One of Stanford’s boldest artists shares her thoughts on the Stanford Arts Initiative, the work of Jenny Saville, and transferring from the East Coast.
Blog for Stanford: So, you live in Twain. Are you a transfer?
Sara: Yes I am.
BFS: Where are you a transfer from?
Sara: Vassar College, in upstate New York.
BFS: What was it about Vassar that pushed you towards Stanford?
Sara: Well, Vassar only allowed water-based paints. And water-based oils are really trash.
BFS: For health reasons?
Sara: Yes, and environmental reasons. So, I knew that wasn’t going to work, because I want to be an oil painter. So I just looked around; I wanted to come closer to home – I’m from Colorado – and Stanford is a good school in the West. Vassar was a little emo.
BFS: Can you talk about your early experiences with painting?
Sara: I started oil painting when I was about 8 years old, but I’ve been taking art classes since I was about six. I went to the Art Students’ League of Denver starting when I was very young, and I had one teacher up until I was about 13, and then I switched into the adult classes, and my teacher Kevin Weckbach has been sort of a mentor since then.
BFS: And how did you know that painting was it? What about it captured you?
Sara: Well I’ve always loved going to museums and looking at paintings. And then I took a class from a teacher named Quang Ho in Denver and he kind of had this whole philosophy of painting; that painting is more of a lifestyle. The action of painting makes me want to paint.
BFS: And your name, Sara Sisun, is Finnish?
Sara: No, it’s not, actually. My last name is Polish, I believe.
BFS: And was your name always Sara, or were you born Sarah and you changed it?
Sara: No, I was always Sara. The reasons for that have changed. It used to be that I was named after my great aunt who died in the Holocaust, and I think that’s the real reason, but then my dad has recently started telling me it’s Sanskrit, which could be true too.
BFS: What do you do if people call you Sarah on accident?
Sara: I go with it usually, until they figure it out.
BFS: What are your favorite pieces that you’ve done?
Sara: It’s really been the ones that are more about pushing an idea rather than just copying something. So in high school I did a series that were about light and dark, and just making the darks really dark and the lights really light. Finding contrast and shapes. And those kind of opened the door in terms of my asking myself, what is this painting about? as opposed to, I’m going to make this painting.
BFS: I noticed that you were really interested in light, and it reminded me of Edward Hopper. How do you feel about his work?
Sara: I like Edward Hopper, quite a bit actually. I saw an exhibit of his at the Tate in London.
BFS: I’m guessing you’re not really a fan of Damien Hirst, for example.
Sara: Actually, I don’t mind Damien Hirst. Come on, that shark in the formaldehyde is sweet. But I really like Jenny Saville. I think she is one of the best artists painting today. The brushwork is incredible. The way I feel about my own art is that I would like to have a structure underneath but within that structure I would like to have maximum freedom, maximum expression. So I feel like she does a good job of having a huge variety of brushstrokes but still maintaining form and really representing that form.
BFS: What artists don’t you like?
Sara: I really don’t like Rubens. I loathe Rubens. I hate the Hudson River School, which was problematic at Vassar. Hmm, I can only think of artists I like right now.
BFS: Ok, talk about those.
Sara: I really like Monet because of the light and the brushwork. I really like Caravaggio, he’s incredible. Degas. And I also like abstract expressionism a lot. I like Willem de Kooning. I don’t like Mondrian very much.
BFS: So you like more representational artists?
Sara: For the most part. I like looking at the edge of when something becomes abstract. When it’s an image still, but barely, like almost lost. Or, when the abstracting comes from reality. Willem de Kooning I think was really into taking nature and turning it into abstraction as opposed to having it just come out of his head.
BFS: You know, Mondrian was into that, too.
Sara: He was. For me, it got too conceptual. It lost the poetry of it; it got so mechanical. It was just applying a method.
BFS: I was really strongly attracted to “Teapots” and to “Windmill”, as well. And I loved the windmill because you had so much different texture on the surface. But you said you liked “Paint Tube” and “Boy in a Tunnel”.
Sara: “Paint Tube”: I’ve actually done a whole series of the same image playing with the colors. So I did a large one that was all blue. So I had a lot of fun playing with the texture and putting a lot of paint on it. I find that it helps to repaint the same image to just get a feel for other reasons why I’m painting. The “Boy in a Tunnel” I did when I was in Apt this summer, and there was no boy, there was just a tunnel. I thought it needed something, so I put a boy in. I painted teapots on the floor of my dorm last year, and windmill in France over the summer.
BFS: Can you talk a bit about the Stanford Arts Initiative?
Sara: I don’t know much about it except that it’s probably the reason why I got in here. So, needless to say, I like it. Stanford has a lot of brilliant, brilliant people who appreciate art but don’t necessarily know how to think about it. I really feel like art can be taught, like anything else, and should be taught, like anything else. I think it can be integrated with the rest of academics and enhance college life. I hope that the Initiative works.
BFS: Do you see yourself teaching here ever?
Sara: Sure, why not? Although I’d really rather be an artist before, or if, I teach.
Sara is a sophomore at Stanford and a professional oil painter. “Paint Tube”, “Teapots”, “Windmill in Goult”, and “Boy in a Tunnel” are available on her website sarasisun.com. She also sells her work annually at the Summer Art Market in Denver, Colorado; through Abend Gallery, and at the Alliance Francais in Denver.