Sarah Applebaum’s work at a Curiosity Shoppe exhibit. She’d displayed her collection of candy-colored felt guns, evoking in my mind a fantasy shootout scene between Willy Wonka and Slugworth. I quickly became entranced with her art. I’ve since learned that the rest of her work – involving yeti headdresses and rooms swathed in crocheted thrift store blankets – is an exploration in Technicolor textures and symbols. Her creative vision is one long, fantastic dreamscape, and I decided to track Sarah down to figure out how she makes it all come to life.
She greeted me at her house in the Lower Haight one sunny afternoon. After offering me a glass of fizzy pink lemonade, she gave me a tour of her studio. Sarah pointed out her table saw and scroll saw, but as she was explaining how she used them, my mind started to drift. I think it was the burning Nag Champa incense and sixteenth-century devotional music from India softly playing in the background that did it. I joked with her that she’d set the mood for me to enter another realm of consciousness. With an easy laugh, Sarah explained that I was in the right frame of mind for discussing her latest work, which sheds light on the subconscious.
More specifically, she was making “protest signs” for her subconscious. She pointed to a collection of shapes and colors – a four-foot-tall mirrored silhouette of a face, and wooden cutouts of gray clouds, keys, and a television signal – attached to wooden sticks of varying heights. Hoping I could keep up with her talk about the inner workings of the mind, I asked her to explain the connection between these pieces and her brain. “Well, the symbols, like the key and the television signal, just came to me,” she said. “That’s the unconscious mind doing its thing. And I guess my subconscious isn’t necessarily protesting. Like the Occupy movement, these things that occupy my mind are making themselves known.”
Looking around the room, I also noticed a pile of felt guns. Sarah had made a point to deconstruct these symbols of death and destruction and turn them into beautiful, harmless forms. As with her protest signs, she’d unearthed the most back-burner thoughts and blew them up larger than life. When I asked Sarah how she came to this series, she told me that therapy had a lot to do with it. “I've always said if I could have one superpower, it would be the ability to read my own mind,” she explained.
Her earlier work involved sewn together body casts with marionette-like qualities and Claes Oldenburg-esque objects, like a knit anchor symbolizing the state of our society and economy. She said when she first started making art, the act of creating alone was therapeutic. “Art had always been the outlet where I could be weird,” she added. But now Sarah explores different methods of psychology in her sculptures, concepts she has trouble expressing verbally.
I next looked down at my feet and noticed a black puddle with eyes staring up at me. Sarah explained that piece was a good example of the theory of Gestalt therapy in action. “These puddles are a literal expression of ‘I’ve lost my form’ and I’m just letting go and being a puddle. No structure. No exoskeleton,” she added. Listening to Sarah speak, I was beginning to feel like an existential crisis puddle myself – something I hadn’t felt since my early twenties when I couldn’t read Rilke and Derrida fast enough.
When Sarah got up to let her dog Indy in, I studied a notepad hanging from the wall with ideas scrawled on it, thinking it would give me additional clues to her process. She’d written down a line from a Laurie Anderson song, something about gnome communication, and the phrase “non-ordinary reality.” Sarah came back in and explained that the gnomes bit came from studying up on an ethnobotanist who, when trying to document his hallucinations, said that he saw gnomes communicating in mirror images. (Who hasn’t?) And when I asked her about non-ordinary reality, she lit up. “It’s a phrase that shamans would use,” she said. “I strive for non-ordinary reality because that’s where I feel comfortable.”
When I left her studio and started heading home, I realized that Sarah is a shaman herself. Her work makes us question our waking and dream lives, and the blurry lines in between. There’s nothing ordinary about it.