Sarah Robbins is an Urban ArtWorks volunteer, helping us out and also putting some paint on walls. We asked her for her thoughts on public art and its role in creating engaged communities:
How did you find out about Urban Artworks?
I’ve only been in Seattle a few years, and didn’t know much of anything about the art community when I got here. As I spent more time in the city, I would see these incredible murals, signal boxes, and other projects tagged with Urban Artworks and then my curiosity got the best of me so I looked you up. I didn’t realize the extent of the youth and community involvement, and really respected that side of the organization. I’m honored to now have a relationship with UA and am excited for future projects together.
Which project(s) did you work on with us? Which one was your favorite?
I’m an Urban Artworks newbie, so the only completed project we’ve done was the Playback mural at the Seattle Public Library. That was one of the best experiences of my career to date. First off, the library itself is one of my favorite buildings in this entire city, and to have the chance to paint a mural in such an iconic piece of architecture, was incredibly exciting. Second, that was my first taste of making art with volunteer members of the community. I must admit, I was a little nervous handing off paintbrushes to strangers to help paint my work, but that feeling passed in the first 10 minutes, when a little girl named Violet showed up and wanted to get her hands dirty. I was forever humbled by the fact that this group of people was taking time out of their precious weekend to come together and paint a mural with me. I can’t wait to do more things like that.
Tell us about yourself, where did you grow up / how did you find yourself in Seattle?
I grew up in a small town just outside of Rochester, New York. Our school’s chant was “Bow Down to Cow Town”, so needless to say, it was a different environment than here in Seattle. I always knew I either wanted to be an artist or a marine biologist, and senior year of high school, when I somehow managed to have 6 out of my 8 classes be art classes, that kind of sealed the deal. Well, that and my paralyzing fear of being in deep, dark bodies of water. I moved to Washington DC for college where I went to the Corcoran College of Art & Design, located in the basement of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a block from the White House. That was an amazing time, and I got to do all different kinds of work. I fell in love with painting, screen printing, and installation art. You wouldn’t know it from the work I do currently, but I’m actually trained as a photo-realist painter, which I kind of miss doing, and have been thinking about bringing that back in one way or another. We’ll see.
After college, I was an artist for Whole Foods, which was a blessing in disguise. It made me realize my love for sign painting, hand lettering, and illustration, and was the first taste of art in a commercial world. That job was actually the reason I came out to Seattle, although to be honest I used it as an excuse to leave DC. I knew I wanted to live in either Philly or Seattle, and when an opening came up to be a lead artist out here, I jumped on it. Within a month I was packing up everything I owned and driving across the country with my boyfriend and my dog – best decision of my life. We hadn’t even been to Seattle before I took the job, I just knew it was where I wanted to be.
Eventually I made the leap into freelance, realizing that Seattle was a city that embraces and values art, and that I could actually make a living doing what I wanted. Now it’s been over two years of working for myself, and I’m so incredibly grateful to have my dream job in my dream city.
What in your personal life has influenced you to choose your career path?
The biggest influence has been support from my mom. She was a special education teacher for the Rochester City School District, and one of the hardest working people I know. She had the same job her entire life, taught before-and-after school programming, and even summer school, all to be able to give my brother and I a good life. When I was making the decision to leave my job and fend for myself, I could tell she was nervous for me. But that never got in her way of telling me to go for it. Coming from her, (someone who had always made the smart, dependable decisions) that was all the reassurance I needed for my decision to try to be my own artist.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
Thankfully, I can go for a while before I start to get burnt out on work. And the fact that I’m doing what I want to do is motivation enough to keep going, and be happy doing it. Occasionally, I’ll take a long weekend and find an AirBnB in some place I’ve never been. I don’t bring any work with me, and the weekend usually consists of doing puzzles, reading, and playing Canasta. Riveting stuff, I know.
My more day-to-day motivation comes from seeing other people doing really amazing work and being passionate about it. Passion and excitement is contagious. Seeing those qualities in other artists pushes me to be better, experiment with new ideas, and above all keep going.
Where do you get your inspiration from as an artist?
Is everywhere too lame of an answer? It’s hard to dissect this one and categorize it by inspirational sources, I think inspiration comes from everywhere, and it morphs into different beings as you move through new experiences in your life. Right now I’ve been really into mid-century advertising cuts, the colors and shapes of plants in my neighbor’s garden, the Stranger Things opening credits, and the soundtrack to Baby Driver. Next week it’ll be something different, and that keeps me on my toes.
Which is more important to you, the subject of your painting, or the way it is executed?
This is a tough one, and I think it depends on the project. I’m working on a project right now, and it’s one that I knew how I wanted it executed before I even knew what the subject matter was going to be. I don’t think it’s a preference for either, it’s just a way of attacking a project. Public art is always about problem solving in one way or another, because it’s a response to a certain need. And that response is usually answered by how it functions or what it looks like – execution or subject matter. They’re both equally valuable.
In your opinion, what are some ways that public art helps create a sense of community?
Seattle is a loyal city. People value their local communities and neighborhoods, and take pride in being a part of them. Public art becomes a part of everyone’s daily landscape, and it adds to the identity of a community. It helps define a sense of place, adds meaning to our city, and reflects who we are and what we like to surround ourselves with. And the best part? It’s made for everyone. We openly and collectively have a way to share our city and create a sense of belonging and unity as one people.
What are your thoughts about public art as a tool to reach young people?
Public art is a wonderful way to reach young people. As a participant, it gives young people a chance to see how these things are made, and the impact it has on its surroundings. It provides an avenue for self-expression that is shared and can resonate with other young people and the community. It’s also a great way to get people from all different backgrounds together, working on one goal and learning from each other.
There’s also a level of reality it brings, where as a youth who is interested in going into the arts industry, you’d be able to see that there are actually jobs out there where you get to do this kind of stuff. I used to be a little bit of a dreamer, thinking that I would never be able to work for myself as an artist. But when you’re able to see how it’s done, and talk to the people who are doing it, that dream starts to take the shape of a reality, making the path of getting what you want a little clearer.