HVT X S14 Stories
April 3, 2019

Uncomfortable Laughter

As fans of Sarah Letteney’s work, we jumped at the chance to take a peek into her studio and pick her brain (not literally, as her art might suggest) about her drawings, her studio life, and, well, all that blood.

When did you start making art?

Publicly, pretty recently. I wasn’t the kid who jumped up to shout “artist!” when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, and even as a teenager, art school wasn’t really something that I considered. I studied psychology, and worked as a counselor for years. Most of the drawing and painting I did was an outlet for getting to know myself and was kept private in my journals until, oh, I don’t know, maybe six or seven years ago? I took a community printmaking class and became more comfortable with sharing what I was making, and really, what I was experiencing emotionally. People responded (usually with uncomfortable laughter!), and when I started hearing “Oh yeah, I totally know that feeling,” or “This speaks to me,” about things I drew when I was struggling, or heartbroken, or trying to find a way to laugh out those feelings, I remember getting super charged. Like, Oh my god, this is such a cool tool for communicating, and all of a sudden, I don’t feel unheard or alone. And maybe that feeling is mutual. That connection you share when someone experiences something you’ve created and has a reaction, any reaction, is what has fueled me to keep sharing what I’m making.

What is a typical day like at your studio?
Geez, it’s pretty wonderful! My studio is in the South End of Burlington, in The Hive on Pine, with seven other really talented artists. We all work with different mediums, but each one of us is just so ecstatic to be there together, creating on our own, or bouncing ideas off one another. Or brainstorming together. It’s so cool, and just a straight up beautiful space. As far as what a day at my desk looks like, it’s always different, and I love that. Deciphering scribbled and crumpled notes from the day before and sketching and inking and probably some good old-fashioned staring at the wall to let ideas tumble around. Of course, I am always trying to get my work out there in the world, in front of people, so I do put a lot of thought into how it actually is that I want it to be seen. Well, that and how to make what I love doing in the studio fit seamlessly with what I love doing outside of it. If I can create later in the day so I get a hike in on a sunny morning, I feel like I’m living the dream.

We’ve seen your art about town—on the Pitchfork Farm truck, on posters, beer cans, not to mention online in The New Yorker! Tell us about some memorable projects you’ve had in the last year.
It’s definitely been a year of growth for me in the studio. I’ve gotten to illustrate for some badass musicians, like Caroline Rose, and continued to add more to favorite local spots like Radio Bean and Pitchfork Farm, who I’d already been drawing for. I also got the chance to express my style in new ways, like animations for album releases and painting on a larger scale. Some of those projects were more collaborative, and they’ve helped me to expand as an artist in a really fun way. A few years ago I felt too shy to ask for feedback or to jump on projects with others, but this year has helped me to see how much multiple perspectives can wonderfully shift my work. And it all just comes back to community. Locally, but also on a larger scale. I have to say The New Yorker kind of takes the cake for me this year. That all came about because a cartoonist in New York I look up to went out of their way to share their encouragement and contacts with me. A few (looking back, slightly embarrassing) submissions in, a very relatable, but also a very vulnerable piece about dating was accepted and it was a really cool feeling to share something that is, even though masked in humor, so personal, on that kind of scale. I would have most certainly been lost in a sea of amazing cartoons without the connections, and that type of generosity and thoughtfulness is contagious and is a big part of what makes it so fun to work with others. Recently I had the pleasure of naming and designing a beer can for Foam Brewers, right here in Burlington, and so many times throughout that process I found myself saying, “This is SO fun!” because they do such a great job of pulling in a variety of artists from town to add what they love doing—whether it’s design, photography, music or video—to the beer.

Also, what’s up with the blood?
Oh, the blood! A frequent visitor in my illustrations, especially in the series I did for Art Hop a couple years ago, “A is for Accident,” where each letter stood for a potential bloody mess. A is for Avocado; B is for Bicycle, G is for Garbage Disposal (my personal favorite). Well, fun fact: In real life, I can’t handle that kind of bloody accident scene. My knees go weak and I’m not much of a help if you were to say, oh, stab an oyster shucker through your palm (true story: O is for Oyster). So really all of the bloodiness, for me, is an attempt to laugh away the anxieties of life’s constant, taunting What-ifs. But we are human after all, and sometimes those what-ifs happen and we experience loss or we go on a roller-coaster ride for a bit, and it’s really neat to see my art evolve with me through those changes. Sometimes blood ends up taking the backseat for a while and other characters and colors step in to express new growth and hurdles. It’s kind of fun to see change in my life show up on paper in that way. And it creates excitement to think, What’s next?!    

What is next?
Good question! To be totally honest, I’m not exactly sure how this next phase will unfold but I can say I feel really good about it. I have a dream list of publications I’d like to be seen in, and I’m working on a children’s book with one of my best friends. This next year feels kind of like I’m sitting on the beach building a drip sand castle. There’s a great foundation in place and now I get to try to add on weird shapes and see where it goes.

Who or what was your biggest inspiration early on?
Looking back on my own childhood and the art and authors my parents introduced us to, I can see where I pulled inspiration from. We had art on the walls from my grandfather, who also used mostly black ink to illustrate, and we read a lot of Shel Silverstein and Brian Andreas as a family. I can see their playfulness with human emotions and simple line drawings in my own work. I had a bit of an addiction to scary books growing up, so Stephen Gammell, who illustrated the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, played a huge role in shaping the nightmare-driven part of my imagination, and I still love those terrifying tales!

What is it about Vermont that keeps you coming back?
I definitely asked myself that question a month ago when it was still snowing! But really, I just can’t seem to stay away for very long, despite the never-ending winters. Any time I’ve found myself living on the West Coast again, my mom sweetly reminds me that years ago I said, “I’m just the best version of myself in Vermont,” and it is absolutely true. It’s the amazingly creative and supportive community we have here. It’s just in a league of its own. I am constantly inspired by and in awe of all the driven folks in Vermont who are growing their businesses and creating and collaborating. And I do love that some days it feels like an episode of Cheers and walking around town is all “Hi! Hey! Hello!” The people and the land of Vermont are magic, and it will always be my number one.

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