Studio Visit – Sarah Tortora

February, 2020, Philadelphia, PA

Conversation between Sarah Tortora and Amy Boone-McCreesh

The myth of origin (Angelus Novus), 2019. Cement, epoxy, wood composites, resin, acrylic paint. 98”h x 85”w x 21”d

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Connecticut, about 20 minutes from New Haven. My great-grandparents all emigrated to that area from southern Italy and Sicily about 100 years ago. They all pretty much settled in the greater New York and New Haven area, and there are few ties left to my family overseas now. My great-grandfather was a cobbler and much of his family later worked for US Steel. I grew up in the suburbs, kind of disconnected from the Italian-American communities in New Haven, with the exception of the stronghold of Catholicism, which I consider a significant facet of my cultural upbringing and personality.


Where is your current studio? How long have you been here?

My studio is in the Viking Mill in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. I’ve been here eight months. I went to grad school in Philadelphia, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. I moved away shortly after, and before I had expected to. In 2018, I finished a one-year live-in staff position at Vermont Studio Center. For the time in between, I was without a studio for about eight months, during which I attended two residencies in Barcelona and Athens, and worked day jobs for about 60 hours a week, to save money and be able to “buy back” more of my time later. I’ve found over the past several years I get into this pattern of having one or two years of steady studio production, and then I take a year away from making to read and research. I feel fortunate to be able to do that, because it means I’m working for the work and not just for a deadline, but, there’s also this feeling of guilt about never being able to complete all of the things I dream of doing. Taking pauses sometimes helps me prioritize and feel more deeply connected to the decisions I make. 


In the simplest way, explain what your work is about or what you are trying to achieve?

I recreate Classical artifacts, or fragments of Classical architecture, in a Romantic way. I think they’re kind of cartoonish or prop-like recreations of these archetypal references. I’m interested in using the aesthetics of institutional museum display to extract out the ideologies behind their presentation. Or by paying attention to how the architecture of a museum responds to those ideologies–upholding them or not. I’m also interested in the aesthetics of public spaces, like the street- liminal spaces that are forgotten. I increasingly feel the material vernacular of Philadelphia coming into my work.


There’s so much redevelopment and gentrification, so many plastic-looking lofts and instances of architectural planned-obsolescence pervading so many neighborhoods. Every week I notice a newly demolished brick building, the inevitable roping off of the site, the archeology of years of habitation visible in the peeling paint and stucco that hangs in large muralistic paintings in the sides of the lot. There’s a lot that’s kind of close to my studio that I’ve been visiting to pick up discarded bricks, fragments of paint, old ripped up tile work. I’ve been embedding those materials in the work. I’m also interested in the institutional aesthetics of the street, such as the color of dumpsters, the demarcation lines of road markings. Features which establish a unity of place but are such strong indicators of directional movement, borders, mapping systems.


What materials or ideas are you really into right now? How has the trajectory of these things changed over time for you?

One of the materials I use most often is plywood. There’s something about the very warm, relational DIY nature of it, maybe from growing up in Connecticut with that region-specific vernacular of home building. When I was around 6 years old, my parents built a house, which is an experience that’s lingered with me as a major influence in why I make art. It was a colonial-style house in a Connecticut cul-de-sac that eventually resembled, almost identically, its future neighbors. We would visit the site every few days and see its gradual transformation; my feet would sink deep into tractor-marks in the mud, smelling the plywood, walking through a skeleton of 2×4’s. There were terrifying holes in the floors before there were stairs, and I remember feeling so scared, like I was walking through an autopsy or something very forbidden and raw. It was so sublime, and I think that’s a lingering reason I tend to go toward plywood. It’s also very quick for me to construct masses or shapes with generally planar construction materials. Paper pulp, epoxy resin, drywall, cement – and trying to figure out the best recipes to make as large a mass as light as possible – has been a fun challenge. I have always wanted to use materials that easily constitute monolithic objects, but reference the underlying architectural environment they’re in.


I really want to learn 3D modeling so I can start 3D printing- I also want to make more artist books, and eventually a film! Though my transition into different media will be interesting, because I also have this obsession with having to touch every square inch of whatever I make. It’s a devotional Catholic labor thing. Growing up delicately spinning and fingering every bead of the rosary translates to– the very tactile necessity to touch, sand, alter, every single surface.


What do you think it means to be an artist today? Has the role of artist in culture changed in your opinion? 

I don’t think there can be a singular definition of what an artist is or what an artist’s role should be. I think there are multiple art worlds- multiple belief systems that are equally valid for different groups of artists. For me personally, in terms of reckoning with my trajectory as an artist, I first started considering myself an artist when I was in school. I went for my MFA right after undergrad. And for a long time, my identity of being an artist was directly linked to my identity as a professionalized student, which took a great deal of time for me to recognize. I see this as distinct from being a lifelong learner, from realizing there will always be things eluding one’s grasp. To be an artist, you have to be a person first. This entails empathy, sensitivity, and for me, deliberately thinking against the grain of normative structures. 


I think my role as an artist is to continually finesse, redefine, and call attention to the conditioned relationships we have with synthetic and manufactured environments, like those cookie-cutter plastic lofts, or the mass-produced items people tend to decorate their homes with. The architect Bernard Rudofsky wrote about the absurdity of American-style bathtubs in relationship to actual human bodies. I’m generally trying to use the poetics of material to indicate that there’s such a broad range of constructed possibility we don’t often allow ourselves to dream about. I’m also really seduced by traces of overlooked labor that can be detected in urban spaces, like a patch in someone’s foundation with cheap stucco–a very loving gesture. Even concrete bridges or overpasses, when they’re cast against plywood and there’s a print of the grain in there. There’s something really poetic and loving about these gestures of labor – that these acts of labor are also are acts of love, that I think is absent in a lot of manufactured things we have. 

Do you have any routines or rituals you utilize in your studio practice?

I’m an avid list-maker. Before I come into the studio, I’ll generally have a list of tasks, broken down to the most elementary, to set the intention of what must be done, what could be done, and then creating a hierarchy of time-based tasks so you get the catharsis of crossing something off a list. Because I also work somewhat intuitively – it’s easy for four hours to go by in a total fog, and the structure of having a plan keeps me on track. 


I’ve also been listening to The New Yorker Fiction podcast and the Writer’s Voice. They’re generally 30-40 minute short stories read either by the authors or by other contemporary writers. They’ve been amazing in adding an emotional tenor to my working process, and finding parallel vocabularies that resonate with otherwise very abstract sculptural work. Short stories, by their nature, are open-ended, or they occupy a space much greater than the time taken to read it. It makes the time I spend in the studio feel much more expansive.


How do you handle those days or stretches of times when things just aren’t working in the studio and you don’t feel happy with the work?

If I am feeling up for it, I’ll try to do really incremental tasks like cleaning, to set the stage for when I am ready to work again. I’ll also write or organize, but I will never force making the work, because nothing good will come from that. I feel that because I go through these incremental stretches of having a studio for two years, and then not having a studio for a year, that these bouts of dissatisfaction strike less frequently than when I was younger. Sometimes if I’m feeling stuck, I will just pick up more hours at my day job, or freelance, or make jewelry, small craft wares. I’ll try to do things that help me continue to think with my hands and body.


Do you have any hobbies or things you like to do with your time outside of the studio?

It’s taken me so long to develop other hobbies that stick – happily, being in the studio takes up so much time. I love to cook – the culinary arts, trying new restaurants. I’ve been learning a great deal about wine over the past few months, and I’m somewhat passively studying to take the Level 1 sommelier exam later this year. The geography of wine is also such a Romantic thing–this bottle represents what a particular place at a particular time tasted like. It’s a snapshot, an archive of a place and time that gets you drunk. That’s the most beautiful material ever! 


I’m starting an indoor succulent garden. It’s hanging on despite the low-light Philadelphia winter, and I’ve enjoyed learning about how to care for them. I’m also an aspiring collector of vintage anatomical models, of which I have about three, and a few more starred on Ebay. 

What do you have coming up that you’d like to promote? Where can people see your work?

I’m in a three-person show opening in March at Fjord in Philadelphia, also featuring the work of Michelle Harris and Molly Metz. The title is Hoarse Whispers, and it’s curated by Seneca Weintraut. I am also part of a two-person show in July at the Wilson Museum at the Southern Vermont Arts Center with Burlington-based artist Misoo Bang. I’ll be an artist in residence atI Park in Connecticut this summer as well, and will be teaching a class at Anderson Ranch in Colorado! The title of the course is Sculpture, Architecture, and Abstraction, and it will run the last week in August.

Sarah in studio
Rapunzel, 2018 Epoxy clay, epoxy resin, plywood, paper pulp, acrylic paint, found mineral deposits. Approximately 91”h x 15”w x 16”d
Purchase work by Sarah here

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