When Californian artist Sarah Lee shared her story with me, I felt a genuine sense of awe. It’s one of those poignant stories about human connection and primal creation becoming the foundation for something truly spectacular. Certainly, it’s not unusual to develop self-taught skills which are strengthened through trial and error. But having a circle of mechanics – who don’t even speak your language – becoming your inner circle of advisors? Well, here was a story I had to share… so let’s start at the beginning. Welcome to the world of Sarah Lee.
A simple test
In truth, Sarah grew up in a creative household. Her mother was a fashion designer, and her father, a mechanic, used to design and create his own cars. “I got my creativity from both of them.” Sarah explains. But her introduction to the world of sculpture came much later on.
I took a drawing class and one of the assignments was to make a realistic-looking sculpture out of found material. The instructor informed us that if we were able to accomplish this, then it would indicate a natural ability for drawing.
I found this theory very interesting and from that simple test, my passion for sculpting was brought to the surface.
Sarah started out trying air-dry clay and Sculpey. With no experience with sculpting, she found everything she made was precariously fragile. But these materials failed to light a fire in Sarah, and pushed by the assignment for her drawing class, she found herself on the lookout for something new. The road led her to an unusual source, one which has become a primary material that Sarah Lee has been using ever since: eggshells.
“Everything was trial and error.” She reminisces, “I didn’t know anything about building armatures and didn’t understand the baking time of Sculpey, so I ended up breaking and burning most of the sculptures in the beginning.
“I grew up in a household that didn’t like to waste. We repurposed everything that others had deemed garbage. It just so happened that we had a huge family gathering, and I was helping my mom crack open eggs. There were so many leftover shells and we felt it was so wasteful; then the idea popped into my head. I’ve been collecting eggshells ever since.
“The first sculpture I made using eggshells was a white snake in this class, and I still have it with me. It was funny: the instructor later told me I was a better sculptor than an illustrator, and that I might consider switching majors. So, I guess I proved his drawing measurement theory wrong.”
From Sculpey to scrap metal
Luckily, Sarah continued both two-dimensional and three-dimensional avenues and developed her aptitude for drawing, painting, and sculpture. However, the creativity and scope of sculpture became a growing force in her life. She wanted to learn more.
“After realizing that Sculpey was just play dough for adults, I decided to search for more stable and durable materials.”
That urge led her back to her father’s auto body shop, where she watched him and the other mechanics working on different vehicles. She watched them welding, building new forms from a multitude of other parts. An idea formed.
“I was fortunate to have a supportive father […] he let me loose in his shop and I bothered every mechanic and body man to learn more about what they were using to fix cars. I was stationed in a little corner in the garage of the shop where all the scrap metal, bumpers, and tires were piled up.
It was all trial and error; I played around with materials such as fiberglass and bondo, welded scrap metal from broken cars for the armature, and from time to time the employees would watch and give me advice.
The men at the shop barely spoke English so I had to communicate with sound effects and body gestures, and sometimes I would take out Google translator to speak Spanish for me. They were my greatest advisers, and we’re still good friends to this day. With them, I learned to speak without words. As long as the human connection is there, communication is no problem.
One big family
It’s not often that the opportunity arises to build a connection with those who don’t speak your language. Even then, it’s a barrier many don’t take the time to overcome. But in doing so, Sarah and her group of mechanics – her friends and advisors – accessed a beautiful opportunity to share knowledge and embolden Sarah’s life as a sculptor. Perhaps we can all be a little more open to similar opportunities around us, and have the same belief in human connection which Sarah Lee has practiced.
By moving into her father’s workshop, Sarah Lee also found herself even closer to her father. They would eat lunch together, carpool to and from the auto body shop – and perhaps most importantly, he continued to show an interest in her sculptures.
“In between breaks he would come over and give me feedback on what I was working on. He would introduce me to new materials that the workers were using. He was the one who introduced me to welding, fiberglass, bondo, and all these different tools that made it easier for me to make my bigger sculptures. I’m always learning about new tools, new materials, and new ideas at the shop. I learned from him that you don’t necessarily have to have an artistic side to be creative.
“Everyone at the shop would come to me with their new ideas, show me pictures that might inspire me, and bring me precious junk from the scrap pile that might interest me. Everyone seemed to care and think of me at the shop and tried to be involved creatively, and I really appreciate that love and support. It’s like one big family that feeds my creativity.”
Navigating through a cosmos of ideas
However, the support didn’t stop there. Sarah’s mother also ensured a flurry of ideas were always available. As Sarah described to me how both her parents constantly pitch ideas to her, it was hard not to smile. But, sometimes, the parental enthusiasm can be a challenge: “Sometimes the narrative that goes with [their suggestions] is overwhelming; I get lost. It’s an unending imagination that stems even more imagination. Then before you know it, an hour or two has passed. I never made anything they pitched to me, but they’re STILL at it. Even when I’m in the process of making something, they hover and tell me to add this and that and then the narration happens. At least they’re passionate and supportive!”
I wondered if, after all this time, there was an artwork which held a special place in Sarah’s heart. She assured me that there was: her first life-size sculpture, “Two-headed Crocodile,” standing at 2.5ft x 5ft x 6ft. Impressively, this mega project was only the third sculpture that Sarah had ever made. The piece took a year to make in her father’s shop.
It was the first time I utilized fiberglass, bondo, welding, and other auto body materials. There were many obstacles I had to overcome, and at one point I wanted to grab a sledgehammer, release my rage, and give up.
This piece is the most fragile piece I have because I had no clue what I was doing, I didn’t really know the materials or anything about the basics of building a sculpture.
It was a learning curve figuring out what worked and what didn’t, but now my current sculptures are pretty strong and durable. This piece was definitely a growing experience and shaped me as the artist that I am today.
Looking to the future
Sarah Lee is quickly becoming a rising star in the contemporary world of sculpture. A Finalist in the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize 2020, her talent and eye for narrative is snowballing her (well deserved) recognition. The way that she juxtaposes the delicacy of her eggshells with the robust armatures continues to provoke awe. More so, Sarah hand cuts each eggshell into the exact scale shape needed for her reptile sculptures. She continues to show true skill and understanding of various materials. In her own words:
“I wanted to play with the themes of yin and yang, the breakable with the unbreakable, weakness and strength, vulnerability and durability, and find the balance in between. Eggshells are really hard to manipulate, given how delicate they are. However, I’ve enjoyed the challenge, and the process of learning just how far I could control this material and translate it into a sculpture has been incredibly satisfying.”
Continuing her journey, Sarah Lee has begun to teach as well. “I didn’t think I would ever teach, but one day I had the opportunity to teach a college-level drawing class. After a couple of weeks, some students stayed after class and thanked me for teaching them an easier way to draw. They were so happy they were improving in their drawings in such a short time. It was so gratifying to see that I had helped them improve and build their confidence in drawing. That feeling was one of the most memorable and unforgettable moments in my career.”
The zone of Zen
Sarah is looking forward to teaching more in January 2021: “I don’t plan to stop making art in this lifetime” she laughs. And I believe her. “I feel like I’m constantly learning. That’s what I like most about making art. The constant learning and never-ending experimenting. Art heals my soul; I just constantly have to be doing it; it’s therapy. When you’re in the zone, nothing comes in between. No negative thoughts, no real-world problems, just pure Zen.