The Myth of Origin
How did you get into making art?
I’ve always been attracted to making things with my hands. Much of my recreation in childhood consisted of craft kits: hooked rugs, small weavings, beaded jewelry, making clothing, stained glass, comics for friends. I also played the piano for eleven years. All of this muscle memory, plus the Italian-Catholic reverence for devotional objects of my upbringing, compounded on itself over time. I was never an athlete, or interested in any sort of athleticism, but it wasn’t until I began taking sculpture classes in undergrad that I realized art is something you can do with your entire body. The physicality of using power tools, of negotiating balance, using one’s body as a vise to brace things – to make things that resonated architecturally – it felt cathartic, and I felt that through this kind of labor, I could speak some kind of truth about who I was as an artist and person.
Pallbearers (left) & Stele (right)
What are you currently working on?
Bigger picture, and longer term, I’m working on a body of sculptural work which is loosely evolving to be about mythologies of labyrinths and boundaries, both specific (the ancient Greek story of the minotaur) and social (such as the shared walls of Philadelphia row houses). The works themselves don’t resemble or recreate the actual structures, but exist as either characters or signs that circumnavigate, and hence, mirror, some of their qualities. Labyrinths and spirals indicate a necessarily elongated spiritualized-time, and these boundaries in space unfold like vectors. I view my recent works “The myth of origin (Angelus Novus)” as resembling the minotaur. They exist to me as benchmarks within the overall body of work, which itself is more loosely associative to a meditative thought process, a searching, a quest. Labyrinths are a kind of aspirational quest for language and communication, too.
I felt that through this kind of labor, I could speak some kind of truth about who I was as an artist and person.
What inspired you to get started on this body of work?
A longstanding trajectory of my work has encompassed the re-presentation of Classical art and architecture through the earnestly Romantic DIY gestures of my hand. Friezes, columns, amphorae are referenced through academic and domestic sculptural material to resemble something cartoonish, imagistic, warmly alien, and prop-like. I spent a month in Athens, Greece with the Athena Standards Residency in April 2019, and somewhat intuitively developed many plans for this body of sculptural work from that trip. While in residence, however, I mostly wrote and took photographs. One day it dawned on me that I was standing in the birthplace of “metaphor” – and the interconnectivity between language, time, and place felt very materially apparent, and I ended up making a book featuring text and photographs about these ideas.
Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?
I’d say the result tends to be a bit of both, if viewed within a broad range of time. I really love working in a larger scale, and sometimes individual sculptures which I see as belonging to a larger body of work wind up as functioning as “distinct projects” when they enter a more public realm. I tend to develop bodies of work over the course of one or two years, then sublet or give up my studio for six to eight months to reflect, read, recharge, and reprioritize. I’ve found this very necessary, and always to the tremendous benefit of whatever ends up coming next. At any point in time, however, I have no qualms about returning to previous bodies of work, and feel that works from any can very often be interchanged, given the right curatorial context. For instance, I have a series of small wood and resin casts, titled “Witness Marks”, which resemble small landscapes and are intended to be held in one’s hand. The overall body of work they belong to isn’t necessarily one I’m returning to, but I continue to make these casts. Especially during the COVID shelter-in-place occurring at the time of this writing — it’s a small, meditative, necessary activity, to feel like I am nurturing small worlds in my palm.
Sarah Tortora in the studio
What’s a typical day like in your studio?
I work very intuitively, but approach the day with a loosely listed framework of goals to attempt or achieve. My studio is a private space in an old textile mill in Philadelphia, I own all my own tools, and tend to work alone. Half of the time I work in silence, the other half I tend to listen to short stories (such as those featured on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast), podcasts about a wide variety of topics (recently I’ve been listening to sommeliers and economists), or find a song I like and let YouTube’s algorithms take over. When starting a new piece, I usually cover the walls with craft paper, grab a yardstick, and gesturally configure proportions and extrusions with cut paper, using them as large blueprints which eventually become stencils. I tend to construct larger sculptures directly on top of furniture dollies, so the most strenuous lifting involves pivoting the works back and forth. I tend to work on no more than 3 works at a time, beyond that my attention span becomes stretched too thin.
Who are your favorite artists?
In no particular older, I will list some artists and entities whose works, ideation, guidance, or ways of structuring the world are inspiring to me as of lately: Daniela Rivera, Ester Partegàs, Ruby Sky Stiler, Claudia Wieser, Anne Truitt, Nairy Baghramian, Mariana Castillo Deball, Diane Simpson, Sheila Pepe, Huma Bhabha, Nancy Davenport, Magali Reus, Holly Hendry, Phyllida Barlow, Shana Hoehn, Arlene Schechet, Sarah Braman, Carol Bove, Rachael Vaters-Carr, E.E. Ikeler, Sarah Oppenheimer, Carlo Scarpa, Lina Bo Bardi, the preparators of the Centrale Montemartini in Rome, the ancient planners of the Kerameikos cemetery in Greece, Mt. Vesuvius’ downward sloping lava flows etched on the landscape, the slowly trickling minerals of Kankirixche Cenote, the devoted creators of the small domestic Catholic shrines of Palermo, the public works departments of Philadelphia, for the earnestly and aesthetically expedient decisions made along sidewalks and pedestrian paths, and the preparators/conservators of the Peabody Museum in New Haven.
Witness Mark XXX
Where do you go to discover new artists?
When visiting any major city, I tend to visit natural history museums, archeology museums, galleries that are clustered together in single neighborhoods, or ones recommended to me through word of mouth. When I visit New York, I tend to spend most of my time in galleries on the Lower East Side. I had a live-in staff position at Vermont Studio Center from 2017-2018, and each month met 60 new artists and writers. The artistic world I inhabit continues to expand as I notice so many of those artists meeting each other, that innate interconnectedness is quite beautiful. And although social media networks are a kind of cold register to comprehend new art that is intended to be experienced live, I’ve definitely formed a few friendships online with artists who work in a similar fashion, or are interested in similar questions as I am. It feels like a very organic platform to initiate casual conversations, versus the formalities of email. Online databases like Foundwork and White Columns are great for browsing too.
Sarah Tortora is an artist based in Philadelphia who was recently shortlisted for The Hopper Prize. To learn more about the artist:
- Sarah Tortora‘s finalist portfolio
- Visit Sarah’s website at sarahtortora.com
- Follow Sarah on Instagram @tortora_studio
- At the time of this writing, we are all cooped up while social distancing guidelines are still in effect, but Sarah has works in “Hoarse Whispers”, currently behind the closed doors of Fjord in Philadelphia, and is looking forward to a two-person exhibition with Misoo Bang this summer at the Wilson Museum in southern Vermont.