Sarah Fox: Life Lessons Portrayed Through Art

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David S. Rubin for the Rivard Report

Sarah Fox with her work at Cinnabar Gallery.

Sarah Fox has been making art for most of her life. A native of New Jersey who was raised in Houston, Fox began her career as a graphic designer and illustrator. She returned to her first love by enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) after her husband accepted a job here.

By the time she received her degree in 2015, she had already hit the ground running, having had solo exhibitions at the Southwest School of Art and Art Lab in Uvalde. Since graduating, Fox has had solo shows at AnArte Gallery and Hello Studio, and she has participated in 10 group exhibitions.

Her latest work is on view at Cinnabar Gallery from Nov. 3-Dec. 23, in a two-person exhibition with fellow UTSA alum Andrei Renteria.

Presidio Bound, 2014, graphite, watercolor, pencil, gold leaf, vellum on rag paper, 24 x 18 in.

Courtesy / Sarah Fox

Presidio Bound, 2014, graphite, watercolor, pencil, gold leaf, vellum on rag paper, 24 x 18 in.

While still in graduate school, Fox was already demonstrating a noteworthy command of her materials, as well as an adventurous approach to using them. Rather than simply drawing or painting on paper, Fox constructed collages by cutting paper into irregular shapes to create dynamic compositions that are visually animated through bold colors and jagged edges. Her subject matter at this time was largely influenced by Joseph Campbell’s writings about mythology, universal archetypes, and the hero’s journey.

In Presidio Bound (2014), Fox presents a heroic portrait of Renteria, who had recently left his native home, the border town Presidio, Texas, for a better life in San Antonio. In her portrait, Fox emphasizes one of Renteria’s most prominent features, elaborate tattoos that appear especially pronounced and vibrant because Fox drew them in color over flesh that she rendered in black and white. With the phrase “siempre familia” – “family always” – tattooed on his chest, Renteria is bound to his roots and the family he left behind.

With a gusher of red blood shown pouring from Renteria’s heart and moving back through his body like a river, Fox sees her friend’s story as the universal archetype for a courageous hero’s journey that is never accomplished without the prerequisite dose of pain and suffering.

Although Fox works in painting, collage, sculpture, and performance, she consistently employs a narrative format, and often explores a single story or composition in a number of different mediums.

For her performance Genesis Rhythm (2014), she created a sculptural headdress in the form of a rabbit’s head with sprouted leaves, which she has used as a prop in performance and also exhibited simply as a sculpture. When she first performed with the headdress at UTSA, Fox wore it while enacting a metaphoric ritual about the creative process.

Inspired by Aesop’s Fables, the artist often uses animals in her invented mythologies and, in this instance, she transformed herself into a rabbit deity and proceeded to paint the floor with juices squeezed from berries, a symbolic act referring to the organic nature of creativity.

For a subsequent performance at 3rd Space Art Gallery, entitled Morning (2014), Fox wore the headdress again as she explored the theme of life, death, and rebirth. While sitting in a patch of soil, she handed out plants purchased from the reject bins as gifts to gallery visitors, with the idea that they might nurture them and bring them back to life. The performance took place before a thematically-related backdrop, a mural-size painting of blood-red landscape in which the female rabbit deity wears a variant of the familiar headdress while feeding glistening pearls into the mouth of a beastly god/destroyer.

In a majority of Fox’s recent works, the artist uses her animal narrative format to work through the emotional distress surrounding serious health issues. In her mixed-media collage The Witnesses (2014), the central character is a giraffe girl whose face belongs to the artist’s friend. The friend was born with congenital heart disease and is terminally ill. In this poignant fable about offering supportive love and friendship, Fox again portrays herself as the rabbit deity, who is shown nuzzling close to her friend as she offers comfort and strength.

Other witnesses to the giraffe girl’s difficult life situation include an all-seeing mouse, identified by its multiple eyes, and a moth, who symbolizes spirituality. Bonded together in a field of blood-red roses, the characters respond to the protagonist’s fate with a sense of stoic acceptance. Fox’s point here is simply that one can enjoy a full and beautiful life regardless of its duration.

In an entirely different manner, Fox investigated the subject of cardiac arrhythmia again in 2015. To illustrate the idea that having an irregular heartbeat does not preclude living a normal life, Fox built a number of sound sculptures that operate somewhat like a player piano. To play them, a participant turns a crank to move rolls of paper punched with holes simulating the type of patterns found on electrocardiograms through a metal device. Although the sound compositions differ from sculpture to sculpture, each represents a functioning beating heart.

Cut Cry, 2016, collage on found paper, 32 x 32 in.

Courtesy / Sarah Fox

Cut Cry, 2016, collage on found paper, 32 x 32 in.

Fox’s latest efforts, on view at Cinnabar, have evolved from coping with health challenges that she herself has been facing. Over the past few years, Fox and her husband have twice attempted to have a child but, sadly, both tries resulted in miscarriages, with the unborn babies dying in the womb at eight and eleven weeks respectively. Because Fox has been diagnosed with two different blood disorders, her doctors have speculated that internal blood clotting may have been a factor in the first instance.

In the second, the dead fetus could not be removed without the artist having to endure the physically and emotionally painful experience of taking an abortion pill.

In her collage Cut Cry (2016), an animal/human hybrid serves as a surrogate self-portrait. Shown wiping tears from her eyes and holding a pair of scissors that refers in more ways than one to the truncation of the pregnancy, Fox’s personage is powerfully emblematic of the personal anguish a woman experiences when she loses an unborn child.

The Vegan, 2016, pastel, watercolor, gouache on rag paper, 36 x 42 in.

Courtesy / Sarah Fox

The Vegan, 2016, pastel, watercolor, gouache on rag paper, 36 x 42 in.

In other works at Cinnabar, viewers will see narratives through which Fox imagines what it is to experience the joys of motherhood. Painted with lush washes that create a luminous atmosphere in which to stage the narrative, Fox’s The Vegan (2016) depicts animal/plant hybrids in the roles of mother and child, with the maternal figure fawning over her offspring in a tender moment that recalls similar scenes from Walt Disney’s animated version of Bambi.

Perhaps the most touching figure in Fox’s repertoire of characters is Finn, a young infant with the name she would have given to her baby had he been male. Appearing contented and peaceful in the painting Mother Nature’s Son (2016), Finn is shown floating in space, asleep in the company of an ensemble of protective animals that includes birds, fish, and snakes.

In a related sculptural grouping, the young infant seems similarly tranquil. Shown with carrots and turnips in the place of legs, he lovingly embraces his own deformities, a cluster of snail shells that cling to his body like parasites. Using color to associate each sculpture with a different sweet or spice (sugar, honeycomb, cinnamon, and chocolate), Fox expresses her feelings about the desirability of child rearing in a manner that is both clever and visually compelling.

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