Sam Vernon earned her MFA in Painting/Printmaking from Yale University in 2015 and her BFA from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 2009. Her installations combine xeroxed drawings, photographs, paintings and sculptural components in an exploration of personal narrative and identity. She uses installation and performance to honor the past while revising historical memory. Vernon has most recently exhibited with Interstitial Gallery, Coney Art Walls curated by Jeffrey Deitch, Brooklyn Museum, Queens Museum, Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Seattle Art Museum. Sam lives in Queens, NY and teaches drawing and printmaking as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Vassar College.
Wildabout: Would you describe your art as personal?
Sam: I have a diaristic approach to making — my experiences and observations directly impact the work. My art is deeply personal as it relates to how I see the world and the materials I collect over time. A drawing, a note, a postcard, an old photograph has the potential to become something else within the specificity of my references in an art context. I re-invent an essay I wrote about Benjamin Banneker as a child into a work on canvas or incorporate a pinhole photograph (of a photograph) of my mother that I made in high school into a large-scale digital wallpaper installation. Over the years many of the images I use include representations of my family and me. I think we carry our past into our future. I think about my reality as a material to handle. I ask myself, how far are you willing to go into it?
Wildabout: Where do you pull your creativity from?
Sam: Everywhere! Books, music, plays, poems, movies, exhibitions, nature, relationships, dreams….I analyze what I take and how it affects my memory, space, and navigation. Lately I’ve been watching Atlanta, listening to Solange and Bon Iver, re-reading Rilke and Claudia Rankine, researching botany, and looking at Goya and wall paintings of the West African country of Burkina Faso. At first it’s a topical response but the longer I process information the more it becomes embedded in the fabric of my art practice.
I also come from a very creative family, my mom is a designer and my sister is an artist as well so it’s in the genes. I’m constantly learning to see how all of these things register in me at a deeper level.
Wildabout: Some of your art seems to refer to the diasporic notion of return. Can you tell me more about that?
Sam: I’m constantly searching for what a return to origin would not only look like but what it would feel like. Would it encapsulate everything like a chaotic tornado or is it a clearer path? For me, the notion of return lacks clarity. Return to what exactly? And how? So my work is more about questions than providing answers. It feels like the unknown is more certain than the known. I think about fragmentation, ruptures, visual repetition and memory as mostly complex and illegible. What fades in and out of view?
Wildabout: How have notions of the self and your identity evolved in the past 5/10 years?
Sam: Wow, I continue to grow so much as each year goes by. In my early twenties I was more insecure and scared of my ideas. I wasn’t sure if they made sense or if what I did would reach an audience. My voice lacked agency and distinction. I realized that so much of what I wanted to know about myself isn’t always found in a book or in the classroom but that I needed to live my life fully and research my history outside of academia as well. Knowledge without the courage to apply it is worthless. Self-actualization is an on-going process.
Wildabout: Is there anything you would have done differently?
Sam: I definitely would’ve travelled more and worried less!
Wildabout: Anything you thought would be a failure that turned out well?
Sam: When I first applied to graduate school right out of finishing up at The Cooper Union, I didn’t get in. I felt like a huge failure. But I stayed in NYC, worked really hard, met tons of amazing people, made more art, and the growth during that period of my life was critical. Then I reapplied and got in. It pays off the keep trying even when it doesn’t work out the first time.
Wildabout: What advice would you give to your younger self?
- Trust your gut.
- Be loud.
- Forget worrying.
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