Artist interview: Sarah Dennis

beetroot

I was attracted at once to Sarah Dennis’ paper-cutting work when she sent me an email – and so I invited her to talk a little bit more about her process! I enjoy seeing how others interpret their style in various ways, especially if that means going for your strengths instead of measuring yourself against other people’s standards – like what Sarah has done.

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Name: Sarah Dennis
Location: Bristol, United Kingdom
LinksWebsite | BlogShop

Tell us a little more about yourself!

Well, I have red hair and I feel like the red fox is my spirit animal! I  love orange, green and turquoise and seeing these colours together makes  me just so happy. If you were to take a peek into my wardrobe you would  find only these colours in different combinations. I feel like I can  speak fluent french but in truth I can’t speak a word, I just like to  pretend. I also like eating, cycling and dancing!

Where do you live? What stands out about living where you are, and what  is your daily schedule like?

I live in Bristol and I love it here! I have just bought my first house  with my boyfriend Tom, so it looks like I’ll be sticking around these  parts. I moved in just the other day, so my daily routine is a little  unsettled. In the flat where we used to live, I worked from home. I had  turned the downstairs dining room into a studio, which was great, it was  a nice big space with loads of light. Tom also worked at home some days  so I didn’t get cabin fever too badly. Our new home is quite old and in  need of some serious love, and I keep getting distracted sanding  floorboards and digging up the garden, so I’m currently on the look out  for a studio in Bristol. It will be really nice working around other  artists again. Bristol is the perfect place to be a freelance  illustrator, there are lots of artist studios and support networks with  lots of opportunities to collaborate with other people in the community.

 

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Are you a full-time illustrator? How did you begin finding work/commissions?

I am. It was initially quite hard to find enough work but in the last  few years I’ve been managing to get by on my illustrations, which is  great. For the first few years I had a part time job as well, but I  never felt like I was fully applying myself as an artist, so I got my  portfolio up to scratch and decided to dedicate all my time to making it  work. I put a great deal of effort into sending out postcards, writing  emails and connecting with as many people as I possibly could. Slowly  the commissions started to come in and it all snowballed from there. It  was a great feeling to be finally working on projects that I had dreamt  about while at university. I still have the occasional quiet patch, it’s  the nature of being freelance but it always passes and it gives me  valuable time to set myself personal projects and work on my artwork.

Your portfolio is filled with paper cuts as your medium of choice – what  led you to it, as opposed to other medias?

I have never been great at working with paint, I would always end up  with more of it on my hands and on the floor than I would on the paper.  I’m capable of making quite a mess so I like working with a materials  that won’t drip or spill. The good thing about paper is you can make a  mess but it doesn’t stain the carpet! And the result is very neat which  I like. When I was at university I did more collage based work, I used to  collect envelopes, wallpaper samples, old books or whatever I could find  and would make my illustrations either digitally or by hand. It was  after I saw a great exhibition at the Bristol Museum on oriental  artwork, where I discovered Chinese paper cutting, my head exploded with  inspiration. After this, I started adding more and more detail to my  work and using a paper cutting technique within my art and illustrations.

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What’s your favourite project so far?

Last year I was lucky enough to publish my first children’s book  ‘Cinderella’. This book is like no other I’d seen before. I designed the  book so that between each double page spread is a delicate paper-cut  page which interacts and cast shadows over the background illustrations.  It has always been an ambition to publish a children’s book and I was so  thrilled to be able to combine my illustration’s with my paper cutting  skill. Its was very satisfying to hold the final book and to see it in  shops.

Do you keep a journal/sketchbook, and would you mind if we had a sneak peek?

I do, although for my more detailed artwork I normally develop ideas on larger bits of paper to get the sense of scale right. But the sketch book for me is about about keeping a personal doodle diary and sketching  down ideas that emerge at random times.

 

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sketchbook2

 

What or who inspires you?

I love nature, sometimes just watching a documentary will inspire me to  create a new piece. I’m really interested in the natural patterns that  emerge in nature: from the fractals in Romanesco broccoli to the  flocking of birds and fish. I also love to think a lot about the  incredible journeys that creatures make to survive. I have recently  discovered an artist, philosopher and professor called Enest Heckel. In  the 19th century he discovered and named thousands of new species. He  has hundreds of detailed illustration of marine creatures. I have  recently bought a selection of books all about his work, the detail,  composition and alien nature of some of these creatures just blows me  away. His work has inspired me to take an even deeper journey into the  ocean.

What keeps you motivated?

I have done a few different jobs in the past, and I know that working freelance as an artist and illustrator is what I want to continue to do.  I believe the harder you work on what you love the more likely you are  to land your dream project and have success in your career. I also read  a lot of design blogs and talk to other artists, friends and family who  help me keep focused and motivated.

What’s your favourite tool?

The scalpel, can’t live with out it.

 

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Where do you see yourself within the next few years?

I see myself in my new home, hopefully not surrounded by boxes but in a  lovely space that I have created to live in. I hope to a have a new  studio space thats large enough for me to start making large paper  sculptures. I have recently started running paper cutting workshops and  would love to have my own space where I can run classes and even have a  space that other artists can use to teach their own workshops. I hope to  be working on new and challenging illustration project’s as well as  having my own shop on my website, not just selling prints, but lamp  shades, cushions and cards.

What will be your dream project or collaboration?

I have starting planning a project where I work on a larger scale on a  theme of jellyfish and light. My dream is to develop these ideas as part  of an artist residency in Japan, I love paper and have begun a journey  into finding the perfect paper to work with. I’m really interested in  Japanese washi paper, I would love to learn the process of making my  own. I feel that making the paper from scratch and knowing more about  the material and its history would really benefit my practice and feed  my knowledge of working with paper and progressing as an artist.

 

Jellyfish

Jellyfish-HR1

 

Tell us something random about yourself!

One of my favourite creatures is a kakapo, its a flightless bird which  almost looks like a cross between a parrot and an owl. Its only defence  mechanism from predators is to stand still pretending its invisible.  Unfortunately this tactic has not worked out very well for the poor  kakapos and they are almost extinct. I adore them, I have made myself a  kakapo plush toy which sits in my room and looks after all my things.

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Thanks so much Sarah!

When you’re not where you want to be

Pulling a Plant - Eleanor Taylor

Pulling a Plant - Eleanor Taylor

The thought about being a landscape architect never once crossed my mind as I was growing up.

I didn’t spend my younger days thinking about how great it could be if I could be one – to spend my time designing gardens, parks and pockets of greens; carrying T-squares, measuring tape, wearing a hardhat and safety boot and all. So what made me write that down when it came to choosing what I wanted to do in university?

It was simple – I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab doing experiments (that’s all I thought scientists-to-be did back then). And I didn’t want to spend my time purely in lecture halls hashing out theories and being spoon-fed formulas. I wanted to learn about art and design, and that course was my one and only ticket.

Oh sure, I could hear you ask – why not just go to a college where you can pay to learn exactly what you want? I got an entry into the local university; and where I come from, to get that was as good as if you had struck lottery. The price of a degree at a private college could cost up to 10 times more than it did at a local university. I wasn’t about to go in debt by choosing to go to a private college, and I didn’t want to let my parents worry about funding expensive tuition fees only to get a piece of paper I might not end up using in the end (I was being realistic).

So I chose the best route to go about it. I knew I liked art and design – and if I were to chose a course within that university, the only one that was available to me was landscape architecture. I could learn about the fundamentals of art and design in a studio environment, I had access to art teachers and designers, I had more flexibility in how I scheduled things (studio-based classes meant that you had plenty of time to experiment with ideas); and I didn’t have to worry about money so much. I told myself I would figure out the rest later.

Four years later, when it came to deciding what I wanted to do after I graduated, I gave myself 6 months – it was when we had to be an intern at a real consultancy firm. The rules I gave myself were simple: give it my best shot, and if I still didn’t feel that it suited me, then I’m free to do whatever that I wanted. Six months passed – the boss’ firm passed me with flying colours and told others that I was one of the best interns he’s ever worked with. I left, happy.

It was also the last time I was a landscape architect.

“Why did you give up your degree?” was the common question I had in that first year after I graduated. “It was four years – all wasted, down the drain,” said others. Even my father was at a loss – he couldn’t understand why I would give up being a landscape architect. I could have a good job, a stable career. A title. I could be a professional. I could be Amy Ng, the Landscape Architect. I didn’t blame them at all – they didn’t know why I did it.

But I did.

Because when I went into the university to do a course on landscape architecture, I wasn’t looking to just be a landscape architect. I was looking to learn. I absorbed everything like a sponge – even the stuff that people didn’t care about. I inhaled snippets of knowledge and sniffed it out whenever I could. Lecturers were held hostage as I left them a barrage of questions. Little wonder that when it came time to decide to narrow down a focus for my final project, I went with campus design. I loved learning that much.

I went to the library often. I didn’t just go there to scoop up the latest architecture tomes – I went in to borrow books on art, illustration, cooking, exercise, writing and technology; all because I was curious. I maxed out my book limit every time because I there were so many things I wanted to know. I didn’t know where all of this digging would lead me, but I knew that deciding on a destination just because I was handed a ticket seemed silly.

Instead, I wanted to make my own fate. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And when I look at myself right now I’m still figuring it out – just like everyone else. I try hard to not confine myself to anyone else’s definition of success, and to stay true to myself by constantly asking myself what I want. Being happy was always my goal – and I’ve been incredibly lucky on that front. Somedays I still pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming.

So for those who feel as though they’ve been handed a curveball in life, or that they aren’t in the place that they want to be – I want to tell you this: you can’t control the cards you’ve been dealt, but you sure can change how you choose to deal with it.

Oh, and no one ever asks me about that degree anymore.

SHARE WITH ME:

Have you ever been in a less than ideal situation? How did you make the best of it? Share your story with me below in the comments! 

** NOTE: This post isn’t mean to discourage people to not go to private university or art school – I think that if you can then it’s great, but more importantly, for whatever reason at all that you can’t, it shouldn’t be the excuse that you use to not be able to get ahead. My experience and my views are strictly personal –  being where I am (Malaysia), this is how I chose to deal with my lot, so it bears repeating that my challenges may be different from yours. 

[Illustration by Eleanor Taylor]

What if you reclaimed your time?

Paul X. Johnson

Paul X. Johnson

I made a decision about a month ago to not renew my contract as a creative lead for a PR firm. I had been in the position for only 3 months, but it wasn’t working out for me as well as I had hoped (remember this equation?)

I took it on to help out a friend, who needed someone to help out with the team on fleshing out the creative side of client briefs and campaigns. I was the go-to person when it comes to working out imagery that would work; the piecing together of visuals, style and form to form an effective campaign. That I did.

I went in without knowing if it would work; whether I was up for the job, or if I would fail terribly and end up embarrassing myself and the firm. So I took it on as a challenge. I told myself that it was something I hadn’t tried before (not in a formal capacity anyway) and so ahead I went. It soon dawned on me – it wasn’t whether I was up for the job or not; but in the end it really boiled down to me asking myself, “is this really what I want?”

It came in small whispers – it doesn’t feel right. You’re not happy. I had a knot in my neck that didn’t seem to go away. I felt as though time was slipping away like sand between my fingers as I tried to hold on as tightly as I could. Where did the time go?

Although I loved working with great colleagues, it wasn’t for me; it ate away at the time which I’d rather spend on other things – like Pikaland. Having the amount of hours you could spend on something you love cut short by other commitments really helped me refocus and find clarity. For example, I had been faffing around with the redesign of the blog for a few months, but when I left my position, I instantly got to work and got everything out there within a week. I started with just an inkling of an idea and turned it around into a full-blown working website design within a few days. I felt incredibly happy.

Maybe it was a burst of timely inspiration. And maybe it was. But more importantly, it was me realizing and thanking the universe for the gift of time that has been given back to me. And I didn’t want to waste time in getting back to the work I felt I was meant to do.

When I was working at the PR firm, I asked myself constantly – what could I be doing with my time instead? Don’t get me wrong – having built up a creative direction for a campaign really convinced me of what I was capable of. But I didn’t just want to do work that I was capable of. I wanted to do more. I wanted to do work that thrills me to no end (well, maybe for the most part!) I want sleepless nights not because of clients and their imminent deadlines breathing down my neck – but because I was excited that I couldn’t wait till morning came so I could get right to it.

It was a great opportunity, many people said. “You’re crazy – I would relish the opportunity,” said one. I thought so too – if it were 5 years ago. But the beauty of it was that if it were indeed 5 years ago, I wouldn’t be given the same opportunity. I could only laugh at the irony of it all.

What I gave up might be an wondrous opportunity for others, but I knew it wasn’t for me. So instead of hanging on to a title that would eventually kill me, I’d rather part ways to focus on things that wake me up with purpose. Plus, on the flipside, I like to tell others that it isn’t very nice to hang on to positions/jobs that doesn’t quite fit you – what if someone who really loves it comes along, only to have it occupied by someone else?

I didn’t regret the experience one bit – if anything, I know better what I am capable of. Learning through stretching myself has always surprised me in good ways, and I am grateful for the amazing experience that was offered to me. Rory Cochrane once said: “I do not regret the things I’ve done, but those I did not do.” – and it certainly rang true in my case.

The good thing about having your time given back to you? You’ll appreciate it that much more. I know I do.

SHARE WITH ME:

I’d like to know – if you could reclaim your time, what would you do with it?

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My Work/Art/Play online class will be happening this September! To make sure you’re not missing out on details and to be the first to know when registration opens, click here to sign up! (psst, you can also read up on what our past students thought of it too!)

[Illustration by Paul X. Johnson]
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