Sarina Mitchel: Abstractions of Celestial Whimsy

Sarina Mitchel, a visual artist from New Jersey, is an AS220 artist-in-residence. Her radiant and fantastical works aim to “yield confusion and anxiety but also convey an inherent beauty and grandeur.” Some of her latest work was exhibited at AS220’s Resident Gallery in July. Interview by Connor Sullivan. 

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How would you describe your sense of aesthetics? 
There’s a lot of purple, pinks, and celestial colors. I tend to use outer-spacey colors. The work I do varies. I have paintings on masonite, realistic drawings I’ve done that astound people who don’t do art, little doodles of glitter gel pen elephant imaginary people, and printed-out digital collages. It’s very multifaceted, so it’s hard to describe one unifying aesthetic since I bop around so much. It must be based in color and texture. Even though a lot of the things I do are in different media, you can still tell it’s me because the colors I use are all very bright and saturated. Sometimes it’s more subtle, but everything I do has the same set of similar colors playing off each other. I just recently noticed that pattern. My art is, to some extent, an outpouring. But I don’t think it’s intentional — I’m just putting down what I think is beautiful on masonite or whatever and it just sort of happens. I like the idea of images being universal and taking on a life of their own, too. Even in self-portraits.  

How do you see your whimsical aesthetic fitting into an art world flush in bleak post-modernism?
I’m still trying to figure that out. Right now, I’m two years out of school and am in the process of finding the right niche that makes sense. It’s a challenge figuring out how this fun whimsicality fits into the divided atmosphere we’ve got going on now. I think there needs to be a dialogue between the celestial abstractions and that post-modernism.

You attended RISD. What was that experience like?
RISD was a trip. A lot of work. I’m glad I went there since I found a community of unique and incredibly hard-working artists. What better thing to do late on a Saturday night than to mix colors and make art?

Did you retain the same aesthetic sensibility at RISD?
Yeah. I really aggravated people. My paintings were all really bright and I would wear so many brightly colored patterns. It would drive people crazy, especially the graphic designers with their blacks and greys and neutral tones. I was super colorful and people thought it was too much and begged me to stop. It was great to have that push-back though. I’m still doing super colorful things, but RISD taught me that, while you can have all the rainbows and patterns you want, there’s no point if you don’t have that negative or blank space to set it off.

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What’s your history with drawing like?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. When I was a little kid, I’d draw princesses and mermaids and ballerinas. As I would watch TV as a kid, I would draw the characters I saw on TV. Like Rugrats-inspired stuff. Copies of Harry Potter covers. I did art classes throughout school since I knew I always wanted to be an artist. And those sort of force you to hone your skills and learn how to draw realistically. I did so much pencil drawing with graphite growing up because that’s how you learn about tone and value and gradients and all that stuff. By the time I reached the end of high school, I was so sick of pencil drawing. And kind of went into full-on color as a reaction against it.

Who influences your art?
One of my favorite artists is Thomas Woodruff. Last I checked, he was a professor at SVA in New York. I love his work even though mine looks nothing like it, except maybe the shared celestial quality. His work is very detailed and realistic, but he has these inverted faces that he does. He has this series called “Freak Parade.” It’s these really detailed oil paintings of “freaks,” these really surreal creature-human combos. And he does portraits of people that are completely realistic but the person’s place is purple or orange. He did a rainbow series of sad clown-like people in different colors. I love how surreal and strange his work is. The link isn’t that strong with my work since I don’t do stuff that’s as representational and strange. But there’s something about the surreality of it that I love and want to take little bits from. Joan Miró is also awesome. He did abstract paintings during the 30s. I love his paintings but don’t have a good defense for why. I’m trying to be a sponge this year. I have blank pieces of paper on my dorm’s dorm that anyone can write on. I’m looking for the names of books, TV shows, and so on. I’ve found that I don’t know a lot of cultural stuff so I’m trying to absorb things I haven’t before. The whole point of being in an artistic community is learning new things and being exposed to elements of culture I don’t know about before.

What cultural stuff are you currently absorbing?
I just recently watched Pulp Fiction for the first time. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Napoleon Dynamite.

One art project you did recently that I find really interesting is the design of these gender-neutral magnetic dolls. Can you detail the development of these?
I designed those junior year at RISD. I took a winter session class called “XXXY.” It was an illustration class about gender. You could do any kind of artwork you wanted but had to work within the theme of gender in each week’s assignment. That class was transformative for me. I’ve always been fascinated by gender and sexuality. There are folks that say it’s a spectrum and folks that say it’s a binary. I’m not only fascinated by both sides of the argument but also the argument itself and the clash between them. There was basically no other class in illustration that allowed me to explore this stuff. If you made stuff that addressed sexuality in other classes, you’d just have people be like, “Oh, you better talk to a therapist.” As opposed to actually critiquing your work. But the teacher of this class just let us jump off a cliff and fly with these ideas. With the dolls, I was trying to think of a way to represent all the possible genders. It was around the time I first saw the Genderbread Person. It fascinated me that you could be anywhere along this spectrum. I was trying to figure out a way to represent that and went through a ton of different possibilities. And then I wondered what would happen if you could combine everything the way you want it. Which is where I got the idea for the dolls. So I made them by using magnetic strips and textures to lend them this hand-made quality.

What’s your relationship with Providence and AS220 like?
I came to Providence to go to RISD. I didn’t really realize there was an amazing city right here. I vaguely knew that there was this great arts organization with yellow and black stripes in their logo. But it wasn’t until I started going to the Providence Poetry Slam that I truly began integrating myself. I was a summer pre-college RA at Brown. After that, I did Americorp at CityArts. And a bunch of jobs working with kids. Through all that, I began getting acquainted with the arts scene here containing AS220 and all these other organizations. I was flabbergasted that that stuff had been in Providence the whole time. Last summer I wasn’t in Providence, but in Boston teaching kids photography and video. After that, I made it my goal to stop teaching and to focus on art in Providence and to get into gallery shows and to advance my art career as much as possible.

How has the artist-in-residence program been facilitating that goal?
Don’t let me start talking about my floormates — I love them so much and will go on forever. I live in the Empire space and it’s amazing and communal. We share kitchens and bathrooms, which is challenging, but it’s awesome to live with ten other artists and to see what everyone else is doing all the time. It’s so great being exposed to all these different ideas, voices, and influences. It inspires me to keep wanting to work myself. Like walking down the hall and having floormates ask if I’m doing anything for a gallery show is a really great motivator. Some people need the privacy, but I think it’s worth the trade-off. If you want to be extroverted, there’s always someone hanging out in the kitchen doing something. Or me, cooking.

What kind of work will you be exhibiting at the gallery?
It’s all explorations from this year. It shows this process of me trying to find a direction. I tend to oscillate from the realistic to the abstract to the digital to imaginary creature drawings. It’s almost a bridge to other things, where I’m trying to discover what I want to do more of. It’s showing where my art is right now. It’s a snapshot and cross-section of all the stuff I’ve made in the ten months I’ve been at AS220.