If eyes are the windows to the soul, 36-year-old artist Sarah Dueth is one of our more unsettling glassblowers. In her voluminous “Girls” series, Dueth paints children whose bodies melt outward from glazed, haunted, world-weary eyes. Her elegant, eerie paintings—nearly 50 of them in total—are equal parts Gustav Klimt and Tim Burton, full of stark, imposing figures anchored by spectral glares. Their faces are raw glimpses into the unease of childhood, the discomfort of growing pains and the embarrassing memories that shape us even as adults. One painting is appropriately called “Strange Little Girls.” Daunting in scale and scope, her large body of work is an enormous spit in the face to the idea that nostalgia is a comforting, safe, friendly place. “It’s no secret that the Girl series isn’t a happy, jolly series,” says Dueth. “Everybody goes through something in life. I’ve just taken that negative energy and turned it into something positive.”
Her Rutherford, New Jersey, however, cuts a warmer, more unimposing suburban figure, complete with plates of cookies, Christmas cards and a hyperkinetic terrier obsessed with the backyard’s baby opossums. But a short walk upstairs into her under-insulated, paint-spattered attic reveals stacks and stacks of these girls in masks, girls holding toys, girls ill-fit in frilly dresses. Her studio is hot in the summer, cold in the winter and “on winter days it’s almost unbearable,” she says, adding, “I have to paint in snow boots.” But paint she does, as Dueth treats creating art like a drug, like a compulsion, like her unquestioned destiny.
How did you start doing the Girls series?
SD: I think I was painting abstraction for 10 years because I was afraid to say what I’m saying with the Girls series. Quite possibly I just wasn’t ready to say it. It’s the best thing I could have done in my life. [I spent] 10 years painting abstractly to feel what I can do, figuring out what I can do with paint. Can I just mush it onto the canvas? I just love oil paint. I could have been a good spackler because I just love the feel; it’s buttery and smooth and I just apply it. Some of my canvases are so built up that people think I’m using sand or hay or sticks and crumbling it up and putting it into the oil paint.
SD: You’ve amassed quite a hefty body of work. How often are you painting?
I paint every day. I paint from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon when I have to go pick up my son from school. I mean, I might take a Saturday off or a Sunday off, but painting for me has pulled me out of a very low place and if I don’t do it I tend to have addictive symptoms come up. So, when I paint, those symptoms disappear. So it actually is like a drug. I know everybody say that artists are crazy and Van Gogh cut off his ear and all this stuff. We have tendencies— a lot of people in the world do; so it’s not just us—everybody has this, so I’m not embarrassed to speak about it openly. I didn’t know that painting was going to be the thing to pull me from the gutter. But the moment I picked up a palate knife, I had this feeling of complete peace and just utter… goosebumps. It just shocked me. I thought, “I’ve got to listen to that,” and I just kept going. I didn’t know why. Do you listen to music while you paint? Music is such a big thing for me. Tori Amos, she’s been the biggest part of my musical life for many years. Eminem has some amazing, very deeply felt things. People who go through really hard times and are able to turn that around and find what they love to do and do it all the time, and do it well.
You find a parallel there?
So, sometimes you’ll hear a song and be inspired to…
SD: No, I think I feel a song. I think my husband, being a sound engineer, he doesn’t really listen to words. I listen to the words and the bigness of a song, the meat of a song.
It definitely sounds like there are some personal demons you’re fighting by painting these girls. Where did this start?
SD: Maybe in high school… or maybe when I was a child. I did feel unworthy… of just being… of everything. I didn’t feel like I deserved anything… I went through a very long stage like this. I had some of the wrong friends in high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was lost for a very long time and that made me very unhappy and very on-edge at all times and it got me to a place that was very, very low… But now I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
I love how you talk about how painting is like a drug for you. When and how do you feel that when you’re working? How does it manifest itself in you?
SD: The moment I get up there and turn on my radio it takes about five minutes to get into that unconscious/subconscious world… I like to work on as many canvases as I can at one time. Usually around five to 10. It used to mean about 10, but now that the Girls are getting a lot more focused, I’m spending a lot more time with them trying to figure out what I want from them.
You have said that the Girls series is often spawned from memories. What’s an example of how a memory can turn into a painting for you?
SD: I used to take ballet classes. As young girl I was very small, and I was smaller than the rest of the girls, very tiny… We had recitals and had to dress up and wear pantyhose, but I was at the age where I simply couldn’t fit into any pantyhose that were skin-colored. I was so small that the pantyhose would shrivel up when I put them on, so it looked horrible—all bunchy and bulky—so I was the only one out of 20-some-odd girls wearing pink tights. And at that age you feel like, “Oh, my God.” I was a little embarrassed. And I know it’s a silly thing to be embarrassed about, pink tights, but I felt different and that’s the point. I felt different. And I always felt different in my life; I always felt like the black sheep of the family. But if I think back to that, I just paint. Within the month that I have remembered a memory, eventually a painting will come out of it. Piece by piece I’m putting together this thing… I don’t remember a lot about my childhood. I feel like I’m putting together pieces of a missing puzzle… I used to think they might be about memories, but I also am starting to realize that it’s about today, too. It’s about the strength that I’ve found within myself in order to just keep going.
So the Girls aren’t actual girls, they’re more evoking the essence of a feeling?
SD: Yes. Absolutely, I think so. And the eyes are very important to me.
How do you make the eyes?
SD: I used to try to start with the round circle of the head. It doesn’t work. I’ve only recently discovered that if I start with they eyes, it just melts together. I don’t paint like a printer prints. I’m all over. I try to keep it as open as it can be until I finally resolve the painting. Although, I’ve never been scared to destroy; if there’s something I don’t like, I take the palate knife and I scrape right through it and I start all over.
And you’re playing music the whole time?
SD: Yes. As loudly as I can! In the summertime my neighbors would say, “We hear you.”
A lot of people our age, their art now, is really informed by the comforting aspects of childhood. It’s a lot of Nintendo controllers and woozy VHS effects and there’s this real idea that going back to 1986 is a happy, good place to be. I like that your art flips that on its head and is like, “No! Childhood is not a cool, awesome place that I want to be right now!”
SD: Yeah, I would not trade those days. I see my own child growing up and it brings back a lot and I think that he is a huge influence on what I’m doing today. I will admit, after he was born it took me two years to know what to do. I melted. It was because I couldn’t paint at all. It was two years with a baby and I was the stay-at-home mother and it killed me. And that’s supposed to be the time that you’re falling in love with your baby and I had a really difficult time going through that…
Because you couldn’t paint?
SD: Because I couldn’t paint. Not because of him… I feel good that I can give him something that wasn’t there for me. Or at least I can make sure that he grows up with something that I felt that I lost. Again, it’s a struggle. Every day is a struggle. I mean, life is not easy and nobody ever said that it’s easy. And it’s not easy to be a parent. I could have gone off and been something and made a decent 9-5 living, but I couldn’t. Because painting chose me.
More of Sarah Dueth’s work can also be found at http://www.saatchionline.com/sarahdueth