Artist Focus by Katie Bonadies
Pictured: Sarah Steedman in her studio at RWS
Sarah is a painter working in acrylics and vintage embroidered textiles. She also creates three-dimensional ceramic work. She has been at RWS since the fall of 2022. The series Sarah is currently working on is created with intent; the paintings are the result of a decision she made a few years ago when she started thinking about the meaning behind what she was painting and the motivation for continuing to make art. She has always been creative but felt that sometimes her practice lacked focus and she wanted to put more thought behind what she was doing. What came forward was a reflection of the constant themes in her own life: nature and plants, needle arts and other forms of creative expression, and food. She felt these themes were the most honest to who she is as an individual and found a way to incorporate them all within each canvas.
The series doesn’t have a name yet, but the paintings are still lifes depicting some of her favorite foods–like ramen, Scandinavian sandwich cake, and pickles–displayed on the side of a vase with a bouquet of flowers and herbs used in making the featured food arranged within the vase. The still lifes are painted on a canvas of vintage embroidered textiles that have been stretched over the frame and treated with a polymer. One of Sarah’s favorite foods that she has painted is a Scandinavian sandwich cake, a creative, artistic looking piece of food. A smorgastarta
Vase Pickles. 36"x48". Acrylic on vintage hand-embroidered linen tablecloth. 2023.
is made from a loaf of bread sliced into layers and filled with different ingredients like salmon and cream cheese and shrimp or cucumbers and dill. The savory cake is refrigerated overnight and compressed. The next day the cake is coated with mayonnaise and sour cream and decorated with flowers and veggies and items that went into the layers. Sarah started as a biology major in college and ended up with an art degree instead. After she graduated she started working in a cafe and remembers thinking that she didn’t have a lot to reflect on and paint from, and that she needed to live her life. She felt that in the future she would have more life experience to inform and enrich her art. That’s when she got into organic farming and gardening. She took a community plot in Chicago and noticed one day when she put the fertilizer down that it made the worms writhe as if they were in pain. She did some research and found that she was salting them to death. She started learning more about it and went to study at an organic farming and gardening school called The Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture through the University of Santa Cruz. In the program Sarah studied traditional food systems around the world and learned how to grow organic food in a small space with a high yield and high turnover and a lot of compost and amending of the soil. The practice was a perfect blend of science and art that, for Sarah, felt meaningful.
Vase Fruit with Blue Tongue Skink. 36"x36". Acrylic on canvas. 2023.
When she returned to Chicago, Sarah started working for the Chicago Park District teaching organic gardening classes in a 6,000 square foot production greenhouse with three huge rooms intended for community use. In five years she had grown the program to the district’s capacity and it was time for her to move on. She got a job working as a gardener for Michelen Star recipient and multiple James Beard Award winner, Chef Rick Bayless. She learned about food from him for five years and left the workforce when her first child was born.
Casco Bay Shellfish. 12"x12". Acrylic on canvas. 2022.
Sarah continued to do creative things while her children were young including forming a business making stuffed animals from recycled fabric she found at thrift stores called Scrappynation. She sold her animals at galleries and shops and had a representative at the Merchandise Mart who would sell them to fancy shops. Her family was growing when the 2008 recession started and she decided to stop running the business. That’s when Sarah started taking painting classes and volunteering at her kids' school. She was looking for a part-time job that worked with her kids’ school schedules when she found Waldorf education, which is a teaching model that blends art and science and nature. Sarah started volunteering in a Waldorf school and eventually taught there, taking training classes to become a Waldorf teacher. It’s something she could still pursue, but she decided to focus on art when her family moved to Portland. Her family relocated to the area to be closer to her parents who live in Southern Maine and are in their mid-eighties. “Landing here, I felt it was a great time to really try to be an artist and make that work for me…. I’m at that stage in my life now. Now is that time I envisioned when I graduated.” Sarah says Portland and its people have been very welcoming and warm. That it’s been a huge change of pace of life, and the feeling of safety here has been a big shift for her. She can feel herself unspooling because there’s a lot more nature here and Portland has all of the things Sarah values.
Vase Sandwich Cake. 20"x20". Acrylic on vintage hand embroidered, stitched together fabric. 2022.
Sarah’s appreciation for and inclusion of vintage embroidered textiles in her paintings stems from her childhood influences. She grew up around needle arts, watching her grandmother and mom who were both knitters and quilters. Her mom is a photographer too and nurtured a creative environment in their home. Sarah’s birth mother is also an artist–a painter and printmaker–and Sarah feels the drive to create in a visual format was in her nature, “You are born with a set of operating instructions that are going to come through no matter what. You can suppress it, but you can also embrace it.” Sarah usually paints over the entirety of the vintage textiles with the exception of her painting depicting pickled foods–the image is painted on a linen tablecloth with hand-embroidered flowers that were too beautiful to cover up. Sarah mostly finds vintage embroidery in thrift stores and at yard sales. She marvels at how many hours they must have taken to complete, “I know a lot of hand work is for mental health; it’s soothing repetitive work. You can’t really put a monetary value on that; it transcends because it’s more for your own pleasure.” Sarah’s intention is to elevate that work and she thinks about how she does that while putting herself into it, adding another layer of interest or meaning to each piece. She says it feels like a compliment to whoever (typically women) completed the needle work and never considered it art. She enjoys the texture of the embroidery and how it creates a relief that makes you wonder what else is behind the images in each painting. Check out Sarah’s work in the Creative Portland’s Resilience exhibition that’s up through Spring 2024. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and through her website, sarahsteedmanartist.com.