Work Together, Support Each Other, and Make Awesome Stuff - 10 Questions with Sarah McDermott of The Kidney Press
Sarah McDermott has lived in Jacksonville since August 2016. Native to Washington, DC, McDermott is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Printmaking at the University of North Florida (UNF). She received her Masters of Fine Arts in Book Arts from the University of Alabama and her Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies from Brown University. Previous to working at UNF, McDermott taught at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design of George Washington University in the Art and the Book M.A. Program.
In addition to working as an educator McDermott also operates The Kidney Press. Since 2010, McDermott has released artist's books, collaborative fiction journals and books, and prints through The Kidney Press. McDermott has also led letterpress, bookbinding, and printmaking workshops at notable institutions across the nation, including: Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory (Cleveland, OH), and the New York Public Library (New York, NY).
McDermott has held residencies at Women’s Studio Workshop (Kingston, NY), Oregon College of Art and Craft (Portland, OR), Pyramid Atlantic Art Center (Hyattsville, MD), and the Center for Book Arts (New York, NY), where she was a Van Lier Scholar in 2010-11. McDermott's work is held in multiple public and private collections including Yale University Arts Library, the Smithsonian American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Brown University Artists’ Books Collection.
McDermott's work examines the relationships and power dynamics present between people, animals, and the environment. As an artist, McDermott observes human behavior and interprets the ways in which people try to create order in a world that is oftentimes filled with disorder. Through her work McDermott explores how a human's geographic location influences their psychology and behavior.
10 Questions with Sarah McDermott
Can you recall the first artist's book you interacted with as an observer? How did you come to interact with it and what did you take away from that experience?
I can't think of one that stands out in particular, because I saw a bunch all at once when I started doing work-study at the Center for Book Arts in NYC. I originally wanted to learn trade bookbinding but then got sucked into making artist's books. Before that, with growing up being a part of punk culture, I was around a lot of zines.
One thing that does stand out in my memory from the Center for Book Arts was a featured project by Guy Laramée. He had stacked a set of encyclopedias together and carved through them to make canyon shapes. I remember really not liking it at the time. I thought sculptural books were a gimmick but now I am interested in it - the constraint of using a book as a material with a use other than the one it was originally intended for. So, tastes and interests change.
Urban and domestic space and how it is border by, and interacts with, nature is a common theme present in your work. What is your impression of Jacksonville's urban and natural landscapes?
Jacksonville seems complicated to me. It's so many cities in one, as opposed to one woven landscape. Different locations have totally different feels based on the era of building. In one day you can see new development on the Southside, Downtown Mid-Century Modern buildings, 70's concrete buildings at UNF, and even 18th and 19th century plantation houses with Kingsley Plantation.
Natural features weave in and out of the built environment here. There are different plants than what I'm used to and plant life takes over more rapidly by contrast. The water infrastructure is also interesting. It's very physical and apparent. There are trenches to keep water in place, which creates little islands. I'm thinking of an area I saw when I was recently driving around - I think it is called Hillcrest. And speaking of driving, I'm also consistently struck by the lack of public transit, which creates a landscape that prioritizes cars and reinforces inequality.
How has your artistic vision or processes been influenced by the cities you've previously lived and the time you spent in those areas?
I first became really interested in water infrastructure living in New England, with it's history of using water to power textile mills. The infrastructure of Lowell's Canal System in Lowell, MA is fascinating. Providence, RI has an amazing art scene, operating largely within collective spaces and studios. This is where I first learned how to screenprint, and is where I often still look to for inspiration. I also like the attitude that people, wherever they are, can make awesome stuff happen by working together and supporting each other - we don't have to turn to NYC and the bigger cities.
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when you begin a new project?
My main habit tends to be procrastination. I often turn to other modes of creativity such as playing music to get out of this. I also eat a lot of snacks, give myself pep talks, enable self control on the computer, and sometimes set up deadlines with friends to encourage each other to get going.
As an educator, what are your expectations when you enter into the classroom and how do you define success in your profession?
I define a class as being a success when students are engaged, excited, and making interesting work - especially when they want to continue on that work outside of the class. So basically, when a class transcends the rules of the classroom to enter life outside. Although, I also appreciate the class as a group exercise and love watching dynamics develop, hopefully guiding students in good directions. I like when a class becomes fun, creative, and is a positive space with an element of controlled chaos. I do have basic class expectations to promote this - attendance, promptness, etc and I'm pretty strict about them.
Is it difficult to establish a balance between being an educator and and being a creator? What, if any, boundaries do you establish within your schedule to make certain you reserve time for your own creative process?
Yes, it is difficult and I can't say I've figured it out yet! It frequently feels like something has to give when trying to balance teaching, making things, being involved in community, feeding oneself and/or others, etc. Because teaching involves responsibilities to other people, I frequently end up prioritizing it over the other things.
I also feel like I'm getting there. I'm figuring out what I need to keep making work. I can't work in my own house - I need to be in proximity to other people but not talking much.
Since making things is not always pleasant at all stages of the process, I need it to feel official. like it is my job. Sometimes all of this seems like too much, but then I realize that other artists often have the same requirements. That is why collective artist studio spaces are essential.
Getting all this stuff going is important because if I'm not making things, not only do I feel disconnected from my creativity, but it's also easy to feel disconnected in the classroom/studio, like, why am I teaching this?
Outside of your profession, do you have any goals or objectives for the time you will be spending in Jacksonville?
Being itinerant easily leads to the feeling of not wanting to commit to a place. I am committed to being here, no matter how long I am here. I try to pretend wherever I am that I will live in that place forever, and I may actually stay in Jacksonville, so who knows.
How have artist residencies benefited or impacted your career as an artist?
Residencies have been important for providing space, time, and support. Much of my work has been making artist's books, which are often very complicated projects. So that support, money and time but also working around people who are checking on you and caring about what you are doing, are essential so you feel motivated to keep going. Residencies also possibly help with the labor, so the project actually gets done.
Big thanks to the people who work to create residency programs!!
What do you feel are attributes of an enriching collaboration and are you currently seeking collaborative opportunities?
A good collaboration contains an openness to lots of different directions, creates some kind of positivity in the ether between parties, and has at least one decisive member. Also, the people involved need to like each other enough to have the stamina to follow through.
I'm not currently seeking collaborations. I have a few things I need to work out in my own work first in terms of where I'm going. But, I'm also always open to the idea. I'm very interested in collaborating in terms of teaching, how different peoples' specialties can come together to make a great class.
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
I have learned that I'm precision oriented, that I'm fun, that I have attention issues that I need to circumvent and/or work with, that self-criticism is a beast, that I love teaching, and that even though making things is hard work, it's important to me and I keep coming back to it over and over.