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We meet artist Sarah Blood, who makes pieces where the synchronicity and simplicity of materials are fairly present. Her sculpture is intimate and delicate, speaking directly to uncertainty, clarifying the world inhabited out there. She takes it to the next level by creating unique and sensorial pieces, showing sort of the academic person she really is when working as Assistant Professor at Alfred University (New York, USA). Her work is often thought to be shown within an overall context in mind, even taking her creations outdoors, getting rid of all previous misconceptions. Hers is a frugal play of union and disunion, love and hate. Light, glass and stone are the keys to fully comprehend her, the vital elements defining what she does. Material has never been rethought and composed this way. We had a talk with her to know more about glass, why material means so much and why there’s such a reason to being entirely committed to the task of making sculpture differently.
Could you please give me a brief introduction of what your work is all about?
It’s difficult to pin down what my work is about, as each body of work addresses something different. What I can say is that my work is a reflection to my own experience of living. It frequently responds to environmental challenges or my experiences, ideas and observations. Subject matter changes, but there are formal interests that run through my work as a constant. I am interested in form, balance, composition, abstraction and a post-minimalist aesthetic, and the tension that can be created between forms, objects and different materials.
Your work is deeply rooted in the appreciation for light and materials. How far have these elements influenced it, and why did you choose to work as an artist who surrounds herself by stone, glass and light, and who establishes such a suitable intervention between those materials?
My background is in glass and ceramics, and for a while after my first degree I worked exclusively in glass. I’d always been drawn to neon, and after completing my Masters degree in 2003, I began to look for a way to incorporate the material into my work. Neon is an intrinsically beautiful material. I very quickly realised that these qualities needed visually weightier counterparts than glass if I were to properly express my ideas in a way that I found meaningful. Light in isolation is nothing, you can only really experience it when you’ve seen the dark.

How long have you been working with glass for? Who constitutes your main reference in the glass field?
I graduated form the University of Sunderland with a degree in Glass and Ceramics in 1999 and have been an exhibiting artist ever since. I’ve been working with neon since 2005 and I stopped including glass in my work (with the exception of neon making processes) in 2007.
Although I’m aware of the important figures within the glass world, I have never looked inward for my frames of reference. I am a huge fan of the post-minimalist aesthetic: minimal forms and clean lines, but with the evidence of the hand. I’m interested in artists such as Eva Hesse, Teresita Fernandez and Doris Salcedo for their use of materials. Artists who work with light who I’m currently interested in include Keith Sonnier, Lori Hersberger, Nancy Holt, Olafur Eliasson, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Cerith Wyn Evans.
What methods do you have when sourcing stones and giving them shape? Do you feel a certain provenance might enhance or contribute to the overall result of the work?
I work with cement or stoneware clay to create the stones. I was drawn to cement as it enabled me to encase the neon into the ‘’stone’’ permanently. I used the clay so I could remove the neon from the form, enabling me to replace any broken neon tubes (when a tree fell on a piece in a sculpture garden) and for ease of transporting. Working with clay also enabled me to increase the scale of the work. The two materials have different visual properties too, which hold different meaning lend themselves to different environments; the ceramic pieces look like they are ‘’of the earth,’’ and as such are well suited for the sculpture garden or other outdoor environments. The cement pieces have a more urban feel and are more suited to the traditional white cube gallery setting or the urban decay setting of a rougher, non-traditional exhibition space.
Whatever the context or the surroundings of your artworks, some of them are made to be installed outdoors, at times all along trees and branches. Do you find it to be one of the ideal mediums to make the artwork speak for itself and communicate within the surrounding context?
On a purely material level, neon was initially developed for the use in advertising in outdoor spaces as a way to get around planning permission in urban centres. It’s pretty resilient to most weather conditions. When I’m making work, I usually know where it’s going to be exhibited at least in the first instance, so in that way it is site-aware, if not site-specific or site-inspired. The wonderful thing about neon is that it contrasts with pretty much everything, and so regardless of whether the work is shown in a white cube gallery, decaying alternative space or installed in a tree, there’s always an interesting conversation to be had between the work and its environment.

“Light in isolation is nothing, you can only really experience it when you’ve seen the dark.”
Technically, would you define your work as sculpture, or a mix midway between sculpture and artistic installation?
The freedom to express myself the way that I want to, and for that to be determined by the idea and not pre-determined parameters, is really important for the integrity of the work and also my sanity. For this reason, I keep the description of what I do as broad as possible. I call it art. Sometimes it’s object-based and sometimes it’s an installation, but I’m currently working on a video piece and a participatory event. It’s always different and that’s what I love about being an artist.
Holding My Breath, Continuing Without, Luna Fossil or Sanctuary are among your latest works. If given the choice to single out just one to define what you do, which one would you say represent you the most and why?
I don’t think I can chose just one piece of work that defines what I do. My work is responsive to what’s going on around me at any given time, and so what I do can change with each body of work. One example of how I’ve previously responded to environmental challenges can be most easily be described in relation to Travelling Light (2007). This piece was made in response to a particular problem, but it was also the first one I made incorporating other materials with neon and marked an important change in the direction of my work.
I had the opportunity to show my work in Pittsburgh, PA, and at the time I was living in England. My then financial situation dictated that I could either send work to the exhibition, or go myself, but not both. I love to travel, so not going wasn’t an option, I set about thinking of a way I could take the work on the plane with me. I made the wooden box for Travelling Light to the exact dimensions of the hand luggage allowance for a transatlantic KLM flight. The neon was formed on the box, there are the guide drawings and scorch marks from the tube bending on the box. The neon then fits inside the box and I take it on the plane. When I get to the venue, I open up the box and position the glass. One of the unexpected and most exciting things about this piece was how people interacted with the box in transit: adding and removing stickers, writing on the outside. The box also started to get dirty and damaged during its travels and in its role of keeping the neon element pristine, increasing the tension between the two elements of the piece.
What kind of approach do you take towards your work and what are you trying to represent?
I’m always trying to make work that talks about what I find important or exciting at time of making. I’m interested in everything. I’m interested in life and the experience of living, of ideas and theories. I think –I hope– this is what keeps my work fresh. Sometimes I have a specific goal in mind for an artwork, and that can be an almost linear way of working; exploring form, composition and scale, choosing materials based on their physical properties and the wider universal significance. For example, concrete is great for casting, I can encase a neon tube into the mass of a form. It’s also physically heavy and draws visual and cultural associations to hard, urban spaces, brutalism and ugliness, which I use to accentuate the fragility, beauty and ephemeral nature of neon. Other times work comes when I notice that I’ve been obsessively making small sketches and drawings around a theme. This begins a journey of working out what it means and then taking it from there.

Have you ever tried to push the limits of the material? How do you expect different materials to behave and what kind of response are you keen to find in others? You have even displayed one of your works within a chocolate cake. What was your main purpose or goal behind it? Was it tasty?!
It’s always tasty, there’s no such thing as bad cake! I make two varieties, victoria sponge and neon cake, and chocolate and argon. I use Mary Berry’s recipes (Queen of Cakes and presenter of The Great British Bake Off on the BBC). The neon cakes were developed for a performance I gave at the Glass Art Society Conference, Seattle (2011). I was interested in the use of material and how by changing a single element of a piece, you can recontextualise the work. This was shortly after I made the original Luna Fossils, so was thinking along the lines of cement and contrasting materials – and cake is about as far removed from cement in appearance, texture, taste and social associations. The cake was baked in a glass kiln and afterwards the audience were invited to come and break away and eat hands full of the cake, exposing the neon and determining the form the piece took. I use the neon cake a lot with the social practice element of my practice. These have primarily been working with disenfranchised and at-risk community groups, where gaining the participants’ trust is a delicate process, yet vital to the success of the experience. Bringing food to share and eat with participants acts as a great social leveller and can create strong bonds within a group of otherwise disparate people. Cake has strong association to friendship and celebration, it tastes great and makes people feel good. When people are feeling good in and about themselves, they are more open to taking risks and achieving amazing things.
Throughout my work I’m interested in the fine lines that exist between strength and fragility and our perception of this. I’m always trying to push the limits of the material. With Holding My Breath, the neon tube is coated in 5000 dressmaking pins. There is the potential for the electricity to arc through the glass to the metal pins, making a hole in the glass and essentially killing the piece, which is exactly what happened during the development of the work. Can be a high-risk game, looking for the tension between materials. For the most part, the risks and calculated losses are worth it, although I did once push it too far. I had an important show where I installed a piece of work where a large neon element was supported by porcelain spheres suspended from the ceiling (White on White, you’ll note there are no images on my website of this work).
Everything was moving and the neon broke under the pressure an hour before the opening. I learnt a lot from this experience and am delighted to have not repeated it!
Antique objects, all kinds of surfaces and even outdoor premises have served in the display and portrayal of your work, What projects are you currently working on?
There are a couple of projects in the pipeline. I’m working towards a solo show at Work|Release in Norfolk, VA, in November, for which I’m working on some video pieces and an installation featuring about 1000 concrete cast paper airplanes. There will also be participatory event as part of the exhibition, which is still in development. I’m using the airplane as a metaphor for communication. Since moving from my native UK to America almost three years ago, communication and the need to feel connected to family and friends in England is at the forefront of my mind. Now is definitely the easiest time in history to be communicated with people all over the world, yet remaining connected with the busy and important people in your life is still a difficult thing to achieve.
And to sum it up, Sarah… Do you consider yourself a visual and conceptual artist more than anything?
The range of my output is broad, but ideas are definitely the driving force. I value the freedom to wander through disciplines picking and choosing materials and formats specific to the context of the work that I’m making at any given time. I consider myself an artist.

Manuel Sánchez

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