A Singular Woman: In Conversation with Sarah E. Webb

Only by writing in collaboration can the artist and the art historian right the woman artist so that her marks are not erased.

Sarah E. Webb.
Singular Women. Writing the Artist

Sarah E. Webb’s practice is, as she says, “comprised of many stitches”, bringing together multiple narratives including her work as an artist, independent curator, writer, and educator. For many years Webb has been actively involved in the local art community in Rochester, New York. This is where we met and where she has dedicated her time to advocate for the arts, including her participation supporting non-profit organizations and other regional initiatives that promote art-making and art writing. As an artist, Webb’s work has been informed by meditations on the human body. While the content is universal, the treatment is deeply personal. This extends to her yoga studio space where she offers her knowledge to help others in the process of healing and developing a healthy relationship with their physical bodies. To talk more about her work and her projects, Sarah and I started this conversation over Zoom and email in the last few months. In this series of conversations with women in the arts, it is a privilege to include this collaboration with Sarah E. Webb in hopes of contributing to her story and the mark she’s making.

Claudia Pretelin: Sarah, you come from what you have described as a “Kodak Family.” Your father and grandfather worked for the leader of the photography industry during most of the 20th century. Can you describe your first “Kodak Moments” in Rochester, NY? When did you become conscious about the technology of images as a way to preserve your memories?

Sarah E. Webb: My grandfather and father were company men in an age when Kodak was at the forefront of the business of imaging, and scientific research was king. Both were physicists whose research specialized in  optical metrology, the use, and the measuring of light.

My grandfather, Julian H. Webb, worked in the Research Labs, 1931-1968. He was the Director of the Physics Division, except for a brief period when he was involved with the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, TN. From 1968-1999, my father, J. Pierce Webb, continued his research, retiring at the moment physical film was being eclipsed by digital imaging.

Their work contributed to what we often take for granted or forget: how images are physically captured on the surface of the film. The moments before the image-maker records and refines their perspective. The work that is not made visible inside the body of the camera itself.

Julian H. Webb and J. Pierce Webb, ca. 1960s

A Kodak Moment, Canandaigua Lake, NY, ca. 1971

Being a member of the “Kodak Family” meant we had a free, unlimited supply of film and developing. Images were not precious, they were ubiquitous. No matter the size, every occasion, every moment in my life was documented. I was exposed to the potential of the camera as a form of sketchbook, predating, and preparing me for the infinite imaging of the digital age.

As a child, I was less fascinated by the formal, “fixed” narratives of our family albums (of which there were many), and more by the overflowing file folders of discarded images. Pictures that were less than perfect: the misfires, the images where my mother was caught chewing, or my gaze downturned. All the outtakes, encoded with the aesthetic of the snapshot, before we seemingly, effortlessly smiled for the camera.

I was drawn to the omitted, ephemera that could be resequenced to tell a different story. In a way, this became my first experience with the archive, the editorial/curatorial process itself. I became curious as to what did and didn’t make the cut, and the possibility of (re)pairing, of remaking new visual relationships, new narratives. It was less about what was unwritten, but rather what was unrecorded: who is the eye/the I?

Until this moment, I hadn’t made the connection, but in my mid twenties, I returned to Rochester as an MFA candidate at Visual Studies Workshop as a student of Nathan and Joan Lyons. From the two of them, I developed and honed my understanding of the potential of series and sequence, of seeing as a belief system, and how images coexisted in conversation. I came home to rediscover my own “notations in passing.”

CP: You’ve said some of the earliest recollections of you connecting with your creative side go back to your childhood. Specifically drawing and writing as you spent a lot of time in isolation. What are some of the stories and worlds that you created in those early years?

SEW: As a child, I suffered from significant seasonal respiratory allergies and acute asthmatic bronchitis, restricting my capacity to breathe, to engage in strenuous physical activity, to even be outside. 

I remember feeling isolated, imprisoned within the confines of my air-conditioned bedroom. Outside my window, I could hear the shrieks and laughter of my friends, but I was withdrawn from the experience, seemingly too frail to participate.

When illness defines one’s life experience, how then to create a life larger than the size of the room, the size of the disease itself? 

It was during this time that I began to draw elaborate Escher-esque interiors: room upon room, one unfolding into another. I used a ruler to delineate and precisely layer a series of stories, then “decorate” each room in diminutive detail. 

I never drew figures, but I wrote scene and dialogue for the characters I envisioned living within these architectural spaces. In retrospect, these were my attempts to imagine another world that I could fall into and explore. 

Each of these interiors were multiply bound: a specific home, scaffolded within another hand-drawn exterior metal birdcage-like structure, contained within the pages of a spiral bound A4 sketchbook. I can see the origin of interest in considering bound spaces and how to explore the edges. Be it a blank page, a yoga mat, an art gallery: what can you make with the material on hand?

Equally, this specificity and repetition of form and shape is one that I continually return, this remaking of the same space over and over again. I believed that if I told the story enough times, that I could change the story, and so too free myself.

Peggy Phelan wrote that “the disappearance of the object is fundamental to performance; it rehearses and repeats the disappearance of the subject who longs always to be remembered.”  Unknowingly, I think that’s what I was trying to do: I was afraid of being invisible, forgotten to my peers, and I wanted to know they would remember me when I was well enough to emerge, and participate in their company again. 

As I listen to stories and other’s experiences with the pandemic, I can’t help but wonder if there are lessons to draw. Specifically, how has social media become a means to document and disseminate our activities – to free us from isolation, and to write our lives so that no one is forgotten?

Sarah E. Webb, Waxing/Waning (installation view), 2002. The Gallery at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY

CP: You have been actively involved in the art community not only as an artist, curator, writer, and educator but also as an art collector. What would you say is the common thread in all of these facets of your life?

SEW: It’s taken me a lifetime to begin to answer that question, to get comfortable and embrace what I actually “do.” Ultimately, I’ve come to understand my work as that of multidisciplinary making. Whether on retreat or within a gallery, I hold space for others to explore and receive their own wild and precious life.

My mediums and methods of inquiry are perpetually in motion as I search for the most appropriate creative outlet for making, the common threads always being: language and wordplay; text and texture; performance, process and practice (the act of gesture and repetition); illness narratives; absence and ephemera; the body and embodiment; recovery and repair.

It is work that has taken me from the artist studio to the yoga studio, and back again as a storyteller and a deep listener. In both the physical body or a specific body of work, I’m forever curious about excavating the unwritten, the unrecorded, the unknown, searching for evidence of things yet to be seen: art as an object but so too how art can object and disrupt the narrative. I collect and curate art and experiences that do the same.

CP: In 2003 you and Kristen Frederickson edited the book Singular Women: Writing the Artist, a book that Linda Nochlin considers “A must for all those interested in women artists and women who have written about them.” Can you tell us about how this book came to be and your experience working on this project?

Photo by Claudia Pretelin

SEW: Singular Women began as a panel, “The Politics of Rediscovery: The Monograph and Feminist Art History,” presented at the College Art Association’s 1997 national conference in New York. Its purpose was to reconsider the theoretical and practical concerns facing feminist art history and the treatment of women artists. Within a climate of poststructuralist skepticism questioning notions of individuality, originality and hierarchy, each of the 5 panelists addressed how the work of women continued to be inserted, understood, or ignored by the history of art. The subsequent idea of a book began to form during the discussion portion of the panel: what should or could be the role of the monograph be in feminist art history?

These questions of scholarship found roots, and tenacity to be nourished, in the work of Kristen and myself. At the time, we were both independent scholars and adjunct professors. Equally, we were mothers to infant daughters. Kristen and I found ourselves as women of a certain age, at a personal and professional crossroads, trying to make sense of what exactly we were creating: what was both visible and viable?

In retrospect, we were incredibly naive in the writing of our proposal, but so too in our innocence, it never occurred to us that the book would not be published. We believed in the scholarship itself. Despite a lack of institutional support, or any outside funding, we networked, we persevered and began to birth the manuscript as we simultaneously raised our daughters.

The project became an extraordinary testament of collaboration, trust, and determination. Women helping women, uniting the voices of artists and authors together in one volume, and allowing their shared experiences to reverberate from inception through fruition.

CP: In the epilogue for the same book you wrote: “Through text, image, and object, my work makes visible what is ordinarily not seen – presenting an erased presence, an exposed absence. I create in order to question the inherent historical encoding of what has been defined as a woman’s place.” Can you talk about this moment in your career? What kind of work were you creating at this time?

SEW: In 2003, I was preparing for a solo exhibition, fat & blood (and how to make them). The title itself referenced S. Weir Mitchell’s historical text and his notorious “Rest Cure.” The work was intended as a critical contemplation of feminism, maternity, and the corporeal, considering how Victorian women might attempt to control their physicality. How might one be subjectively seen, rather than objectively manipulated within a male-dominated (medical) society that preferred women to be reproductive, rather than productive? 

Using the contemporary paper robes we don in the doctor’s office as a pattern, I stitched nine equivalent forms from cheesecloth and red thread, then hand-dipped each gown in beeswax. While identical in their conception, each became individual in execution, thus refuting a “one size fits all” approach to medical treatment.

 Sarah E. Webb, From Fat & Blood (and how to make them) Mrs. P, 2004, beeswax, cheesecloth, thread (detail)

Accompanying the gowns were three cherry wood boxes, containing vials of Queen Anne’s Lace seeds, an arcane method of contraception. In front of each box was a sterling silver teaspoon, the word Mother elegantly etched upon the stem, the bowl of the spoon itself left empty to be filled, or not. 

As a body of work, fat & blood questioned and considered who has cared/cares for a woman’s body, and who has the right to do so? My narrative was one of specificity, an upper-class woman’s story interpreted through a lens of entitlement, and not equally shared by a universal (female) body. Yet the questions remain: whose voice is privileged or even heard during the course of treatment: that of the patient, the physician?

In 2003, I found it extraordinary that we continued to have this conversation about a woman’s reproductive rights and her right to choose (for) herself. And yet here we are, in 2020, our current political climate feeling even more dystopian, more dire, more extreme.

CP: As you know, Instruments of Memory is also an attempt to document and hopefully visibilize the work of women in the arts. What are your thoughts about the interview as a resource to write a feminist art history?

SEW: I am a huge fan of the interview, both as source and resource. In its many forms, the interview allows the voice of the maker to speak in their own words, with their own voice, rather than through a constructed lens of interpretation. The valuing and holding of space for one to share their stories is everything.

If I think about it, from its inception, Singular Women was always a form of conversation and relationship between artist and art historian. Women entwined in an intimate relationship, as both subject and object in the present tense. The book then became a physical place to gather and record the historical stories of one another. 

To this day, my morning ritual often begins with reading interviews from “The Creative Independent,” “The Paris Review,” and of course, Instruments of Memory. I am forever learning from the creative process of others as a way to expand and explore my own ways of making and knowing.

CP: During our initial conversation, you mentioned that through your practice (from the art studio to the yoga studio) you want to empower the sick body. Can you elaborate on this idea and maybe talk about your own personal process of healing and empowerment?

SEW: For much of my life, I understood myself through symptoms, diagnoses, and perceived frailties: asthma, scoliosis, addiction. Within my family of origin, I was the designated patient, and I allowed these ingrained narratives of illness to define me as weak, incapable of taking care of myself.

My healing took an unintentional but circuitous path. In graduate school, I began to read historical texts, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and then reinterpret them through installation and performance. My process continued and expanded through a study of the Eastern body and breathwork, ultimately establishing myself as a yoga teacher. Both studios became creative spaces to find healing, authenticity, and ownership of my medical stories, as well as a valid way to work with others. My thinking evolved from clinical to creative, corporeal to contemplative. 

Sarah E. Webb, In a Delicate Condition (installation detail), 1999. Hartnett Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY

As a maker, I am repeatedly drawn to the interplay between authority, autobiography, and the possibility of revision. How does one learn to trust their body and voice, to become their own empowered narrator rather than allowing their stories to be dictated and determined by another? 

Both the artist studio and the yoga studio offer unique but intertwined performative rooms to practice and establish relationships with one’s voice and physicality, as both object and subject, political and personal. Both the blank space of the mat and the page are potent places to create and explore, to map and make meaning of one’s unique stories, to be healed, rather than to assume cure, and in the process to become our own embodied narrator. 

CP: How are you re-focusing your work during this time of isolation?

SEW: As with many, my life, or what I thought to be my life, was transformed overnight. I was scheduled to (co)lead a yoga, writing, and meditation retreat in Mexico, leaving March 14, that never happened. Instead, my son came home from college, and we entered into a period of intense cohabitation, unlike since he was a newborn.

I’ve come to think of this pandemic pause as one of life magnified. Did everything change, or stay the same? After all, I am still a mother, a householder, a writer, a teacher of yoga and meditation ~ I have so much to be grateful for.

For me, isolation, even isolation as linked to illness, is not unfamiliar terrain. I knew it as a child, and as an adult, one might say I consciously choose solitude as I spend my summers on Monhegan, a small island community twelve miles off the coast of Maine.

However, this collective, imposed isolation brought (back)to the surface the necessity of being truthful to myself, to my life, and my relationships with others. If I am unable to work with students face to face, what is the body of work I am intended to make right now? 

I keep returning to Annie Dillard’s choice of presence over seeming productivity, and the act of remembrance for “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” 

The pandemic has become a moment to get quiet and to dwell in the possibility of not knowing, to receive this time as process and material.

Sara E. Webb, Judd Foundation, Marfa, TX, 2018

Over the past six months, I’ve had to adapt and shift my work from the physical to a more creative and contemplative realm. I’ve begun to teach writing and meditation workshops, and to write a monthly newsletter, narrative threads. In all, it’s been a powerful return to thinking of myself as an artist, a maker, as much as I am a yoga teacher, and to appreciate all the ways I make meaning.

I made the decision to return to school, to pursue graduate work in Narrative Medicine, at Columbia University. It’s a deeper dive into the work I have unconsciously already been doing. And while I don’t know exactly where it will take me, I trust the process.

CP: What is your favorite instrument of memory?

SEW: Stillness in its many forms ~ the repetition, the rhythm, and the return to a singular task creates an internal clearing for me to become quiet, to listen with curiosity, to connect disparate threads of making, and then begin to weave. 

And always my seasonal return to Monhegan island, twelve miles off the coast of Maine.

Thank you, Sarah!

Sara E. Webb. Cover Photo by Emily Delameter. Images courtesy of the artist.

Sarah E. Webb’s path is comprised of many stitches, but at heart, she is a storyteller and teacher. From the artist studio to the yoga studio, her multi-disciplinary approach considers both spaces as creative sites of corporeal process and practice. Webb received her MFA from Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY, and is the co-editor of Singular Women: Writing the Artist, UC Press, 2003, as well as contributing artist and author to The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art, Demeter Press, 2011. For the past decade, Sarah immersed herself in the physical and philosophical teaching of the yogic tradition, guided by Dr. Douglas Brooks and Vishali Varga. She has taught and trained yoga teachers in the Rochester, NY area, is the founder of Embodied Recovery, mentors students privately, and leads virtual writing circles, workshops, and retreats. Sarah weaves her critical, visual, and perceptual background into a unique environment to map and make meaning of one’s individual body stories and experiences through pose and prose. She is currently completing a collection of essays, Narrative Threads, and publishes a newsletter of the same name.

If you are interested in learning more about Sara E Webb’s work, check out her website www.tobejustsew.com or follow her on social media @tobejustsew From September 21-25, 2020 don’t miss Sarah’s takeover for the Instruments of Memory Instagram account!

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