible to separate their work from other aspects of their life and still capture something of their essence. With Sarah there is little separation. It’s as though any number of seemingly disparate facets of her world — yoga, cats, vegetarianism, or rap music — are also fueled by the need to paint. Or that all of her motives are imbued with the same “it” that permeates her work. This singular focus is testament to how fully her work is an exploration; a means to mine deeper one’s own essence.
There’s also something refreshingly punk about Sarah. She’s got that fighter’s spirit; a similarly ferocious determination not to be corrupted by market forces. Before it was tethered to specific styles and sounds and punk was free to be anything other than its precedents, Sarah’s kind of like that. But this way of defining somebody in opposition to their forebears is an overly limiting comparison. I don’t get the sense that Sarah’s creative drive is fueled by a need to sever all ties with the work of her predecessors, essentially rejecting her place in a long lineage of significant painters. Her understanding of art history is too strong to fall into that trap. Just don’t try to make her fit a predetermined, commercial mold.
The imperative to walk her own path was evident at a young age. Despite being an honor roll student she escaped the local high school as soon an opportunity presented itself. Sarah explains her response to a school-wide announcement for a study abroad program: ‘That’s it. I’m outta here.’ I went to the office and I was like, ‘I’ll go to London.’” But going to another English-speaking country — such as England — didn’t really jive with the program’s overriding purpose of sending students to foreign-tongued locales. Rather, the school suggested she go to Paris, which was something of a predicament: “I had just dropped out of French classes to take more art classes and I had put up a big fuss to get that to happen. Then I had to eat it and go to France where I couldn’t even say, ‘My name is Sarah’ correctly. I went to high school for a year [in Paris] and when I was there I figured out a loophole to get into a local two-year college early. They had a program where they sent one person every year to school in Paris. My plan was, ‘Okay, I’ll get that scholarship and then I’ll go back.’ So I did. From fifteen to seventeen I lived two years in France.”
That’s wild. On your own?
“On my own, yeah. The first time I lived with families but the second time — it was before craigslist or internet so I had to randomly with a phone card call people in my bad French trying to find an apartment. They would just hang up on me. There was this church, the American Church — that was where you went because they had a bulletin board for housing. I managed to get one person to respond to me from that. I had all of my money in my shoe and I just gave it to the guy when I met him. The funniest thing is, I still have a friend in LA who was also in my class there. She’s amazing but our backgrounds are so different. She’s from Beverly Hills. Her mother went with her to find her an apartment. Somehow she became my only friend and I’m still friends with her twenty years later. I told her mother what I had done and she yelled at me. ‘You didn’t even sign a lease! You gave someone all your money!’”
Did it work out though? He didn’t steal anything?
“No, he was great. When the plumbing broke they couldn’t figure out it was me. They thought I was prank calling because they couldn’t understand me. But it was fine.”
Getting into that school, was it a portfolio submission?
“Yeah, it was really stressful. I remember you had to leave your portfolio in this room and a bunch of people reviewed it, and maybe you had to write…” Sarah winces when a chair screeches at another table. It’s an eternally sunny Los Angeles day and we’re having smoothies at Cafe Gratitude. It’s mid-winter and I just arrived from New York, one of the few times I’ve returned to Southern California since moving abroad three years earlier. I’m in town specifically for this talk. It’s the weekday lunch rush and the place is hopping. Inside, the restaurant is packed. At Sarah’s suggestion we sat outside, on the much quieter terrace. Neither of us enjoy noisy environments but for her it’s more than an aversion. I ask if she’s on the introverted side of things.
“I totally am. I’m also HSP, which sounds so goofy, but it’s a highly sensitive person. I think of it as OCD but people that are really sensitive. This is why I needed to sit at this table because in there I can’t focus. I get panic attacks from noises, and that’s a thing. Which I didn’t know. I understand all these things about me that I knew but when I read the book HSP, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s an actual thing.’ If I’m in an overwhelming space the stuff that comes out of my mouth is a lot harsher than I mean it to be. I’m always offending people. They think I’m being a bitch but I’m just super uncomfortable and trying to get directly to the point. It’s like a pressure cooker.”
I get it. You almost want to say, ‘We’re gonna get this squared away as quickly as possible so I can get out of here.’ Being more on the introverted side, it’s common that you’re more distracted by noise and stimulus and things like that. It’s not strictly about being social or not.
“That makes sense. I would focus on the conversation next to me more than ours if it was louder. I can’t help it.”
Do you like having your own space?
“Need it, for the sanity; for being happy. I just put my studio and home in the same spot and that has been amazing because I can work late nights. I always had my own studio but I was in big buildings full of artists and even, like — I would piss in a bucket so I didn’t have to go and see someone in the hall because it would blow my painting mind. Everybody thinks it’s crazy but you can’t get distracted.”
I totally relate. Right now I live in a house with ten people. For me home is where I go to not interact. Sometimes just the idea that I have to go from here to there to get food and along that way I could run into any one person is enough to dissuade me from eating.
When she uses the term “painting mind” I know precisely what Sarah’s talking about. Each visit to painting mind is unprecedented. When you are pulled from the flow, it’s gone. It never goes to the same place twice. You can return to the same state but you can never get back to the same frontier. Writing mind works in a similar way, which is why I understand the importance of pissing in a bucket if that’s what you need to do. You don’t fuck with your sacred place.
Art was Sarah’s life in Paris. Virtually nothing but: “I was so poor I couldn’t do anything. My budget was five euros a day. I mean, I ate couscous. It was just pathetic. I couldn’t do anything. And then the kids that went to that school, they literally had private jets. It was such a class difference. So I just painted and I went to flea markets and I walked. That whole time was pretty traumatizing for me. I was a pretty depressed teenager. Because I’m so open with my work it was really hard for me to establish boundaries with people. People with problems just come to me. I’ve worked really hard to just be better, because with your work you need to be open — just walk down the street in this open way. Especially as a woman, you have to have serious boundaries so you’re not fucked with all the time.”
I feel obligated to recap the details of Sarah’s plan following a year of high school in Paris: win a scholarship so she could enter college a year early and continue studying art in Paris. Plain and simple, as though she had little doubt that things would play out that way — which they did. She only speaks of one potential obstacle: “There was one other artist that was good, who I’m still friends with. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, I’m gonna lose to that guy.’” After winning the competition and spending two more years in Paris, she briefly returned to Albany before moving to San Francisco with the same artist friend she had competed against. “He was my buddy. I had very few male relationships, especially younger, where we would go do graffiti at night, sleep in the same bed, and just be friends. We moved west together and he worked at Greyhound. He would work nightshifts because he couldn’t afford rent and then he would sleep in this weird little cave on the school campus during the day.”
“That’s so great,” I respond in admiration. Sarah says, “Yeah,” and giggles to herself in reminiscence. There’s a toughness to her general demeanor that disappears when she laughs and her guard is down.
Why did you choose San Francisco?
“I got the best scholarship. It was all wherever I could get money. Also, I kind of fell in love with someone that I met when I was in Paris. We had this weird pen-pal relationship. He turned me on to music and stuff and he lived in San Francisco. Money and love.”
Growing up in a small town outside of Albany with little to offer in the form of entertainment, Sarah was forced to use her imagination. Art was a big part of that exercise. She drew representations of things around her, or when she was a teen, from album covers or other cultural objects. The traveling carnival was her first opportunity to show work. When it came to town she submitted a still-life drawing of an overflowing cornucopia, and won. “I always did all of the art contests. I can draw well. No one knows that anymore but as a kid I could look at things and draw it.”
It’s fundamental. To go into abstraction don’t you first need to master the fundamentals?
“Maybe, but now I feel like the aesthetic of abstraction is such a thing, and five years ago it became such a market driven thing, that a lot of people that can’t do anything can just make messy things and think that that’s what abstract painting is.”
What kind of a family do you come from?
“They’re pretty liberal. My mother is annoyingly Catholic, but within that, you know, she’s pro-choice. I mean they’re super cool. They’re hippies. Working class, lower-middle class hippies.”
Are your parents from that same region?
“Everybody. I had one cousin leave before me but basically I was the only immediate family member to leave — well from my mother’s side. My father’s side is more diverse, I just didn’t really know them growing up too well. I’m closer to my mother’s side but if I met my father’s side in real life they’d be more likely to be in my friend circle. But my mother’s side are like my family-family that I grew up with. Italian-American patriarchal, smothering… I don’t know. I’m totally different from them, but I have two cousins on that side. One of whom, she is like my sister. I would do anything for them. Even though I barely see them, I just love them.”
Do you feel like an outsider in the community?
“Definitely. My family lives now in Old Chatham. I grew up in Kinderhook, where a lot of the New Yorkers are moving and the art world is there now. Which is pretty surreal. People who want out of Brooklyn go there now.”
Did it always have—
“No, it was super broke. And super-white and poor and rural — farming, apple orchards and stuff. The land was beautiful. I grew up in the village center and then we moved to a dirt road when I was eleven. It was like five houses on a total dirt road. One whole side is a swamp with a train that goes through it and there are five houses for, I don’t know, a five or ten mile-long road. It was hard core. I guess there always were New Yorkers there. Now there’s a lot more. The New York Times wrote an article about how it was the next Hamptons a few years ago. That’s definitely new. But also I think now I’m more stuck in the class divide. I have my family but I know people that live there from my real life. Maybe as a kid I just didn’t have access to it. I don’t know.”
This way of separating family life from “real life” is a familiar necessity for those of us who broke away from the social milieus of our childhood in order to pursue very specific interests and a broader range of experiences. Over time the two worlds tend to grow farther apart, sharing fewer commonalities and becoming substantively more separate. Bridging the divide, or finding balance between the two worlds, is an ongoing source of tension.
So it was Paris, back to New York, and then to San Francisco?
“Upstate New York and then I applied to a bunch of places. San Francisco Art Institute gave me the most money. I wasn’t even going to meet with them actually, because I wanted to go to Cooper Union because it was free and that was my idea of where I needed to go. But I did a portfolio day and I locked my keys in my car and they were the last ones packing up, so I sat down with the woman and she said, ‘Well, if you want a job don’t come to this school. We make real artists. We don’t make designers.’ It was such an enlightening: ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I am. I don’t want a real job.’ That year I applied and ended up getting the scholarship, so I could go.”
Did you like it there?
“It was a whole different time. It was the first dot-com, which no one thought it could get worse than that.”
Culturally? With the tech goons coming in — that kind of thing?
“Or even — when I finally got a room I was paying $800 for a 100 square foot room. That was insane. My friend was in a residency hotel until I said he could sleep on the ground under my loft bed. You either had to go to a residency hotel or somehow — just to get that $800 room I had to go through three rounds of interviews with two other women roommates. That was unheard of. But now… It’s crazy there. It was a good place to come up as an artist. It had its pros and its cons. The pros were that you could fuck up. If you screw up in New York people know that you messed up. You can’t experiment in the same ways because the real art world’s watching you.”
Screw up in the sense of—
“Put up a shitty show. Bomb. Or manage your market wrong. There’s so many things that you can do wrong, young. The tiers are higher if you’re playing in the real league with real critics or real galleries. But then the problem with San Francisco is you can only do so much. My primary gallery is still there and they’re amazing and they’re one of the only galleries in San Francisco that operates on a real international level. You can get certain things there and then you have to leave. Or you have to come in once you’ve already established yourself elsewhere. But as a student it’s good. Or it was.”
And you were doing graffiti and things like that?
“Not graffiti-graffiti, but I would paint outside. The works on site I still do came from going into abandoned buildings and making work there.”
You would do full works in abandoned buildings that would become part of the structure?
“Yeah, and then disappear. First time I had SFMOMA do a studio visit I had found a musician who was living in this one empty building in North Beach. He knew I had this visit so he let me have the keys. I made a series of work, and I lost. I didn’t get the show that time. But then I got it the next time.”
The studio visit was at an abandoned building?
“I took all the rich collectors there. It was really amazing actually. They get off on this big shuttle bus and when they left their jackets were all covered with dust. I think it was too edgy though, for then.” Sarah explains that it’s common now for galleries to have artists do off-site works but at the time of that first visit it was too foreign of a concept — as though the world was being turned on its head. “It was like, ‘What is happening?!’ They said I was too young but I know it was just too raw. Because the year I won — two years later — we did it in the gallery. They came to the best gallery in the city and then they believed.”
Did you stay in San Francisco beyond the time you were in school?
“I stayed there for ten years, which I kind of can’t believe. Every time I tried to leave, it didn’t work. I was in Europe on a grant and then I had an apartment on the September 11th in New York. I was flying in and I got stuck in Canada. I came back a couple months after that and tried it but it didn’t work. I just didn’t know how to be poor in such a big city.”
Did you have to do other gigs?
“I did a lot of art handling or install for museums, and I waitressed for ten years. Yeah, I always worked. But then I got so sick of that so I went to grad school at Berkeley. That was my way to find a program that paid me and I didn’t have to have a job. I got my San Francisco gallery when I was in grad school and just transitioned out into being a self-sufficient artist. It’s crazy. When I do studio visits with grad students now I’m like, ‘My story is awesome and I worked really hard for it but it’s not an easy thing. I don’t know. The stars aligned.”
Doing studio visits, is that something you do as a service to the art community?
“They ask you and they pay you a little bit of money. I feel like it’s a service because you’re not getting paid enough for it to be a real job. But yeah, it’s a giving back thing.”
It seems like a lot of artists work in a vacuum so it’s nice to have somebody that can step in and at least just hear you speak.
“I think that’s why a lot of people go to school — to find that community. Then they continue doing that in different forms with people they went to school with after.” I don’t know. I’m in the beginning stages of this. I’ve been trying to organize classes to probation girls at a foster place. That’s the real giving back. I mean, the world’s so fucked up right now I needed to do something that’s not art world driven.”
And something creative in that context is such a valuable—
“It’s a lifesaver, I know. I’m trying to write some grants but they don’t have any money. Today I was like, ‘Why don’t I teach a class about how to make art when you have no money?’ Because that’s what I did for years and that’s probably more helpful than teaching a class where you have to buy fancy materials. They won’t be able to do that.”
Was that part of the impetus to work in abandoned buildings — not having to buy the canvas?
“Totally, yeah. And not having to pay for studio rent. Sort of essential.”
Did you come to LA after San Francisco?
“I came here for a show that was at the Orange County Museum of Art. I did a work on site in the museum and then the curator wanted me to do a work on site in an abandoned building. I didn’t know LA at all. I was just driving around looking for abandoned buildings. It was hopeless. She found me one downtown and I came down to do that. I was actually supposed to go to the Netherlands and then I went to see a friend who lived here and out in Joshua Tree — she was one of the faculty when I was at Skowhegen. She was like, ‘If you want to have the career you want you can’t go live on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere.’”
You have to be in the city?
“You have to be around people. She helped me find an apartment. I never thought I would end up here. It just happened really fast and seemingly easy, but the first year was pretty brutal. I didn’t have a gallery here so I still wasn’t making that much money. But it worked out. I had a New York gallery and I had an SF gallery and I got a gallery in Europe at that time. I was showing with my work but it wasn’t really until I got my gallery here that I was showing it and making enough to not be panicked every second. It’s probably just the timing of my career. There’s a time where your prices actually are worth… You move up enough.
Did you ever have an interest in going back to New York?
“I think about it now. I mean, I wouldn’t. I think it’s over. The city is not a city I would want to be in. But when I travel with my boyfriend there it’s so nice. We’re doing it on such a nice level that I’m like, ‘Oh, I could do this.’”
Get in and get out. Experience the city and move on. LA is changing pretty quickly, too.
“It’s insane. All of New York is moving here.”
I heard loads of people are coming down from San Francisco too.
“They are, yeah. I’m seeing all these people I haven’t seen in forever. I just run into ‘em. I did say hi to this one guy at Trader Joe’s last week. I literally thought he might have been homeless. He was always on the edge. He does graffiti stuff. Turns out he’s from the neighborhood that has turned even faster than Highland Park. I saw him counting change, holding two yogurts trying to figure out if he could afford them. We went to the San Francisco Art Institute together. He’s like, ‘I have a wife and a kid.’ I didn’t say it, but I’m thinking, ‘I’m so glad you’re not homeless.’”
Did you ever have an interest in going that route — family and all of that?
“Oh, I thought you meant going homeless. I’m more into homeless than going family. I’ve broken up with people because they wanted kids. I would marry my boyfriend now. I love him so much but I don’t know if he ever wants to get married again. I don’t really care. It’s not on my to-do list and there’s a lot of pros for not doing it at all. Even if I got married I would never give up my own space. But I wouldn’t mind having another home we live in together and having my space become a massive studio.”
How did you guys meet?
“I was at a party and I was sort of inappropriately saying I needed to knock off dating younger men. And then a feral cat colony was starting to come over the fence because it was next to my house. The kid I was talking to said, ‘You sound just like so-and-so (Marc Maron).’ I was like, ‘Is he over 23? Maybe I should date him.’ Totally joking. And he said, ‘He’s 50.’ I was like, ‘Eeew!’ I didn’t quite say ‘eeew’ but… Then I looked him up and, ‘Oh, he lives in my neighborhood. He’s into feral cats.’ And then my mutual friend had interviewed us back-to-back because my friend interviews people too. He really loves my boyfriend, so he sent us this joint email. ‘I’m gonna yenta. Here’s your bios. You’re both crazy, sexy, cat people and you live down the street from each other.’ That was it. It’s good too, because he’s a big personality. It’s good I didn’t know anything about him. I actually got to learn him in real time.”
If you have that whole history of seeing him in the public arena then it’s hard to connect with the person because you have these other ideas.
“You have to know how to block that out.”
Now that you have the personal connection, does the public side of things have an influence in some way? Since you kind of came in through the back door do you now see the public side of his life a little bit differently?
“I don’t pay attention too much to the public side. I’ve dated public people before. To a very very minor extent I have a public side too, so I understand it. Also I think artists don’t really care about celebrities in the same way that real world people do. It just isn’t wired in my brain that someone is somebody other than a person. I’m never in awe of someone because of outside. I don’t know.”
I was going to ask about Skowhegen as well.
“I was rejected four times. Everyone should know that.”
But you were determined to go?
“Well, no. I didn’t really care but I was at Berkeley and they had a scholarship where they would pay the tuition for one person if you got in. It’s like $9000 for the summer, which is insane. That year the distinguished lecturer was my really good friend Bill Berkson, a poet who just died. I knew Bill. I knew another faculty member Harrell Fletcher. I knew enough people that were the big faculties that I felt like, ‘Okay, if they’re ever going to let me in…’ I managed to get in that year but I actually struggled to be there.”
Was it a valuable experience?
“It was really valuable but I was so uncomfortable the whole time. Everybody was just partying. I don’t know. It’s weird because I had a rich boyfriend from New York — he was my Skowhegan boyfriend and we just coupled-up one week in. I was so in love with him, but maybe it was like some survival thing. Maybe that’s what you do when you’re on an island and you have to fend for yourself. I don’t know. Also, I thought he was gay so I had my guard down. But anyway, I just had that relationship and a couple friends but I didn’t party and I had my show at SF MOMA right after, so I had crazy pressure. Actually, I think it was for my first SF gallery show and then right after that was SF MOMA. So I had two big shows that were the first commercial, big shows I had ever done. Most people didn’t understand. Also though, I brought a tent because you had to sleep in dorms and I’ve lived alone since I was seventeen. I would do whatever was needed to make sure I had my own space. I was like, ‘I can’t have someone sleeping one foot from me.’ So I slept in a tent for two months. It was kind of a disaster.”
I feel really comfortable talking with Sarah and find that we have much in common. We both practice yoga, have a history of vegetarianism, listen to hip hop, tend toward the introverted side, and we both live in two worlds — that of our families and that of our own. Also, we’re both obsessive about our work and protecting our creative environments from intrusion. One major difference is that she has steered a focused, consistent course from the age of fifteen onward and my life has been a tangled web of varying pursuits. In other words, I’m speaking with an artist who is nearly the same age as me but is years ahead in terms of accomplishment and creative output. Because of this dynamic I get the feeling that it’s a meeting of consequence. I’m speaking with a person of substance and devotion, and seeing how she has done it is a source of inspiration. She fought her way in and I have not, but we’re both natural-born outsiders.
Have you done yoga for a long time?
“I actually do it more now, but I’ve done it off and on since — like I was saying, twelve-years-old, vegetarian, yoga. I just installed Iyengar ropes in my studio. It’s really amazing. You hang from your hips but it opens up your whole back and your face and your arms. I got it because of my painting arm. It just releases all this stress. First I was a little embarrassed people would see it in visits, but now I’m like, ‘I don’t care. It’s amazing.’ People don’t even know what it is most of the time.”
Ok, so I was going to ask: at twelve-years-old you chose to become a vegetarian?
“Well that was when I could finally articulate to my parents a reason that they believed — when I understood the cruelty to animals and I could express it well enough. But I never liked meat. My mom said I saw a TV program on slaughterhouses when I was a kid, or something.”
That’ll do it. Those things are—
“Disgusting, yeah. I’m 39, so like 27 years [as a vegetarian]. Crazy. It’s disgusting to me. I’ve never eaten meat.”
I don’t know that I would have had the awareness at that age. I was kind of a moron when I was young so I’m curious about people at these young ages who have a really clear sense of what they believe.
“I feel like I had people tell me about it too. I had this group home, bad-boy boyfriend whose sister had run away and was living in squats in New York. They were vegetarian. They were telling me about squatter’s rights and vegetarianism and rap music, so I definitely absorbed from other people. But also, I’ve always… When I was eleven I told my parents why I’m not going to church anymore. And they let me.”
That’s awesome. I had to go through the whole church thing and I hated it. It was horrible. And then I never knew anything else. I knew that I didn’t believe the shit they were telling me but I didn’t know any other way of seeing things. It took a long time to get through that.
“My dad’s an atheist so I always had both sides. He hates the catholic church. Yeah, it’s hard if you don’t see options or possibilities. No one around me had a creative life. I mean, freelancing now is a pretty common thing but back then — not working for a company? And family, that’s part of the package. But, don’t have to do it.”
“I know right. I’m almost out biologically too. That will be the real out. Now I’m like, ‘Oh, I might not even have the choice to have an abortion if I needed one at the rate the country is taking women’s rights’ But now I’m also so old that it would be hard. I think I’m sort of through it. My parents lost. My mother really wanted grandkids but she lost hope five years ago. Or maybe it became really clear and I just told her, ‘Stop.’ It’s so crazy. People do crazy shit. One of my friends told me she was just going to fuck her way through Europe until she got pregnant so she didn’t have to deal with a man. She’s intense, but she did it. Last time I was in Brooklyn I met her baby and they seemed very happy together. My other friend found out she was having a girl the day before the elections.”
And then pussy-grabber becomes president. Were you involved in the women’s march?
“I would have loved to do it but I can’t handle it.”
Oh, the crowds.
“Yeah, I can’t. I’m just so paranoid about it all. It’s terrible, but I do what I can. I live-streamed it and made a painting called Women’s March. I burst into tears hearing Zoe Leonard’s writing being read to that many people. Amazing, deep stuff. I also made my own Hillary sign — hand painted. I was the last neighbor with it up — so hard to take down. It’s so funny, my friend who is an art writer said, ‘I can’t believe no one has stolen this. They could sell it.’”
Simply due to the fact that it exists in the public realm there’s a certain political power innate to on-site art work, regardless of style or content. One could make the case that Sarah’s hand-painted campaign sign, although meaningful, is among her least politically empowered public works. That’s because she’s a real and true artist.