Sabrina Brett’s journey to visual art-making has been an unconventional one. Though she majored in music at Santa Clara University, this classically trained vocalist found that working in visual art has allowed her to be more expressive and true to herself. This attention to truth, self-awareness, personal experience and even rejection of so-called tradition find a happy co-existence in her original and up-cycled artwork.
Sabrina creates multimedia works that celebrate women while exploring androgyny and symbols of power. As a queer woman whose work often features queer women, she says that she finds unique strength and freedom in her subjects and their stories.
With her personal journey, unique perspective on sexuality and gender roles, and creative approach, Sabrina is the perfect woman to kick off our month-long series on “women’s work” in contemporary art.
Quick lesson: “Women’s work” is work that has been seen as being the domain of women – in this context, sewing, stitching, embroidering, knitting, crocheting and other forms of fiber work. In creative circles, these practices have been relegated to the realm of “craft” rather than high art. While Sabrina doesn’t work exclusively with fibers, they do figure prominently in her work.
We’ll be talking with contemporary female artists about this distinction, its validity, their approach to art-making as an artist and a woman, and more. Let’s get started. Meet Sabrina!
- Age: 27
- Location: San Francisco, California
- Education: BA in Music from Santa Clara University
- Field of Interest: Mixed Media Art, Women, Sexuality, Androgyny, Mountains, Healing, Energy
- What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? Intuition. My approach to the canvas is guided by intuition. Because I’m self-taught, I don’t (consciously) prescribe to any art theories, rules or inherited artistic trajectories. And so, I feel immense freedom when creating mixed media art. I can’t break rules, because I’m governed by none.
- What Inspired You Today? Everyday, emotions fuel my art process and compel me to externalize – else I’d drown.
- What Are You Currently Reading and/or Listening To? I just finished reading Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. I’m listening to “In the Woods” by Fly Moon Royalty, “Hummed Low” by Odessa, “Ava” by Coeur De Pirate, and “Stille vann” by Siri Nilsen.
- Are You Working on Any Projects That You’re Really Excited About? I just started painting the portrait of the most stunning woman I know.
Questions + Answers
We love the different textures and materials you use in your paintings. Are your portraits created around the materials that you’ve found or do you choose the materials based on the spirit of the women you’re trying to capture?
The materials I choose serve to accentuate the spirit of the portrait. While I’m painting, I start to envision what types of materials would best serve the subject. Some portraits call for soft, lush materials such as fabric and ribbon, and others require raw earth materials such as wood, feathers, and fibrous paper.
Historically, portraits of women can be seen mostly as a record of the male gaze – that is, how women are seen by men. Your work refreshingly depicts women through women’s eyes, subverting that tradition. Do you feel that your portraits of women have a different tone than men’s portraits of women? Does this distinction carry significance to you as an artist, and more broadly, as a feminist?
I view my female subjects as powerful multi-dimensional beings that are fraught with complexity. I seek to portray women who are moving through experiences with courage, love, and strength as well as with rage, pain and fragility. And so, each portrait is a communion between the sacred, traumatic, and beautiful elements of life that shape a woman’s journey.
Yes, I believe my tone is different from that of most men. I’m committed to communicating the underlying energetic essence and emotional disposition of my subjects. It’s that rich, vast, shifting, unnerving, and at times contradictory internal world within women that drives me to paint them again and again. The environments that engulf my subjects are projections of their internal worlds.
While my art is a celebration of women writ large, it is also a chronicle of my journey as a queer female. Lesbian Journalist Victoria A. Brownworth wrote, “There is no one to record our history but ourselves. And if we do not record that history, we are in danger of being elided from it. Forever.” [“The Herstory Pride Archives,” Curve, May/June 2015]
I have a responsibility to visually articulate my experience as well as broadcast the unique quality and energy of queer women. It’s a duty and a privilege to paint the queer women who inspire me, love me, and have shaped my life.
We’d love to hear more about your relationship with music and painting. Was there a conscious shift from one art form to the other, or are they constantly intertwined in your art practice?
I started painting at a time in my life when I was desperate to externalize feelings and realizations that I couldn’t verbalize aloud. I needed to be expressive, and classical music performance wasn’t the right medium for that need. As a classically trained vocalist, I was limited to a technique, character, libretto, and composition of another.
And so, I turned to visual art, because it afforded me a certain freedom that I didn’t experience when I was singing operettas. Because I had no formal training in art, I had no concept of what I could and couldn’t do. While I ultimately earned a B.A. in Music (2011), I decidedly embraced visual art as my medium of choice after college. It has since been my channel for expressing my truth.
You cite sexuality and androgyny as being of great interest to you. Many artists — we can’t help but think of David Bowie given his recent passing — have explored these concepts in their own ways. How do you explore these concepts in your work and in your experience as a feminist?
Androgyny as expressed in women inspires my work. There is a harmonious balance between femininity and masculinity that is both beautiful and inherently defiant.
I paint androgynous women as a way of challenging and rejecting the narrow conception of female beauty (flawless, hyper-sexualized, eternally young and skinny) that we’ve been inundated with.
My understanding of sexuality and evolution as a sexual being is documented in my work.
Sexuality is of great interest to me, because my relationship to it has changed so dramatically. I grew up in a very conservative home and went to a Catholic school for ten years. Sex was something shameful, something you couldn’t talk about. I have since come to embrace it, but that journey was complicated and difficult, though ultimately exciting and liberating.
It’s all about divorcing yourself from the programmed information you inherit. That takes strength and courage. Any queer female who embraces her sexuality has to go through that. And, it’s that shared journey that often makes us unabashedly proud and exceptionally strong. My work honors that strength, and seeks to portray every stage of the queer female journey.
Looking back, I understand the relationship between my work and my sexuality. Without my experience of falling in love with women, I wouldn’t have necessarily needed to paint. The road to self-awareness, self-acceptance, and open self-embrace was a long, arduous one. And, because my identity was met with great hostility by my family, I was limited to certain channels of expression.
Through art, I have been able to move through each stage of my journey with greater clarity, defiant self-acceptance, and much needed release.
Given your work in Project ArtCycle, art appears to be an act of continual evolution to you. However, some may see your use and altering of someone else’s art as a form of stealing. How would you respond to that? What is your favorite part about transforming a piece?
Project Artcycle was borne out of a desire to add levity to my work and engage with subjects that I usually don’t portray (e.g. still life). It’s also about starting a dialogue, and giving my subjects a second life.
For those that would label this as stealing, I’d reply that I’m giving these subjects an opportunity to dress up and have fun.
My favorite part of this process is that it’s comical, absurd and not at all time-consuming. One piece usually takes 5-10 minutes, and that’s satisfying.
Who inspires you?
- Meg Allen: http://megallenstudio.com/photography
- Rain Dove: https://www.facebook.com/raindovemodel
- Hannah Adamaszek: http://hannahadamaszek.com/