Sally Saul on the Politics of Then and Now
Sally Saul has been sculpting for over three decades, creating ceramic portraits of various figures, animals, and objects that are rooted in both reality and fantasy. After an idyllic childhood near Ithaca, New York, she moved to Colorado to study literature, and subsequently wound up in the Bay Area as a young adult during the 1960s and early ’70s. This era, distinguished by both massive societal uprisings and her introduction to future husband Peter Saul, became a pivotal juncture wherein many of her artistic sensibilities took shape. Peter, a painter now widely regarded as a founding father of Pop Art, and his circle of artists—with their Funk-infused flair for using exuberant colors and wry humor to make satirical commentaries on daily life—exerted an early and significant influence on Sally.
In 1981, the Sauls relocated to Austin, where Sally began to formalize her process through ceramics courses at the University of Texas. Over time, busts gave way to full figured forms that took on lifelike and whimsical personalities of their own. Partly autobiographical, the sculptures came to capture her physical surroundings, private life, and overarching philosophies about the world at large. Two summers ago, I was thrilled to make my first journey to Sally’s home and studio in Germantown, New York, where the couple has resided the past twenty years. Together, we unearthed sculptures that had long been wrapped and tucked away in a small nook above her studio, and flipped through old photographs that captured early works. Many of these (to my dismay, still to this day) had been discarded over the years, but some had thankfully been saved in various friends’ Texan homes. Our search culminated in Blue Hills, Yellow Tree, an exhibition at Pioneer Works which aimed to provide a comprehensive look at the artist’s oeuvre.
While a sizable portion of Sally’s ceramics and occasional watercolor drawings capture sentimental memories of her loved ones (Peter seems to rank among her favorite subjects) or the flora and fauna that inhabit the pastures surrounding her past and present homes, there are also many allusions to the political, social, and ecological conditions of the United States. For instance, Rachel Carson, the trailblazing conservationist who famously wrote Silent Spring (1962) to rebuke the American government for blindly permitting chemical companies to produce and to market toxic pesticides, is a recurring presence within her practice. The artist additionally offers feminist takes on religion and politics, by transforming male saints into women or by pairing presidential busts with others of historical female icons such as Angela Davis and Gertrude Stein.
Roughly one year after the exhibition, I returned to Sally with questions about the similarities and differences that she has observed between past decades and the present day. Along the way, she opened up about the inspirations which have shaped her work and her life in recent months.
I think that many are finding it a bit challenging to remember life before the pandemic and widespread protests—at least speaking for myself—but your exhibition at Pioneer Works was just one summer ago. Was there any work that you were particularly pleased to be reunited with?
Thank you for reminding me that my exhibition was exactly one year ago. Being relatively isolated, sheltering for so many months, has altered my relationship with time in various ways. I remember what a pleasure the show was for me, from taking the ferry over to Red Hook to seeing the work so well displayed—including so many from the past that I never expected to see again. And I was surprised, too, at the care that friends had taken with the pieces. I was particularly pleased with Big Beaver (1989), but also Gertrude Stein and FDR (1996). Really, I enjoyed reconnecting with them all, which I didn't anticipate. I had completely forgotten how large they are, and how I managed to lift them in and out of the kiln, sometimes with Peter’s help. So, even though I exercise, I realized that I was stronger in those days.
There is a political undertone within your practice, which I don’t feel is immediately apparent but is certainly a big component of your work. For example, the Mad Dog (2017) sculptures are actually parodies of contemporary politicians—snarling, foolish, and at least a little bit deranged. There was also that series of busts from the late 1990s and early 2000s that paired presidential figures with female luminaries that were their contemporaries, which made visible the centuries-long suppression of women. Can you speak a little bit about this?
The idea for the presidents and female luminaries came from noticing a ruler with the presidents lined up on its face (an odd combination of measurement and presidents). It emphasized the obvious: how different life would be if there were women mixed in with those male potentates. And that, in turn, made me think of all the monuments or busts dedicated to male achievements, real or imagined, usually in one war or another. And so I thought, why not mix it up? So, now I think of this again with the current re-looking at and removal of monuments disregarding the truth, in the elevation of one race or gender over the other.
You lived in the Bay Area during the 1960s and ’70s, a place and time frequently remembered for the mass demonstrations which called for civil rights as well as the end of the Vietnam War. As history unfortunately tends to repeat itself, can you reflect a little bit on that time? Do you see any similarities, or dissimilarities, between then and today’s protests?
One similarity is the opposition, and another is that these demonstrations were all organized by the young (a good thing since they’re smarter), but many older generations also joined in the marches. Both were sparked by brutalities that one was expected to accept—in one case, the invasion of a country, and, in the other, the death of George Floyd and the systemic violence directed towards people of color. One difference is the number of white protesters joining the recent Black Lives Matter protests against out-of-control policing and social injustice. That’s really heartening to see.
By and large, all have been peaceful demonstrations and marches. Although Peter remembers attending one Vietnam protest where some were knocked to the ground by the police, I don’t remember the protests that I attended in Golden Gate Park as being violent. The riot police were there during the marches in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as currently of course, so that is much the same. I remember seeing them before a march at San Francisco State University which protested the invasion of Cambodia. The riot police were secreted behind a building, in formation and dressed in riot gear, carrying batons. Also, 1970 witnessed the Kent State University shooting, during which the Ohio National Guard wound up killing 4 students and injuring 9 others, who at that point were running away. It was shocking.
The Civil Rights movement started earlier in the ’50s so, although I was somewhat aware of what was going on, I wasn’t following more closely until the '60s. The extreme violence and venom directed at the peaceful marchers in Selma and Montgomery, or earlier the Freedom Riders, was incomprehensible, as if a poison had invaded the police’s minds. I think this sets the Civil Rights movement apart from the others. Something that connected the Civil Rights and Vietnam era were 4 assassinations: Jack Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, all within 5 years. In spite of the Summer of Love, this was a violent time, or maybe the Summer of Love was meant as an antidote.
Are you at all hopeful that these current disruptions will actually lead to positive change in our country?
I think we’re in a dangerous time, though I guess that’s obvious. On one hand, I think there is a strong possibility of significant positive structural change, as not seen in a long time. On the other, I consider Trump to be a dictator-in-the-making and, if he wins the election, there will be very dark days ahead. Who would have thought that the often talked about checks and balances protecting our democracy were so fragile? A lot about our country has been brought to light. I think the will to make changes for the good is very strong right now, and I hope that we follow that path.
Speaking of the current moment, which of course is hugely defined by the pandemic, I wanted to ask you about a sculpture that you recently made, for a group exhibition at Anna Zorina Gallery. The sculpture is a bust of a woman wearing a blue face mask, accompanied by a glove to the side. Is this intended to be you?
Yes, it’s me. As I started to think about how I was going to portray myself, I suddenly realized that I had to include the mask that has become so ubiquitous in our lives. I remember first being concerned with obtaining masks, then with finagling with them—glasses askew while you’re trying to adjust the mask. I am more at ease with them now, after wearing them always while social distancing. This small fragile object on our face can mean the difference between life and death for ourselves and others, and I never imagined this happening.
How has life been for you, in general, over the past months?
The quiet is appreciated. Fewer cars, less hubbub in general. You become more aware of your surroundings. We take walks with friends once in a while, participate in Zoom calls or FaceTime, but that’s not the same as being with others. We have plenty of time but since we have little help these days, needing to keep distance, wind up doing more chores. The spring was gorgeous, lingering, cool, profuse blooms, all shades of green. Everyone remarked on it. But now into summer, I begin to wish for more social life. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but I would like to spend an evening with others, go into the city for a few days, or take a hike in the Adirondacks.
Going back to your work, I’ve been wanting to ask you about a new direction that I feel you’ve been taking, which is abstraction. Can you describe what that has been inspired by, and what that process has been like?
That has come from being inspired to try and take a work apart, and putting it together again, abstractly. Also, from looking at a two-dimensional work that has abstract components, and trying to translate that into a sculptural object. I think the impulse is to set a problem for myself, and to see what I can do with it. Sometimes ideas come readily; other times after thinking over it quite awhile, I maybe abandon it. It’s never easy for me, though I’ve noticed that putting my mind in a different framework helps me think more closely about composition. It’s a little like scrambling up a sentence and putting it together in a new way.
Scrambling things up, to try to solve problems, feels like a metaphor that could be applied to 2020. To look ahead to the future, do you have any new series or projects in the works?
I’m preparing for a show at Rachel Uffner Gallery this fall. So far I have made a series of birds, but also am working on larger pieces—figures and more abstract ideas. I’ve said too much (I think I went on too long about politics, but it’s difficult not to these days) and need to get to work right now!
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