TOOLS THAT CAN TELL A SINGLE STORY // an interview with interdisciplinary artist and writer Sara Rivera
// by stephanie trott


rivera_sara_portrait.jpg

Sara Rivera is an interdisciplinary artist and writer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her artistic and literary practice includes visual art, music, performance, genre fiction, poetry, and Spanish/English translation, with works published in venues including the Loft Anthology's Lay Bare the Canvas: New England Poets on Art, DIALOGIST, and Origins Literary Journal. Sara holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Boston University, in addition to a BFA in Art Studio and a BA in English from the University of New Mexico.

Conversing over email, she recently spoke with Winter Tangerine about maintaining her practice, language as a reflection of identity, and the necessity for building resilience in one’s community in addition to one’s self.


Stephanie Trott: Being that so many of us find community between the screens, it’s easy to fall down the digital rabbit hole instead of actually connecting with others. Where do you see online space as enabling artists and writers versus inhibiting or stunting them?

Sara Rivera: One of the pitfalls of the digital age is that we’re filling these times of mental rest with digital activity. We’re checking our phones, taking in visual information, and wearing down our ability to make creative connections. I’ve come to believe that time away from the internet is essential for creativity on a basic, psychological level. I recently read an article in Psychology Today called “Your Elastic Mind,” about the uniquely human ability to not only make linear deductions but to think from the bottom up. Our brains can make nonlinear connections, and this type of thinking (which the author calls “elastic thinking”) is, I believe, essential to the artistic act. It’s the unconscious processing that happens when we’re daydreaming or wandering or otherwise at peace; it’s how we come up with new ideas. This might explain why artists often solve major problems in their work while on a run or in the shower.

In terms of community: when I was a teenager trying to become a writer, I wrote a lot of fanfiction online. This forum gave me a free audience, free feedback, and motivation to write. I wrote collaboratively with my sister and my best friend, and was able to practice craft. The internet is full of creative culture that anyone can access; artists can find their tribe regardless of whether or not they have access to arts education. Artists and writers today can find emotional resources, support, and healing online, but just as often can encounter bullying, competition, isolation. We have more ways than ever to connect with and hurt each other.

The last note I’ll make is about materiality. I like to give my students exercises that involve physical material—books, paper, sculptural media, found objects, writing by hand. Engaging with material helps us to slow down, to think, and to have sensory contact with the art we’re making. I think this is an important concept to hold on to.
 

What’s one physical item that holds meaning for you, or one you keep near as you write/create?

On my writing desk, I have one of my dad’s framed drawings: a minimalist sketch of the New Mexico mesas. As a teen artist, I drew photorealist portraits and was obsessed with finishing them perfectly. My dad encouraged me to stop finishing my drawings so thoroughly, to leave some parts of the composition rough. I didn’t understand back then the beauty he saw in the unfinished. Now I think that these are moments in an artwork truest to life and memory. An image of a place is only complete when it is incomplete, when there’s something in the frame that still searches for its truth. I like thinking about this when I work. 

                          

Are you working on more than one project at any given time, or do you devote your attention singularly until a work is complete? Where do you find value in rest and not working?

I’m a person who eternally works on way too many projects at once, which is hard to avoid when you’re interdisciplinary. I write and translate fiction and poetry; I have a studio art practice and occasionally still play the violin or act on stage. I also consider my work as an educator to be a creative practice. This isn’t meant to make me sound like some kind of Renaissance woman. It’s just how I work and how I feel happiest. I love it when everything I’ve learned can synthesize into one practice. If I spend too long developing one discipline independent of the others, I ache for and miss everything else. When the work is at its strongest, I feel like all my disciplines become tools that can tell a single story.


It does make me feel scattered most of the time. I progress slowly, and the pressure to produce is most extreme when the work feels slow. It can be hard to remind myself that the work I want to create will only be realized in a way that satisfies me if it takes the time it needs.

 

What are you currently working on now?

Community-based work: I’m living in Albuquerque right now, where I work with a nonprofit called Friends of the Orphan Signs. We take abandoned signage along Route 66 and convert the signs into public art pieces in collaboration with our community. We just wrapped up our annual Highland Project, in which we work with youth from local public and charter schools to devise six sign designs.

Writing: I’m working on my first manuscript of poetry and a book of poems in translation (poems by Peruvian poet Blanca Varela, which I’m translating in collaboration with the wonderful Lisa Ortiz). I’ve been working on a fantasy novel forever, and a handful of speculative short stories.

Studio: I’ve been using drawing to pull myself through grief lately. Specifically, I’ve been drawing objects and forms that make me feel like I’m having a conversation with my dad, who I lost last year. I’m also doing some multimedia experiments in wood and found material that relate to 1) an inherent violence that hides within social expectations of girlhood and 2) language loss in my communities.

My last creative enterprise: my partner and I are trying to get our pet slider turtle to eat anything other than shrimp.
 

There’s something to say for finding what you like and sticking with it! Stemming from that idea, what does it take for you to acknowledge when you might be lingering too long with the familiar, and what motivates you to try something new in your practice or education?

It’s necessary to stick with the things that haunt you, attract you, and interest you. You can’t explore a topic deeply or learn to use a particularly material well unless you stick with it. Your work deserves that investment. I tend toward imposter syndrome—I never feel that I know my mediums as well as I’d like to. I always want to be more capable. This is what motivates me to stick with a project.  

Boredom motivates me to make a change. I’ve always loved learning, as does everyone in my family. If I’m not learning in my practice and I don’t see room to grow, I get bored and antsy. In these moments, I look for new people to collaborate with and new projects to get involved in. At the very least, I find new things to read!

 

Which writers/artists/musicians/humans are currently feeding your creative work?

Maybe it’s because I’ve needed something of a raft to cling to this year: I’ve been returning, in the past few months, to artists I’ve loved for a long time, though I’m reading and researching work of theirs that I wasn’t too familiar with before. I’ve been reading “MAP,” the Collected and Last Poems of the great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. Everyone should read Szymborska, whose writing life spanned so much political violence, change, and upheaval in Europe and in her native Krakow. Her simplest poems are often the pieces where grief shines clearest, where loss breaks through language as surely as it breaks through our consciousness in life, through our best attempts to move on. Along the same vein, I’ve been revisiting the work of Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo. Lots of people know the visuals of Salcedo’s work, but what really moves me are the stories of communal mourning that lead her to her choice of imagery and material.

An artist who has been influencing me greatly and helping me to frame the language of my own practice is my friend Gabriel Sosa, a Cuban-American artist based in Boston. He’s a translator, and linguist, and his multimedia work questions language, the act of translation, and personal and cultural memory.

My best friend, Kelly Vigil, is an opera singer, a soprano. She recently sent me a playlist of some of her favorite, most meditative opera selections that I’ve been listening to non-stop while writing. Since we were kids, I would write while she practiced—so, naturally, her singing is my favorite muse. Her website includes selections from Mozart, Stravinsky, Pergolesi, and Schubert.

 

How and where does your work as a creative educator influence your own poetry and art?

My first professional studio was with an educational space, the Urbano Project: a collaborative non-profit where I made public art with youth. My first real literary community came through GrubStreet, the creative writing non-profit I started teaching with shortly thereafter. My professional art and writing practice didn’t develop independent of my work as an educator—this development has been very much entwined.

For this reason, I consider education to be one of my mediums. Collaborative and community-based workshops have become a standard element in my practice. Education made me an artist, so I can never view it as a separate thing I’m involved in and can’t imagine that I’ll ever make work as an artist without teaching. My students and fellow teaching artists are my collaborators, my community.

 

Is there an exercise you’d like to share with readers that might welcome them to explore multimedia expression and engage with it more regularly in their own practice?

For writers who want to explore visual art, ekphrasis is a good starting point. Write in response to a painting, drawing, or sculpture, either contemporary or historical. Even writing in response to a family photograph is an act of ekphrasis, because you’re paying attention to the narrative content of an image. You can start by listing sensory information—light, texture, composition, color, contrast. Then, once you’ve documented the five senses of the image, you can either 1) tell its story, 2) write about your emotional response, or 3) write about the history/context in which the image was made. 

For visual artists who want to explore text, I recommend site-specific text exercises. Choose a site where you might want to use text as an art medium—maybe an abandoned sign in your neighborhood, a wall in your yard, or a community garden. Maybe it’s a where you always wanted to see art, but you never considered text. 

You don’t have to actually install the text; the first exercise is just to imagine and design a piece, either alone or collaboratively. Using a combination of brainstorm and research, document and learn all you can about the site. What’s its history? What community is it part of, and what role does it play within that community? What physical materials and sensory realities make up the experience of this site (i.e., branches on a forest floor, concrete and brick in the city)? Lastly: what is your relationship to this site, and what would you like to say to other people who encounter it? 

Do some journaling based on the most interesting things you learned. Allow this journaling to become a poem, a short story, or a personal essay. Then, select a text fragment that you think has particular resonance. Choose your material (ceramic, wood, dirt, vinyl, video projection—be inventive, even if you don’t work in that medium). Draft a mock-up, either a sketch or digital rendering. And, of course, if you really believe in the piece, find the right collaborators and make it happen!

One struggle I’ve faced in my own writing practice is showing kindness to myself when I’m not producing work with the frequency or quality I might have in the past. It can be challenging to lead ourselves away from these thoughts of inadequacy, but it’s necessary in order actually produce and continue encouraging/supporting others in their lower times. How do you practice tenderness when facing such moments in your practice?

It’s always so much harder to show kindness to ourselves than it is to show kindness to the people we love. We say things to ourselves—beat ourselves up, pressure ourselves, criticize and demoralize ourselves—that we would never say to other people. And in certain moments, I think it catches up to us. I try to remind myself of what I tell my loved ones when they’re not producing, when they’re struggling with self or with art or with figuring out a direction in life.

No one else’s timeline has to be your timeline. No one else’s trajectory has to be yours.

Work worth making will take the time it needs to take. Your worth and value in the world is not tied to being productive at all times. When we read, observe, engage with the world, and connect with others, we are living meaningfully as artists. Everything we do can feed the art—sometimes, more than focusing on production/making. The work changes as we change. We can never work the way we used to, because we’re no longer those people or those artists.

You know that you have it within you to be productive, diligent, and to make work you care about. You are capable. And you’ll get back there, even if that capability, that productivity, looks different than an image you have of the past.


On this theme of kindness toward self and others: What do you want to see more of in the creative community, specifically in the ways we interact with each other away from the Internet?

1) More accountability. Creative communities can uphold systems of power and exclude and abuse the very people who most need them. 2) Inclusion should be placed at the center of all institutions, creative communities, and creative programming. 3) More willingness to listen, change, and adapt. 4) Greater distribution of resources nationally and regionally, so that newer communities (smaller cities with growing arts scenes, great non-profits and startups) have the opportunity to gain a foothold.


Where do you see creative language as revelatory of identity and story, and how can that story be enhanced through multimedia art?

The creative languages I choose are entirely revelatory of my story. I write because my family raised me around books, because everyone in my family has a great love of language. The literal languages I write in (Spanish and English) tell a story of identity. I draw because I’ve always been an observational person, because I love visual forms and arrangements of things in the world. I make my sculptures and installations from found material because my sister and I used to spend hours collecting sticks, rocks, and leaves outside and imagining they were other things. I think that every artist’s creative language is a reflection of who they are and how they became the way they are. It’s a reflection of their community, of their lack of community, of all forces beautiful and traumatic that shaped them.

Sometimes, multimedia can provide the truest vehicle for story. The images and memories that haunt me often cycle through all my different mediums. A memory sketched in ink. The same memory, written out in a poem. The same memory provides the emotional context for a song. For this reason, I like to give my students exercises (especially those who believe they work staunchly in one medium) that require multimedia, and that require them to address a single topic through various creative languages.
 

Artists are often required to do heavy lifting in terms of educating their audience, which can be a) exhausting and b) not always their job. Where do you see as the viewer’s responsibility to balance awareness with curiosity? And how might we as artists protect ourselves while still practicing empathy in the face of adversity?

Artists have always worked at the heart of social criticism and political revolution. The tools of our trade are orality, storytelling, empathy, and conversation. Operating at this juncture of human connection and sociopolitical response, artists (particularly marginalized artists and artists who center social justice in their work) can naturally become the first point of contact between their audience and certain world issues.

It’s up to the audience to recognize that art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that it cannot and should not be divorced from its context. It’s up to the audience to use the resources they have available (they have more resources than ever) to come to a fuller understanding of something that interests them. Artists start a dialogue, and we hope that the audience will complete the conversation. The work has to go both ways.

I keep thinking of the socially-engaged and marginalized artist. It isn’t the responsibility of marginalized artists to make art exclusively through the lens of identity politics, but that’s often what we’re pushed to do. We’re pushed to educate a presumed white, cis-het, privileged audience on race, gender, sexuality, and the basic facts of American history. This limits the way we can tell our own stories. We should be allowed to make work about everything that affects us as human people, everything we feel, observe, and endure.

I think the question of how you protect yourself depends on who you are, what you’ve survived, your creative stamina, and your tendency towards empathy. I’ve found comfort in my creative community, in the artists whose work I admire, and in listening to my instincts (so that I can exit situations where I feel uncomfortable and respect my own social limits).