Studio Visit
Sarah Applebaum, Artist

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.

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Applebaum in her San Francisco home studio, wearing a unicorn mask of her own design, constructed from papier-mâché and colored string. It's part of a series of costumes she’s made over the years. “Those are my mystical fantasy side,” she says of the getups. “I always wanted unicorns to be real.”

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One of Applebaum’s current projects: accordion heads that she makes by cutting out wooden silhouettes of herself or her friends and constructing tissue paper honeycombs in between. “I remember telling the woman who was writing a catalog essay for one of my shows how when I think about my work, I always imagine the Big Bang: how something can come from nothing, how three dimensions can come from two. I’m often taking things that are flat and giving them volume,” she says.

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“I figured a head would be a good metaphor for mental expansion, and the silhouette captures the feeling of how your shadow — the thing that isn’t there — can often be more important or larger than what was actually there to begin with,” she adds.

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The heads are part of a new body of work dedicated to objects with more physical structure. Each part of Applebaum's oeuvre tends to be a reaction to whatever phase came before; prior to the wood, her gallery shows featured soft, amorphous pieces like this one, from 2006, consisting of thrift-store “granny quilts” sewn together into immersive environments. Before that, it was incredibly laborious line drawings. “If you leave me alone for a few months, I often end up doing something new,” she notes.

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In between the soft pieces and the structured ones, Applebaum was making pieces like this, one of the semi-three-dimensional crocheted quilts she sells in her online shop. Her obsession with craft, she says, began as an obsession with junk; her regular thrift-store outings turned her on to a world of neglected afghans. She thought she could rescue them and transform them into something beautiful.

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She’s since abandoned crocheting and afghans entirely, but she’s still fascinated with geometry and tesselations. In the center of this shelf is a fragment from a recent studio project using cardboard dodecahedrons. “I turned a whole room of my studio into a geometric cave,” she says. “I got really obsessed and kept on going, but by the end it took me so long I was sick of it. I was like, I’m tearing it all down! I need my studio back!

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Applebaum has also started to drift from knit pieces like this one, which she makes on a machine in her studio. “Living in San Francisco, there are lots of anchors as monuments to something down by the water," she says. "I made this right when the economy tanked, when we saw that cultural shift away from bling bling and Paris Hilton, and people were realizing they couldn’t aspire to that lifestyle anymore. For me it was like, instead of striving to be at the top, what if you got comfortable being at the bottom? The anchor represents something that’s always at the bottom.”

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More soft symbols: knitted chain links, and handmade ropes tied into nooses. “The nooses represent the juxtposition between beauty and death,” says Applebaum. “The chain links represent mental chains, and a lack of intellectual freedom. A lot of times I take really common imageries or symbols and try to dwell on them more, even though they could be seen as being trite or overused, like nooses or chains or guns.”

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To wit, a box of Applebaum’s handmade felt guns, which are sold at Jonathan Adler stores. “The materials are really soft and inviting, and when something’s more playful, you feel more comfortable with it,” she explains. “For me, it’s a way to think about things I don’t want to think about and to bring them into my awareness in a non-scary way. The guns and ropes are about facing my own mortality, rather than violence towards others.”

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Applebaum recently began working on a series of conceptual protest signs, with which she hopes to form a kind of “picket line of subconscious symbols." The signs are painted with glyphs representing various states of the subconscious: the television signal is the zoned-out mind, the silhouette is the part of yourself you don’t know. Yes, it’s very meta. “I was thinking about the Occupy movement and noticed that the occupied — or preoccupied — mind was an interesting play on words,” she says. “It’s important to occupy yourself, to think about who you are and what your real feelings are.”

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Ideally, Applebaum would like to stage an actual picket line, with its participants dressed in costumes like the ones shown here.

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To cut the protest signs, Applebaum uses this table saw, which she secured for her studio last year. She enjoys teaching herself new techniques in the service of her artwork; she once taught herself how to weld. "I got this big-ass table saw and was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to kill myself’ — but my thing is, let’s do it, let’s take our time, and now I’m more comfortable with it," she says. "I’m confident that anything someone else can make, I can figure out how to make it, too.”

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Also made on the table saw: these plywood silhouette heads that slot together, and underneath them, a kind of semi-flexible geometric fabric (early tests for which hang on the wall). “I cut out 300 wood triangles that I painted different colors and glued onto fabric,” says Applebaum. “The fabric can move, but only in a specific way. I had read an article about how we perceive space in triangles; we have two eyes, and the point we’re looking at forms the triangle. You mentally map out your relationship to everything in triangles. I’m thinking about mapping out a room using this fabric, so it drapes over a bucket of paint and you can see a bump and tell something’s underneath, but it abstracts to the point where you can’t tell what.”

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One of our favorite moments in the studio was randomly plopped on the floor just next to the previous display; we almost missed it entirely. “To me, the puddle is looking at itself in the mirror," says Applebaum. "It’s symbolic of us, when we take down all of our defenses.”

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Another weirdly touching moment: The googly-eyed leather raindrop staring out from one of Applebaum’s utility shelves, made by a friend of hers. “I thought it was so silly to put an eyeball on this thing — it’s a teardrop shape, but instead of coming out of an eye, it has an eye on it.”

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Applebaum clearly has a very particular sense of humor. The day we visited she was using this book, along with several others, to weigh down her wooden-triangle fabric while the glue dried, and she says she counts Groucho Marx among her inspirations. “He could be pretty random, hallucinatory almost,” she explains. “His repartee was all about putting strange things together.”

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Boxes of yarn, most of it sourced from thrift stores and an artist-only “creative reuse” center where she frequently donates scraps. “They have weird bulk amounts of weird leftovers,” she says.

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In progress the day we visited was this pelt-like carpet made from recycled T-shirts, which Applebaum hoped she’d get around to finishing soon.

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“This is also an experiment using scraps,” she says. “I had leftover felt, so I was cutting strips and weaving them together in these tiles. I never did anything with it, though.”

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Some of the bits Applebaum doesn’t know what to do with end up in her living room. On the sofa are three knitted chain links that she tossed there — atop a pair of purchased fish cushions — because they seemed like “just another weird thing to have as a pillow.”

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A New Ugly–style painting hangs above the sofa, looking like a cross between a horror film and a neon crayon melting. Applebaum bought it for $5. “I got it because it reminded me of when the evil Gremlin gets melted in sludge,” she says. “It’s funny, it’s kind of gross, and it has a kind of Garbage Pail Kid mentality.”

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Another example of amateur art sits below one of Applebaum’s own works. “A friend of mine found this at a thrift store in Ohio and posted it on Facebook. I offered to trade her a felt gun if she’d go back and buy it for me. Someone who actually has some painting skills made this, but it’s this weird combination of Lord of the Rings and, like, How to Paint a Man,” she laughs.