Interview: Sarah J Stanley
Anna Hodgart talks to artist and musician Sarah J. Stanley ahead of the launch of her first graphic novel Stealing Stuff and Putting it Back Again.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little about your work and background to date?
I’m Sarah J Stanley, an artist and musician based in Glasgow and I suppose I would describe my work and background to date as, scraping by trying to sustain the time and sanity to keep making art. I’ve been working as an artist professionally for almost 10 years now after leaving Gray’s School of Art with my BA(hons) in fine art. Also, I’ve been banging on at music much the same way, with very little ambition for greatness but not being able to leave it alone for the life of me. I mainly paint but drawing and some illustration (when it makes a buck) are also part of my work. To say I exhibit internationally is accurate, but sounds more prestigious than it is. Art is a slow as hell growing career, harrowing and pretty thankless. I’m giving it until age 80 to really have made something of myself, which I think is realistic. I often think I had all my best ideas from ages 0-5 and I imagine it might take until I’m about 80 to outwork them. So here’s hoping / not hoping.
As an artist you work in multiple art forms – across music, visual art and written word. Stealing Stuff and Putting it Back Again is your first graphic novel but not your first book. Can you tell us a little about your writing to date and what’s now drawn you to work in a graphic novel medium?
I have never considered myself a good writer in a conventional sense, but I use a lot of text in my artwork and I seem to write a lot anyway. I think it’s important to use words that are something you do want to say, not just indulge in text for the sake of it. When writing songs I often want to say certain words because they feel like the right sort of sound I want to make with my voice, but I would never let a song complete itself if I didn’t feel like the words came together intellectually, even just to me; always just to me. Other times I have one sentiment I really want to say out loud and songs are a catchy format, often more suiting than art, it’s more immediate. In the case of this exploration I suppose you could call it, the format of a graphic story suited really well. I started it knowing it might not be the right format and I would have scrapped it but on this occasion, I got lucky. A piece only escapes the bin if it works I have that sort of ‘yes’ feeling about it.
I think I write quite intuitively. When I edit or select, I’m aware it is filtered through my agenda as an artist. In music it’s got to have the shape and feel of how I want to sing first, and how I want to feel when singing it but fuck, if the words are empty and incoherent there’s no way I’ll use them or feel ok in my head with that. Songs need words, and the urge to paint text needs words too. It has to be right though. Twee, arbitrary words can fuck off.
I have made maybe 6-8ish other book-like things in my time of mainly drawings, some small publications to accompany a show, or shit poetry. They all sold so someone liked them I guess. I’ve written a few articles for print or what not but that doesn’t count because it gets edited to fuck until it’s not really you anyway. This is my first actual book with a narrative and a character and everything. I wanted to challenge myself to it, to keep myself busy and maybe entice a feeling of mild achievement; something I find very hard to source. This is also the first book I’ve not printed and bound myself. It’s very laborious to make a book from scratch and I can’t be arsed with that anymore.
It’s been described by the curator Monika Vykoukal as an ‘uncanny’, ‘folk story’. Can you tell us a little about the subject matter and what the inspiration was behind it?
I trust Monika’s opinion – she is super well read and clever, well beyond my IQ. It was also described as ‘horror’ and ‘sad’, things I never noticed about it, but now I see. I find it hard to perceive my own work because I’m involved in it in a completely different way than anyone from the outside. Because I don’t read much fiction, it either makes me completely uninformed and stupid to make a move like write a graphic novel (if you can even call it that) or, as I often find, my inexperience will be my most prized asset, and people get to look at something sort of different and think I’m better than I really am. When I think ‘folk story’ I think of ladybird books of fairy tales and I would love to be able to write shit as dark as that, so I’ll take it.
If I’m massively honest, and don’t judge me, I started this book at a hard time. I mean, there’s always some hard time right? But this time I had discovered a way by which I could swick one of the self-service machines in Tesco so I could get some of my shopping for free. I was really struggling financially and had a family to feed and that left me with less desire to do the right thing than usual. I was proper poor and being fucked over by ‘the man’ so I wanted to fuck ‘the man’ right back. What helped me through this time was not so much the items I would skim off my bill, but the feeling of control I felt like I’d imposed on the situation. In my mind, the fact that Tesco made NO effort to assume that I wasn’t stealing meat from them, and that their machine was so frustratingly FUCKED, I felt it was a balanced okay-ness for me to walk out of the shop with some extra stuff for me, the poor guy, from them, the rich guys. I know this is not ‘right’ before someone hates me. The title of the book comes from this experience. I like to relate to a kind of Robin Hood-esque ‘steal from the rich give to the poor’ to give my constant feeling of poorness some sort of mission.
Drawing a book during this time does not make my actions ‘art’ – you have to be an absolute pretentious wank to think stuff like that. I was pretty stressed and needed something to keep my hands busier than usual-a book is easy to make in any location and fiction is a great escape.
In the spirit of oversharing – I wanted to highlight in this book something about OCD as well I suppose. It’s a super misunderstood topic, mainly because people have this idea that ‘being a little bit OCD’ means you like to clean things a lot which is UTTER BULLSHIT. I won’t say any more than that, and I wasn’t going to admit any of this but also, I sort of think there might be some people who will relate to this book more than others. Those with fucked up minds might. I have no mission in anything I produce to give a ‘message’ or appeal to people to ‘help’ them or anything, don’t get me wrong, it is always made with myself in mind and fuck everything else. When someone gets something from my work though when I decide it’s complete, it feels warm and affirming. Who doesn’t like those feelings? I like people.
I wanted to accentuate the highly exploitable modern world we live in but how in the end, WE are exploited, it’s our loss. The loss of being clever human beings but so clever that we’ve totally fucked it. We all lose, and there’s no happy ending. And this is ok. It’s just a thing: fact. We have to construct our own fiction around us if it can give us comfort for our hurting and fucking bulging minds.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a klepto, or a sociopath. I am actually quite friendly and great to go for a pint with I PROMISE. I do not steal in general and this book IS fiction. It’s people who don’t swear and who seem to be not fucked up you can’t trust-I promise you. I’m one of the good cunts.
The novel focuses on the interior life of a ‘non-gendered’ protagonist, with the reader given an insight into their mind as they navigate and encounter the world around them. Could you tell us a little more about this character and the world they inhabit – how similar to us and our world are they? How much have you drawn on real experiences and people and how much is totally imagined or surreal?
I find character making uncomfortable. I hate when people name inanimate objects like guitars or cars. I don’t like to draw an unfamiliar face, it makes me feel weird. So I wanted to get familiar with a face so I could convince myself maybe I could. It seems like someone who claims to make a book should be able to do. Naming, describing or fleshing out the character holds no interest for me at all, I feel like I did ok just getting the creepy face down pat. I couldn’t care less about them other than the way I draw their face and what their mind and hands get up to.
I used this character from the book in an animated music video recently called ‘The Dreamer’. That song has a lot of reference to the story and aesthetic, not that anyone would be troll enough to bother to find out. For me it felt sort of ‘complete’ that way. I felt the character deserved it. Actually in the video the character IS me as well. I think it’s an obvious reference that I relate to the character I made. The song speaks to the character, and to me. I’m always surrounding myself with words that assure me of certain things be it in my shit tattoos, or songs or artwork. I feel like I need the direction HARD and no one else would know how to as well. I’m faking this career out of it too.
What I relate to most with the character the most is the busy and often outwardly strange looking thought processes. I hope that in reading their thoughts, the outward actions become something that the reader would see as normal and logical. The character thinks like I do, and then some. I made them as I was writing along. They do or say things I have not but they are a definite unwilling protégé. Given the same situations as them, I imagine I might act the same. What I’m saying is this character isn’t me but I back their every decision 100%. I think they are right, unknowingly funny, logical and correct, but intensely misunderstood or worse still, completely ignored.
Who or what are your inspirations and influences as an artist? Have any of these been particularly influential with regards to Stealing Stuff and Putting it Back Again? And is there anyone you’d encourage TYCI readers to check out?
I never know how to answer this question the way people want me to. I am awful with names, I am not a researcher and I read fuck all except books about science or listen to talking based radio most of the time. Who has the time to stop and note where their inspiration came from when we see and hear so much in a day? It doesn’t interest me, this remembering names or things. All I worry about is that SOMETHING bloody inspires me day to day. I’m not always sure what triggers inspiration but things definitely, and only, start to make sense when I am making. I am constantly noting things down in writing or as drawings and then when I paint, it’s like a relief like no other. I live inside my head 90% of the time. It’s tiring and awful and I hate that mostly, but also it’s my life force and what I’m familiar with so, comforting I guess.
I get inspired by hardware shops, museums, coffee, drugs, music, paint, ink, paper, tv, people who are confident and take their work seriously. I hate pretentious shit. I have an art piece I made one time that I won’t get rid of because I need it for myself. It says ‘what makes shit artists shit art so fucking shit’ Now, that kind of thought path is inspiring. You might actually get closer to answers. Don’t launch in there with ‘what is good art’ – fuck you’ll never get anywhere. You will have a sense of knowing when you see something shit though and that sense of knowing-that is the shit will really inspire you.
Currently I am establishing my wee cafe next to my studio called Stan’s because I need it to function as it pays for my studio. My ambition is to NEVER MOVE STUDIO AGAIN. I’m investing a year in the cafe and some music tuition just for the £££s then hopefully staff it out gradually to get more time for painting.
I am going to launch my new electro album in summer but other than that I’m just drawing away, doing shit homemade tattoos and making coffee. I think I will end up doing more music than art this year. It seems to cycle in years like that, keeps me on my toes and never bored. I plan to start a new graphic novel this year. It was cathartic to make. To keep track of gigs coming up follow me on Facebook.
Tell us a bit more about the book launch event you have planned, and where TYCI readers can get their hands on a copy!
The launch night is Saturday 30 May, 7 – 9pm at Stan’s (43 Alexandra Park Street, Glasgow, G31 2UB) and I am getting 60 1st editions printed. You can pre-order a copy from SARAHJSTANLEY.COM and pick it up at the launch along with a free print or buy one, if there are any left, at the launch.