Artist Talk:
Sarah Esme Harrison

Transcribed from an artist walk-through of the exhibition, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace on February 18, 2024

SEH: My name is Sarah. I made this diptych, as well as the other three. Do you all know anything about printmaking? It’s kind of what it looks like. This is the first time I ever silkscreened and one of the first times I ever made a print. So, it's not a perfect representation of by-the-book printmaking process. But I'll tell you what I did. 

Usually I paint, and I approached these as a painter. When I started working on this, I didn't even know how to do it. The first thing that I worked on was everything that you see in black here, as one drawing, if you can imagine it without any color behind it. I made this drawing by using brush and screen drawing fluid. You start on a screen, which is kind of like a canvas because it's stretched over a frame, but you can see through it. And then the screen drawing fluid is this honey-like ink that is bright blue. And you paint it on, and it dries really quickly, like an egg yolk. So that's almost this perfect record of the drawing I did.

I made it outside, and I was standing in front of a tree that I had been painting. I approached this in the middle of working on something else. And after I had finished this drawing, I brought it inside, and Matt showed me how to make a print.
Audience Member 1: Is the screen this big?
SEH: Yeah. Maybe an inch bigger. You can see the edge here—a super tight signature.

Then you add the screen filler and wash out the screen drawing fluid. Imagine a screen door that's this size lying on a table, and there's a blue drawing on it. And you can see through the entire thing except for the blue drawing. It’s kind of like photography. There’s the negative, and your print is the positive.

Every time you pull ink through the screen where there used to be blue and everywhere there's not black, the red resists. And you just push the ink through and where the red is does not show up. So, this allows you to reuse the same screen over and over and over. Then you just clean it out. You do another print and clean it out and do another print.
Audience Member 2: You did the original drawing in plein air?
SEH: Yeah, I made a drawing directly on the screen. It would have been just as much work to redraw it onto the screen, and I probably would have lost some of the movement that it had in the first place. It probably took drawing it in one shot. Then I had this version. If you can imagine it, that's just the black ink on white paper. And I did that a couple of times to get used to the movement of pushing the ink through, which is not hard, but it takes a little bit of work.

And then I kind of took a break for a couple of days and went back to working on my painting. Doing the print helped me think about how I use layers in my painting. And I sort of came to this conclusion that painting is a lot like printmaking—you can build a structure that eventually allows you to improvise and be spontaneous… to push certain things forward.

So, thinking about that, I made four more screens. And those are the colors you see here…this pink color that's kind of like a sky, and then this green. The pink goes on first. And it's the same process, except it's not drawing. It's blocking out space. I guess that is kind of drawing... And then you use the resist. And then it’s this thing with a hole in it. And through the hole comes the pink paint. And then, in exactly the same way, the green came next. And then with this one, I believe that I made another one for the blue. And at that point, I went back to the initial drawing that I had made on the first screen, which is the black, tree-like drawing, somewhat abstracted. And I put that on top of it. At first, before the black, it's just this piece of paper with blocks of color on it.

Again, this is the first time I'd done this. So, I wasn't able to anticipate every single thing that would happen. I mean, it's not that complicated, but it's a couple of things to keep in your head. And if you're not used to it, mistakes that can be good happen.

So, I went back in and painted this part white to make it come out from the surrounding area—to give the composition this anchor point. As I was working, I began to feel somewhat dissatisfied with it with just the one bottom print. And that's a concern that I deal with in all of my work where it kind of wants to leave its body as piece of paper for a little bit.

So, I did a couple of things. I worked back into it with yellow paint, and then I made another drawing outside of this tree on another screen, not on the same screen, totally starting the process over.  I had a lot of space to look at them. I started shuffling them around, and I realized that I wanted them to be a vertical diptych. So, that's how these things came together. I mean, obviously, the colors on the top and bottom one together, compositionally, draw our eyes together, and you want to connect them.

Let’s stand in front of another one, actually.
Audience Member 1: What about the texture in here?
SEH: Oh, yeah. I'm glad you brought that up. On this one, the black part, I actually did on two different screens. So that's two black prints on top of each other.

*moving to next print*

And with this one, pretty much all of this color that's not black…I went back in with a brush, and it has a different feel. It looks a little less calm, in my opinion, because you can watch my hand moving around and the record of my hand moving around that was trying to avoid the black and cover it up a little bit.

With most silkscreen prints, you’d list them as a three-color print or four-color print, but you couldn't really do that with any of these prints because I went back into them in a way that you can't count the layers.
Audience Member 2: Were you making the color choices early on, or that was another thing that kind of evolved as you went? 
SEH: That definitely evolved as I went. I tried to push myself to use colors that I don't normally use. I would describe these colors as a lot of pastels. I think I did that to give them a sense of light coming from behind. In this one—to go back to this tree—the white is just the negative space on the piece of paper because I figured out how to block it out on the screen.

This one is three layers of color using the screens. The first is the yellow. Then the green, and then the black and the rest of the color are just by hand. I like the way that the marks I made using the brush interact with the pressing quality that comes from the screen. And the brush marks come forward and they push against the black a little bit and gives it a tension.

The top half of the diptych was also made using three screens. The first move, I didn't block anything out. I just used a blank screen and pushed yellow through it. I could have painted the paper yellow, but it would have had kind of less settled and receding quality because you would have seen the brush marks. And with my hand, there’s no way I could have gotten the paint as thin and evenly distributed as the screen can. This goes back to your question about the other print. The black marks on this top part are also two different screens, both using black. The reason I made the top drawing using two different screens for the black marks was because when I did that, I could lie down the black tree trunks and then add color in between the two black layers. There's a way that the tree contains the color instead of the color sitting on top of the tree. Does that make sense? Does anyone have any questions?
Audience Member 2: Do you want to maybe talk a little bit about your painting practice and if that informed the way you made these prints?
SEH: One thing that was really cool about printmaking is that it gave me somewhat of a language for the way that I paint. I think that's why painters like printmaking and do it. Sitting and letting hours go by in between each layer made me think about the layers I use in my paintings. Because I do paint in layers. It’s very additive, so 1+1+1+1 adds up to what you see. In a way, starting these helped me think about the layers I use in my paintings and then the way that I do that when I paint is a little hard to talk about because it’s abstract, and we're not looking at it, but the way that I kind of interfere with them and like to inhabit them helped me feel comfortable doing that while I was printmaking. I did mess with these more than maybe someone who was making prints for the first time and wanted to figure out exactly how to do it would have.

*moving to next print*

When I make paintings, I paint on a shaped support. They're kind of like paintings, but they’re working in the edge of what actually counts as a painting. What I mean by that is I paint on these wedge shapes that stick out from the wall, and I paint on the side. I'm interested in this space where something turns into something that is not just painting. In some way, someone could say the paintings I make are sculptures. I mean, I think of them as paintings, but they are kind of on the edge of being or becoming a different medium. That interest in being on the edge of a practice is something that comes up for me a lot. It was that same sort of feeling of wanting to push something beyond its limits that got me back into it.

This one I really went back into with my hand and to turn it into a diptych. It’s kind of automatically about its relationship to itself and about the space between the two pieces.
Audience Member 2: I understand you also have a collage practice in the studio, just in how you're working through arranging things. Does that kind of come up in these as well? 

I haven't thought about the way that collages interact or what that kind of thought process has to do with these, but I think it has to do with this interest in introducing a new element into a composition. Almost like, I want there to be an enemy in the scene or like an unintended visitor. Maybe not an enemy, but something from somewhere else and the tension that that creates. One thing that I love about looking at prints is that they're kind of quiet layers, like a calm lake or something.

But it's very hard for me to just leave it at that. I think the collage impulse is there and my impulse to paint back into the prints is there.

In this one, just to go back to the tree, I used another blank screen to push the color all the way through.

In this one there was no white in the tree, but I kind of missed the way it stood out. So, I went back into it with the yellow. I think you could have achieved that same color if you had been shrewd about the layers you used, but that was not me. I also liked the way that it looked with my hand going back into it. It's a little more tense.

Maybe we should move on to this one.

*moving to next print*

SEH: This one is almost like the opposite of that one. Because I didn't paint back into the bottom at all, but I did paint into the top. I think the top has this energy to kind of reverse situation as that one over there, even though they're both dark and calm. And that white which comes forward in this composition is just the paper.
Audience Member 1: So, the blue on this one, you painted on this.
SEH: On this half of it, yeah, the blue I painted after I did the black.
Audience Member 1: How'd you get the white back on the black over there?
SEH: After a while, the red screen filler starts to degrade a little bit. It's almost as if you make a xerox a bunch of times, you start getting all this noise. But it's kind of cool. I didn't feel any need to hide it…like this funny shape over here just got bigger every time I did it. Because when you wash them out, it's hard on them, and it's a physical thing, so it changes a little bit every time you use it. As for over here, it’s just a misregistration between the two colors because I was working fast and loose. But you can see that this kind of mark is different than these kinds of white marks, which seem a little more biting. Also, if I was really good at pushing the ink through the screen, it probably would be less prominent.
Audience Member 3: People usually do screen printing to make multiples of the same thing. These are all different. Did you at any point in the process try to make them all the same as an edition?
SEH: Yeah. I mean, it certainly crossed my mind, and I think maybe in a different world I would have done that, but I didn't because I was interested in seeing how I could exploit these screens I had and make a bunch of different things. As a painter, the thing you're working on is always a more dangerous game because you can just fuck it up and it's ruined. And with printmaking, I think it was a lot more of a relaxed process for me because the drawing exists as a negative on a screen. I didn't really feel the need to reiterate it a bunch of times because it already exists. I was more interested in how I could make a bunch of different ones and not worry about ruining it. As a painter, print making was really new for me and exciting. So that's why I didn't make a bunch of the same ones. I also don't think I'm that good. I don't know if I could make them the same.
Audience Member 4: Did you try to capture a specific moment of the day or the season in each diptych?
SEH: I definitely was thinking that this one's more of a nighttime one. I associate these colors with autumn or late summer.
Audience Member 2: This was October in Montana? 
SEH: Yeah, I started all of these in October. I think I went back into them a little bit in December, but this was pretty much all in October. I wasn't chasing after a particular time of day. But once I saw, for example, the first layer of blue, I thought, oh, this is kind of like five minutes before it gets dark. And sometimes the green glows in this way that I remember when the sky looks like this. And then I could use it to get back to a memory. In some ways, because the black drawing let me have so many possibilities. But I didn't set out thinking, I'm going to make winter, spring, summer, and fall, although it actually looks like that. Maybe I did do that…

Sarah in Montana
Audience Member 2: When you were talking about these works to me before, you were saying that you like to write about them. How does writing, or maybe even reading, come in into the work you make? 
SEH: I think it helps me be a little more self-aware about what I'm making, just in the way that any sort of diary or any way that you can sort of rehash what you've been doing, even in conversation, helps you understand what you've been doing. And sometimes you're surprised by the way you describe yourself doing something. And then that can sort of push you forward into a new idea. And as I was working on these prints, I write about them just for myself. I've noticed the word like layer comes up and wooden frame comes up. And I have these days in between these layers and then notice how much it's like what I do when I paint. In an implicit way, I think it pushes me forward and helps me realize what my topics actually are.

And I think reading is good because you are imagining things when you read. We don't really talk that much about imagination with art, which is strange, but you actually really do need to be able to imagine something to draw it, even if you're looking at it right in front of you, because it's like you have to hold it in your mind and then put it down on the paper. I think reading helps me in that way. I also miss language when I'm working because images resist language. And that's really interesting for me because I feel like images push on language and they ask it to evolve because it needs to keep up to be able to describe something. In that way, I think reading is a big deal to me. Words seem powerful and they can really dictate the way you interpret an image.

I think images have an interesting spreading power, but they're weak next to words and they can become sort of subservient or ironic. In a way, I guess reading and writing for me is the other side of my brain. It's almost like it needs to have some kind of equal and opposite life.