Bates Review: How did you first conceive this collection?
Haley Sacra: I first became interested in tiles when studying abroad in Spain. I took Susan’s tile class and got to make my own tiles. I was really inspired by Islamic tiles, the patterning and shapes that they used. I get the portraiture from the drawing classes I’ve taken and initially was doing a lot of self-portraiture for assignments for class, but that has evolved into portraits of other people. In my process I start out really loose and random– fill up a yogurt cup with paint and spill it on the canvas. It’s a natural, random event. After that I go in with a ruler and a tiny brush and paint these delicate, intricate patterns. I have the randomness and chaos of the initial ground with the order of the background layer. I go back to playing between the two with the figures: there are parts that are more loose and spontaneous, and parts that are more planned out and precise. The eyes, for example, are always something that I focus on a lot. Other things I, kind-of, let happen. The patterns are all ones I make-up myself.
BR: What is the concept behind the patterning?
HS: I tend to think a lot about being a person in a space, and how that’s a strange thing: separation between body and space. And I also have had this issue of not wanting to paint interiors, because they’re not interesting to me. I decided to paint a person in a non-space that was something that I’d invented. That’s a way that I’m both avoiding painting something I’m not interested in [Laughing] and getting at an idea that I’m interested in.
BR: How do you interweave the portraits and the patterns, technically?
HS: It first started as an accident because I was painting the lines of the tiles at the same time as I was painting the figure, and some of the tile lines were cutting into the figure’s hair and I decided to leave them because I liked it. I thought it was interesting and I wanted to push that. That was when I started to paint the entire background before putting the figure in. Now I’ve been using the background instead of places where there is a flat color, or places that are in shadow. I mark the highlights with paint on the figure, and mark some of the places where the form changes, but I let the background do the rest.
BR: Do you see this integration as aesthetic or symbolic?
HS: It’s hard to see these as just a literal figure over space. In leaving parts of a face out, it implies a lot regardless of what your intention is. I hope it gets people thinking about what’s missing and why. I don’t necessarily want them to feel what I’m feeling, but it would be nice for the viewer to be feeling something. Making a person that is so big is provocative in itself, so that might prompt the viewer to think about their own presence; standing next to a painting of someone who’s so much bigger than you makes you think about your own body.
BR: Do you prefer painting the background or the portrait?
HS: It depends on my mood. [Laughing] Its really different: I love painting the backgrounds for the first few hours and then it can get a little tedious, and with the portraits I love the first and last couple hours but all that time in the middle is really scary, because I feel like I’ve ruined it [Laughing]. It’s about getting to that point where you’re feeling okay about it. It takes a lot of re-evaluating and getting space. Especially the way I’m doing it now, where there’s so much that I’m leaving empty and I can’t fix everything once its down. Once it’s there it’s there. There’s less space for error, which is stressful.
BR: Can you talk about the people you choose to paint? Why do you choose to paint your friends?
HS: Part of the reason for that is simply that they’re not wearing shirts, and if I asked a random person to pose without their shirt on they would probably say no. [Laughing] When I am photographing them I have them talk to me, so I’m not directing them or telling them what to do. They’re talking about the movie they watched, or what they’re doing for their thesis, or their relationship with their boyfriend and I’m constantly taking photos. I feel that if it was a more distant relationship there would be less there, and I’m trying to make them comfortable so I can capture who they are. It is important for them to be comfortable with me and for me to be comfortable with them. But It does make it harder for me to be happy with what I made, I feel like I’m more personally invested in capturing a likeness.
BR: What expressions do you look for?
HS: It’s mostly moments that are in transition. I couldn’t name that until recently. But it’s so important to my concept: not having to name something and not having to name a feeling that you are painting. I don’t want to just paint a girl who is sad, I want to paint a girl who does have emotions…if you paint an expression that is so easily identifiable the painting becomes about that expression and not about that person. I guess I’ve been looking for ambiguous, but still captivating expressions. A lot of eye contact. Mouth open is very enthralling. [Laughing] Shoulder posture that is engaged but not confronting. The person being very much present with the viewer.
BR: How do you relate the portrait to the pattern?
HS: I pick the person first and then the background comes from there. Most of it is intuition. When I print a photo I tend to look at a lot of different colors next to that photo, to see what might work. I choose a color that will complement the skin and maybe bring out their eyes, or use that pattern as the shadow. I don’t make the patterns for the specific person but sometimes they come out that way, which is good I guess. [Laughing] I do make them after I take the photo so they must be somewhat inspired.
BR: Can you describe how you create the pattern?
HS: I guess I start with a shape, normally. A shape that I enjoy. I start with a shape and
try and fit it into a square with other shapes and then add to it. I keep sketching and sketching till I find something that’s satisfying.
BR: Your patterns tend to be on a larger scale, is that mainly a time restraint?
HS: It’s mostly a time thing. Each pattern takes several 12 hour days, and that’s just one of quite a few layers that are in each painting.
BR: How do you name pieces?
HS: I’ve named all the pieces based on the name of the model. In not mentioning the whole idea about the pattern and background, I think it makes it even more obvious. [Laughing] In calling this Molly, it’s like obviously something’s going on besides just Molly. [Laughing]
BR: What are some of the ways in which you manipulate the effect of the pattern?
HS: Before I figured out how to leave parts of the figure out so the background was there, I was using the space or background as a competing force for attention. The idea is that parts of the pattern (color, shape) will draw your attention more than the figure. Even just the repetition of colors from the person to the background helps the background come forward. I’ve played with the idea of making the background more developed, as a 3D entity, than the figure is. Adding highlights to the tiles to make them look like physical things, making light and dark corners to create a source of light and making the figure
BR: Can you talk a bit about your inspiration?
HR: Definitely William Morris. Lucien Freud, especially at the beginning when I was figuring things out, he was hugely inspirational. In terms of having a model in space, when he paints his models its very non-posed, and just a person there. I love the way Jenny Seville paints. Simon Birch, the figures in motion. I also love how he paints in chunks of colors for areas of the body. He’ll paint a big area of skin lime green when those parts clearly aren’t lime green. Also I guess from him and Jenny Seville the idea of putting a person in a non-space. Both of them do that very successfully.
BR: Can you talk about when moments of pattern coincide with facial features?
HR: Yeah, it’s totally chance. I guess it’s another place where order and chaos are colliding. [Pointing to a painting] This area in the nose is my favorite. I think it’s lovely how the painting can make itself in a lot of ways. Even my choices of where to put color and leave the pattern show through are largely determined by what’s already there, with the pattern.
BR: What are you looking towards for the future?
HS: Over the course of this year, working on thesis, I’ve had a lot of ideas that I haven’t been able to pursue because I’ve been caught in this time frame and having to make a cohesive body of work. I want to go back in and explore some of those other ideas. Like using floral patterning instead of geometric patterning. Or painting other body parts. Or a person wearing clothes and adding an extra layer to patterning.
BR: What’s your relationship between abstraction and representation?
HS: I need the structure of this geometry to do the more spontaneous things. In terms of abstraction and representation: I call myself a representational artist but my painting teacher has been telling me since September that I’m going to graduate and become an abstract painter. [Laughing] I love people so much, I feel that people are so important and I love painting people. I can talk about the ideas that are most important to me through having people in my paintings. Abstraction, for me, is more a mindless thing. It’s spilling paint on a canvas or not really being in my mind and painting tiny little triangles. Representation is more an idea thing and abstraction is for fun. But that’s just for me, obviously other people see it differently.
BR: Do you get stressed out that the universe is expanding?
HS: No. [Laughing]