It’s not every day that one of our subjects answers the phone by giddily announcing she’s just opened the mail to find the Legend soundtrack she ordered and proclaiming that 1985 Tom Cruise fantasy flick to be her favorite movie. But then San Francisco artist Sarah Applebaum has always tended to march to the beat of her own drum: Paying no mind when her work meanders back and forth between craft and art, she mostly uses dime-store materials like yarn, papier mâché, and felt. Unlike most crafters, she often turns those materials into three-dimensional symbols plucked from her subconscious. And yet unlike most artists, she’s self-taught with a degree in politics, sells her objects at Jonathan Adler and in her own online shop, moonlights as a personal chef, and isn’t at all goal-oriented when it comes to gallery shows. When Applebaum makes things, alone in her home studio in the Lower Haight, it’s above all for making’s sake.
Applebaum says she’s always been drawn to the world of craft because it felt “more immediate and real” to her. She launched her career with a so-called “crazy crochet phase” that began with her using sewn together thrift-store afghans to create wildly patterned environments — complete with models encased from head to toe in the blankets — and progressed to smaller knitted objects like anchors, cubist quilts, and oversized chain links. While she was certainly interested in symbolism, and in the transition between two dimensions and three, she was mostly following a series of obsessive urges to figure out how to bring her ideas to life, teaching herself to how to knit, weld, and weave rope along the way. “I’m an intuitive artist,” she says. “I make what I want to make, and then I reflect back on it, saying, ‘Okay, why was I so drawn to this thing?’ as a method of self-introspection.” She often does experiments for no particular reason, like when she recently turned a room of her studio into a kind of geometric cave made from felt dodecahedrons, only to be so sick of the task once she’d finished that she tore down the installation without so much as documenting it first.
That tendency is, of course, what made her such a great candidate for a Sight Unseen studio visit — entering her physical realm is really the only way to understand her metaphorical one. There are the symbols she creates, and there’s what’s behind those symbols. Check out the slideshow at right to see what we deciphered when we paid Applebaum a visit this past fall.
It’s a wonder that Jim Drain isn’t a hoarder of epic, A&E-worthy proportions. Sure, nearly every corner of the 3,000-square-foot Miami studio he shares with fellow artist and girlfriend Naomi Fisher is crammed full of stuff — chains, knitted fabric scraps, yarns, paint cans, talismen, toilet tops, costumes, books, prints, past works, and parts of past works that have been dismembered, all jockeying for attention. But considering Drain has worked with 10 times that many mediums in his nearly 15 years of making art, fashion, and furniture — often incorporating junk found in thrift stores and back alleys — hey, it could be a lot worse. “My dad will find something and go, I got this weird thing I think you’ll like, and my friends do it too, and I’m like, I’m not a trash collector!” he insists.
Portland is a place where, so the saying goes, the ’90s are alive and well. And it may very well be the only place that could have spawned an artist like Emily Counts, who deals with the self-reflective nostalgia of outdated technological innovations once found in her childhood home: dial-up telephones sculpted in porcelain and stoneware, a life-size fax machine, an interactive Mac SE computer made from walnut, casting epoxy, glass, porcelain, copper, and electrical wiring that acts as a two-way mirror after a button is pressed on the keyboard, lighting up the sculpture’s interior. “I’m interested in the mystery of these inventions that we seem to take for granted in our everyday life,” says the 35-year-old Seattle native, who we first spotted on photographer Carlie Armstrong’s blog Work.Place. “For me, there’s a thin line between technology and magic.”
When Sarah Illenberger picks up the phone, the first thing she does is apologize: There's a loud, repetitive popping noise going off in the background of her Berlin studio, which turns out to be the firing of a staple gun. She doesn't say what her assistants are constructing with the staples, but judging from her past illustration work, it's likely they'll be built up by the thousands onto a substrate until their glinting mass reveals some kind of representational image — a skyscraper, maybe, or a ball of tinfoil. Almost all of Illenberger's work involves using handicraft to manipulate one thing into looking like something else entirely, and almost all of it entails such a meticulous construction process that there's no time to silence it for interviews.