I visited Sarah McEneaney at her home in the Callowhill / Trestletown / Chinatown North neighborhood of Philadelphia. She lives and works in a carriage house connected to an adjacent building, which she renovated herself in the 1980s, behind a walled front garden. The rooms spill into one another — the garden leading into a warm living room with a fireplace, an open kitchen, a large studio and back rooms filled with storage and archives. Each wall contains small items to explore, if one gives it time: notes, sketches, and photos in the studio; bookcases, framed drawings, and the artwork of her friends in the bathroom and living room; open shelves of ceramics in the kitchen.
We ate lunch while we talked — bread and olives and homemade spreads, and then took her dog Trixie out for a short walk around the neighborhood. It was only after we finished talking, and returned to the house, that McEneaney mentioned she had spent the days before dealing with a health issue. It clearly did not occur to her to reschedule our conversation — McEneaney projects a self-sufficiency that life goes on, and is enjoyed, around both crises and adventures. In her painting world, as well, workaday routine merges with significant autobiographical moments. Although her diaristic approach is compared to Frida Kahlo’s, her paintings — even those dealing with the subjects of rape and cancer — are never overwrought. Her self-portrait is not usually front and center, but rather a small figure within a universe of details, with meaning and memory inscribed in coded patterns on the walls.
McEneaney’s paintings, which show herself in her home and studio, amongst her work and her pets, as well as scenes from international hiking, trekking and rafting trips, are often made in egg tempera. McEneaney received her certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1979. Her work was most recently shown at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in November 2014 (her fifth show with the gallery). She previously showed with Gallery Schlesinger, New York. In Philadelphia, she has had several solo exhibitions at the Locks Gallery and More Gallery. In 2004, she was the subject of a solo museum show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Other museum shows have been held at Mills College Art Museum, California; and the List Gallery, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.
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Jennifer Samet: You have lived in Philadelphia since art school. How did you get interested in painting, and who were your early teachers?
Sarah McEneaney: I was one of those kids who decided when I was ten that I wanted to be an artist. My father died when I was very young, so it was really our mother who raised us. She gave us the message that whatever we do, we should love. I’m grateful for that. I have four sisters and one brother; I come from an Irish Catholic family.
I grew up in Westchester. From fourth through tenth grade, along with all my sisters, I took Saturday oil painting classes with a woman who taught children out of her house. She was very influential. We each had one of those wood boxes filled with oil paints. She had a huge catalog of collected photographs, from places like Life magazine. She had them categorized into people, landscape, animals; and easy, medium, hard. You would flip through her files and choose one to make a painting. That was how she taught. But even then, I made self-portraits; they were kind of Blue Period Picasso-esque.
Then I went to Philadelphia College of Art. I spent two years there (it is now University of the Arts), before moving over to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I liked the focus on painting there. When I was at the Academy, I started to do what I call autobiographical work. If I was in a room with a model, instead of painting just the model, I would paint the whole room and the other students. And I made paintings of myself in the studio, with paintings in progress — which are related to what I do today.
One of my teachers was Ben Kamihira. Ben was very private, but he liked my work, and he suggested that I make a painting of him. So we went in the studio where he had a painting in process. A friend of mine — a fellow student — got into the pose of the model in the painting, and I painted Ben painting. I put his paintbrush right in the woman’s crotch, because, as far as I was concerned, that was always what he was interested in. He ended up liking my painting, and he brought both his current wife and his ex-wife into my studio to see it.
When I graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy I got a traveling grant and went to Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt. I wanted to go to Africa to see the animals. I was thinking about how long would we see animals in the wild before we ruin everything as human beings. But I didn’t paint the animals; I made mostly gouache landscape paintings on that trip. Animals are really important in my paintings now, but I tend to focus on the ones that I know and see and live with.
JS: Many of your paintings are done with egg tempera. How did you start working with it, and what do you like about it?
SM: I was making big oil paintings, but I was already interested in pattern. With the oil I would put down a field of color, and then put a pattern over it, like bricks with mortar lines. I would get frustrated waiting for the oil paint to dry, so I started working in acrylic. But back then, in the early 1980s, acrylic didn’t work for me; it felt too plastic. Recently I’ve been using acrylic again, and I find that the mediums have improved and I can get the flat look I like.
At some point, I found a set of pre-made egg tempera and decided to try it. Then I got into making my own egg tempera paint. Tempera is not shiny but it has a luscious sheen. You separate the inner yolk of an egg and mix powdered pigment with water into a paste. You can’t put it down thick. The traditional way is to use small cross-hatched marks, like Paul Cadmus, because if it gets too thick it starts cracking. But I use washes of color, and small marks to form patterns. And I have to plan before I start the paintings.
JS: How do you plan and map out the spaces — the detailed interiors of your home and studio, and views of your neighborhood — in your paintings?
SM: I want them to be “accurate,” but I use that in quotes because I stretch my idea of accuracy. It is never one view; it’s always a “turning your head view.” I start the neighborhood paintings with the intention to include parts of specific buildings. Once I figure out what is going to be in the picture plane, then I figure out how to make it work. It is the same with the interiors. I know I want to have that wall, and I want to have that peek into the bedroom. How do I get that impossible view?
Sometimes I will incorporate an older painting that has a smaller view. I project that onto a panel or piece of paper and draw it out and make it bigger. Sometimes I reuse old paintings or drawings to make a new painting. I map it all out. When I was in school I was a snob about using photographs. But now, I will use whatever information, notes, and tools I need. I have my own way of drawing, and whatever happens, it’s still going to be mine.
I did carpentry work for years, and the way I construct interiors relates to that. I like getting the architecture right. I have counted how many bricks are in a space to get the size right, or used my knowledge of the size of a sheet of dry wall or two-by-eights to measure my way around a space.
JS: A recurring motif in your work is the depiction of paintings within the painting. The recent work, “Every Day” (2013), made me think of Matisse’s “Red Studio,” in this way. Can you talk about this motif?
SM: Yes, I’ve loved Matisse’s “Red Studio” since I was a kid. In my painting “Daydream” (2001), on the wall behind me, is a totally imagined collection of art by people that I admire and I’m inspired by. There is work by Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Paul Georges, Charles Burchfield, Ben Shahn, Vija Celmins, Ben Shahn, Florine Stettheimer, Stephan Balkenhol, and Horace Pippin.
In the painting “Every Day,” you can see the books on my bookcases and the titles on their spines. If I have been looking at the work of a certain artist, I will paint a book of their work. On the wall I painted work by Joan Mitchell, Frank Moore and Joan Brown. Moore’s work is very narrative — some of it is about having AIDS — and it really spoke to me.
The Joan Brown painting that I included was recently given to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There is a Kathy Bradford which I actually own, but I changed the scale of it. I like painting the work of other artists as a way of looking at it and thinking about it.
JS: Horace Pippin is frequently mentioned in relation to your work. Is his work, or other “outsider” artists, something you think about?
SM: Yes, Horace Pippin has been one of my favorites for years. I didn’t know him until I got to Philadelphia. But I look at a lot of different kinds of work. People who are schooled, and outsiders. Outsider art is given that label, but they are just artists. What I love in so-called outsider art is the directness and the color — being very straightforward.
I love the paintings of Bob Thompson. His use of color is amazing. And I think a lot about the Italian Renaissance painter, Sassetta. I like how the saints are moving through the frame, how the narrative is told with the character moving through the landscape. In “Wissahickon”(2000), I was thinking about Sassetta, and I depict myself three times, and the dog six times, because of the way dogs travel around the woods and cover more territory.
JS: I remember seeing the series of paintings about rape that you made in the late 1990s at Gallery Schlesinger. Can you talk about this work?
SM: The rape paintings were very hard to make. I knew early on that I was going to make paintings about it, because of the nature of my work, but it took about six months before I started. My rapist was never caught, so I had no resolution. Making the paintings was somewhat cathartic.
When I first started, I would work for twenty minutes and then I would feel so disgusted that I’d have to walk away. Then, eventually it got to the point that I was just trying to make a good painting — the way I would with any painting.
In “My House, Summer ’98” (1999), I show myself sitting in my garden reading the paper with a hammer and a telephone next to me. Written on the newspaper are the words the rapist said. Embedded very softly in the wall are initials of all my friends who helped me. There are also spider webs, which I thought of as modes of protection. I am wearing the clothes I was wearing the day it happened.
The painting was a way to reclaim my place, where the rape happened. I never wanted to leave my house. Friends slept over for two weeks in a row after it happened. I was determined to not be pushed out of my house.
In “Revenge Fantasy” (1999), I picture an imagined struggle in the pool with my rapist. I was a regular swimmer at a YMCA, and I had a panic about whether I was going to see him there. So the revenge fantasy in the painting is that he is dead at the bottom of the pool and I’m coming up for air. In another piece, “June 15, 1998 I” (1999), I represented the rapist as a shadow, but instead of using pigments, I used fingerprint dust that the police had left behind.
JS: It is not the only difficult subject your work has touched on; you made a group of paintings about having cancer, which were shown in 2006 at Tibor de Nagy, and earlier work from the 1990s dealt with breast self-examination.
SM: Yes, I was diagnosed with cancer the same year that my first exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery was scheduled. I was determined to keep it on schedule. I was getting chemotherapy in the fall, and the show was in the spring. I’d come home from the treatments and be tired, but I made myself work. I just kind of powered through it. I made pre- and post-surgery self-portraits, adding depictions of scans, tests, and treatments. “Alopecia” (2006) showed me sitting at a table in the studio drawing, hair falling out onto the paper. On the studio wall were imagined and real paintings in progress of a chemo treatment, giving myself a white blood cell booster shot, and getting acupuncture.
JS: In your studio right now is a large cityscape painting that shows the elevated rail line in your neighborhood. I know you are involved with a community campaign called the Rail Park. Can you tell me about this work?
SM: My activist passion right now is to get a park made out of an abandoned rail line in my neighborhood. I have made a lot of work about the Rail Park project. They are large cityscapes: expansive views, often from high points looking down. But to me, they still fit into my autobiographical vein, because I show my own home and studio. The building I have renovated, lived in, and worked in for 35 years is usually the heart of the paintings.
My friend and neighbor, John Struble, formed the Reading Viaduct Project in 2003, advocating for a one-mile stretch of abandoned elevated rail line to be reused, remade as a park (similar to New York’s High Line). The elevated rail connects with another abandoned rail line that is below grade and is open to the sky. Friends of the Rail Park formed in 2010 to advocate for both the elevated and below grade lines; a three-mile park! In 2013 Reading Viaduct Project and Friends of the Rail Park merged and we are working together on the entire three-mile vision. We have construction documents and are actively fundraising for Phase 1, which we hope will break ground this year. My community work on the park and my studio practice have become thoroughly intertwined in these cityscape neighborhood paintings.
JS: There is also a nighttime landscape painting in your studio. What is the story behind that one?
SM: “Above Olo” (2014) shows a rafting trip I took with a group down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. We would sleep on the rafts because it was cooler down by the river. During the night, two of the rafts, which were tied together, came loose. And I heard Michael, who was in the next boat, say, “Everybody up! We’ve come loose!” We just kind of stood up. I was sharing the raft with an experienced kayaker. So she just got on the oars and started rowing toward the shore. I’m standing behind her not really knowing what do, because there was nothing to do! So I started stuffing my sleeping bag in its bag.
We got back to shore and tied up with help of the three people who hadn’t been heading down the river. Hearing all the commotion woke them up. By the time we were tied up safely again, it was 4:30 in the morning. There was no going back to sleep then. But it was a beautiful starry night. Almost every night there was amazing. So that painting has the element of describing every night, as well as this particular episode.
JS: Your work, although extremely personal and anecdotal, can be subtle and slow to reveal its narrative. Is that something you consider?
SM: My paintings are totally and purposefully autobiographical, but are also edited, embellished, and fantasized. It is not true documentary in any way. There are things I am really out there about. I have made work about traumatic events in my life. But there are also things that are private, that I don’t paint. Even when I am doing a landscape or cityscape, the paintings are autobiographical. An anecdote or story is the impetus to make the painting. But I like to think that people read into the work the way they want, that they can enter and even change the story to suit them.