Fairytales in Fragments
A conversation with poet and artist Sarah Goldstein~
OL: Your first collection of poetry (or little stories, or Fables) will be appearing from Tarpaulin Sky this spring. Had you always had a mind to write, or was this new medium spurred by anything in particular?
Sarah: I dabbled a little bit in grad school while I was doing my MFA in studio art, and eventually some bits of text ended up interwoven into the drawings in my final portfolio. Fast forward many years later when I attended a month-long artist’s retreat that was an intimate group of about half writers and half studio artists. Talking to the writers and reading/hearing their work was so inspiring that by the time I left I was really curious about writing poetry. This curiosity dovetailed with a growing frustration with my studio practice, and I really needed to try something else. So I just started writing, and of course I read a lot too. That was five years ago, and I think I’ve learned a lot since then. There have been many kind and patient writers in my life who offered support and encouragement along the way. My husband is a writer, so it goes without saying that there’s been this constant presence of his craft and output that is really interesting to me and provided an environment where writing is part of everyday life.
OL: In your drawings, particularly in your recent work, the animals you depict seem not only innocent (in the pre-Blake sense) but darling, even when they’re engaged in un-innocent behavior. I’m put in mind of James Dicky’s “Heaven of Animals.” Even your predators show no malice. Has drawing animals changed how you think of them?
Sarah: I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, and they’ve almost always been a factor in my creative endeavors. As a child I was obsessed with talking animals in cartoons, and my drawings were often illustrated action stories involving people and animals interacting on fairly sophisticated levels. They were always a factor for me, if that makes sense? So I’m not sure that drawing them has changed how I think of them, but I think as I have gotten older I have become more convinced that animals are much more–aware? sentient?–than we give them credit for, and that our modern relationship to animals (especially domesticated animals) and the natural world is really fucked up. That may account for the sense of innocence you are getting from the drawings–I often see animals as inhabiting a space of endless victimization.
OL: St. Eustace must be a hugely tempting subject for someone who thinks about animals. Eustace’s children were taken away by a wolf and a lion. He refused to make animal sacrifices. He was roasted, with his family, inside the bronze belly of a bull. Did you begin this series with his story, or come to the connection later on?
Sarah: I know, there’s some great material there! Over the years I’ve encountered various images/depictions of St. Eustace, usually it’s a scene where he is having his vision in the woods of the stag with the cross between the antlers, and he’s kneeling on the ground in awe in front of a creature he’d normally be trying to kill. I’ve always loved scenes like that, or illustrations of fairy tales or Aesop’s fables–something dramatic is happening, something where traditional roles or behavior has changed or gotten mixed up. Another one I like with a similar sense of drama and transition is The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus by Caravaggio, where the horse is half of the picture and Paul is on the ground, practically underneath the horse … it’s very odd in that the horse is this large and stable part of the composition, almost the star of the painting, and Paul is this helpless guy down below, and together they reinforce a beautiful circular movement through the painting. As for the Study (St. Eustace) drawings seen here, I drew the image of the stag in the woods and boy on the ground first with Eustace in mind, and then others where my thought process was in and out of the Eustace story, and ended up with three that seemed to fit together to me, even if they don’t make a lot of sense to the reference of Eustace or his story. But in the end that is what I liked about these three pieces, that they mixed sources, references, and even style a little bit.
OL: Your drawings have a haunting (hunted) unfinished quality; tone-on-tone, they seem to refer to something outside of themselves. Your single-panel, and even multi-panel sketches float us in medias res. (Is that Eustace’s wife, carting home a stag for dinner?). But your Fables, the written ones, seem more connected to beginnings and ends: “They have been planning the switch for months….” or “Not so long ago, the crops were terrible …” Do you think this has more to do with the nature of the respective mediums, or with how you conceive their separate seeds?
Sarah: When I first started writing I was creating fairly abstracted works that in many ways reminded me of my artwork: they were often pieced together and the result of reworking fragments from larger chunks of text, and this gave them a sense of the unexpected juxtaposition (at least to me!). Over time I wanted to try to evolve a bit and challenge myself; also, my tastes changed I think. I really did want to use Grimm’s fairy tales as a starting point for some of the Fables, and so I deliberately tried to ground them and give them a sense of specificity (even if it’s not always a recognizable time and place) rather than have them “float” (to use your excellent description) in an abstracted way. I was also trying to simplify my writing … and I know that sounds strange, but it was almost an exercise: how compact can I make this piece of writing? How much can I get across in one paragraph? In just a few sentences?
OL: Much of your work, for me, seems to take place in a post-medieval, pre-modern time-out-of-time (Goya’s backwards Spain, the Grimm brothers backward-looking collections). Is there something about the transitional struggles of those times and places that speaks to your concerns — the changing lives of animals, or humans?
Sarah: I think if the work resists being placed in a specific time, it’s a way to lend to the overall sense of other-worldliness, so, yes … it definitely reinforces that transitional nature of the work you are pinpointing. And I want to escape within the work. Or maybe it’s just that that’s the world of the childhood fairy tales, carrying over into my adult creations? I think it tends to free me to juxtapose imagery, to move back and forth in a non-linear narrative whether in a drawing or a piece of writing. If it does have that “time-out-of-time quality” then I feel free to create work where animals talk to each other, or to people, etc. and (hopefully) it doesn’t seem corny or childish.
OL: What are you writing now? & What are you drawing?
Sarah: As for writing, I’m working on a few things that are related to and (tenuously) combine As I Lay Dying, contemporary (for once!) domestic drama, and possibly the Fayum mummy portraits from the Roman period. For drawing, just sketches for now, but I’m germinating ideas for what I hope will someday be a blend of drawing and video or even a series of video projections. Wow, just writing all of that seems both insane and way too ambitious, but we’ll see.
Sarah Goldstein was born in Toronto and lives in western Massachusetts. Her artwork has been exhibited in the US and Canada, and her first book, Fables, is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press in spring of 2011.