Sarah Lyon makes large format photographs of people and places that are common in our surroundings and yet they reveal a stark beauty that we have failed to recognize. And for that we should be thanking her. In a time when American citizens are feeling the financial pinch of still being such a relatively young country, Sarah’s work proves that the landscape in which we live still counts for something.
I met Sarah in her Smoketown studio, which doubles as her place of residence. She told me to look for the door that reads “Beware of Dog.” She doesn’t own a dog; in fact, she detests them, and she’s really a nice person, so here within the irony lies. In minutes of meeting Sarah, Louisville came under a tornado warning. The sky turned angry and the National Weather Service sirens began their chilling wail. Sarah reassured me, “this is probably one of the safest places to be” and I can’t explain it, but I did feel a relative peace being there. I was offered coffee, but having had my morning fill, I declined.
Like most people, her place is scattered with the things that interest her. Mechanic tools, books, odd picture frames and musical instruments. Besides being a photographer, Sarah plays bass and guitar for the band Ritchie White Orchestra, which she says is the brainchild of Cesar Padilla. Music critic Jeffrey Lee Puckett said, “it's not the type of band you'd want to take your sister to."
Julie Gross: How did you get started with a camera?
Sarah Lyon: It was in ’98 and I just photographed my friends and parties and I was an activist in college. It was this group called the Feminist Majority. I was a musician and played in a band and I was the Rock for Choice coordinator. We would do shows and I would get bands to come in from out of town and then we would send all the profits to the main organization. The best thing about that was we brought together all these people on campus who didn’t know each other existed, so I would photograph the parties.
Do you still have the pictures from these parties?
What do you think of them now when you look back on them?
Oh, I love them. I was documenting my life as a way to remember. I would put all of my pictures up from the parties on my dorm room door and people loved looking at them. It was a really early Facebook. [laughs] Then I took a black and white photography class and a drawing class one summer when I was in Oxford [Ohio]. I always loved to make stuff and draw in high school but I never thought it was a viable thing, but then once I took that class I was like “oh I want this” so I started working in the darkroom all the time and switched my major to fine arts.
Do you still work in the darkroom?
I did one project that the Speed [Museum] bought actually, I had a big map of Louisville and I cut it all up and took them all out of order and threw a dart at it and then I would go and take a picture where the dart landed. It was a way to make myself go to places that I normally wouldn’t. I made a darkroom in my bathroom and printed all those pictures in my bathroom. [laughs] But normally, I don’t work in the darkroom. I shoot film and digital, but if I shoot film I scan it. In college I worked in the color darkroom, which I think that helped teach me about color theory and how to color correct, so I use that knowledge when I Photoshop.
A small sampling of Sarah's work
Currently you have a show titled “Autobiographies” with Joel McDonald at Zephyr Gallery. How much of it is autobiographical?
Joel is a member at Zephyr and I’ve known him for 10 years. We took a class together at UofL [University of Louisville ]. I just took the class so I could use the darkroom and then I met him and we became friends. His show is very autobiographical, so I was kind of going along with his theme and I had all these different ideas. Like all the pictures I shot in college, filling a huge wall with just prints. People would have really enjoyed that especially if they could see themselves from five or ten years ago, but it was too literal. The three pieces that are in the three rooms at Zephyr all originated at the same time. A year ago, a friend of mine died and then I got out of a relationship that was hard. I actually started mourning some other things for the first time in my life, so to me the work is autobiographical, but I’m not sure that the viewer would necessarily get that. I was really upset and I was driving around and I found these billboards so I just kept going back to them over and over again. Then it snowed and I thought “oh I really need to go” and that’s how I ended up photographing them. There’s something spiritual about them.
The “Abracadabra” started because my ex had this dog that was an issue. Dogs have been an issue for me for a long time, so I found these dog frames at Bargain Supply and I thought “I have got to do something with those” and so I don’t know where the word abracadabra popped into my head but I looked it up and it’s all about exorcising demons or sickness. I made that to kind of deal with this issue that I was having and to embrace it in a funny way.
Sarah Lyon, Abracadabra (detail)
Did your ex see it?
No. [laughs] I wouldn’t mind if she did. It also ended up being about purging my own desire to make art. The portrait of me on the opposite wall is like they’re facing each other like a battle of the artist’s ego.
What about the hair room?
When I tell this story, people’s eyes sort of glaze over. [laughs] When my hair falls out in the shower I have the habit of putting it on the wall before it falls in the drain. The only person who would see that is the person I’m dating. So, then the breakup, the loss, all that, so I took one picture of my shower and posted it on Facebook just because I thought it was a cool picture. Then I had like 35 responses from people talking about hair loss and all this intimate stuff and some people were making jokes. I had this moment where I thought that I’m sharing too much. I overanalyzed it, but that’s when I deleted my profile because I felt like I was trying to get some intimacy out of this social networking and it’s kind of empty. But since no one was coming into my shower, I stopped removing the hair. I would just leave them up there and so it started being this collection because I had no reason to remove them. I don’t find it gross. Some people get their best ideas in the shower. [laughs] I would be in there and I would look at them up close and they started to look like drawings to me. These beautiful abstract drawings, so instead of showing the photographs I realized I actually wanted to make drawings out of them. It’s a whole new thing for me to show drawings. I’ve never done that before. That was really purposeful.
In the “Autobiographies” show, Joel addresses his own alcoholism in his exhibit and I had planned on addressing my alcoholism in my show, but I didn’t. It’s like do you talk about it or not? I had a plan of making a sculpture about it, but I thought it was too obvious or something. My “Cork and Bottle” print is what that’s about. It [drinking] has affected my life in lots of ways. I’ve been dealing with it. I think tons of people do and they don’t really recognize it.
Sarah Lyon, Cork and Bottle
Do you still struggle with drinking?
Yeah. I think I always will. I’ve tried to quit. I’ve gone through periods that I don’t drink. I’ve started practicing Yoga a few years ago with the intention of that helping.
What’s your drink of choice?
Beer. In the art scene/music scene it’s really hard to exist without drinking socially. I admire people who can just drink socially.
Whose idea was it for your high school photos to be on the exhibit postcard?
I shot his portrait for his before and after piece that’s in the show. He made this trash suit, which I think is brilliant, for the after picture and he wanted it in the same tradition as his high school photo that we already used for the before picture. He doesn’t like the postcards that feature artwork from the show, so we decided to use the high school photos.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I have a hard time with that because I’m in different places with different bodies of work. The portraits and the spaces in Louisville I go for abandoned, old, used, but the new stuff at Zephyr isn’t like that at all. I need to answer that question.
In your work you feature landscapes and portraits. Do you prefer one over the other?
I started out doing portraits for this project, but then I would go to places and find a spot where I might like to shoot somebody. It initially started as a way to engage with people. The final look of the picture didn’t really matter it was about engaging. I just moved back to town and was meeting new friends.
Do you know all the people who you feature in your portraits?
They’re all Louisville people; they’re all friends of mine. They weren’t for an assignment or anything.
What about the women in your female mechanic calendar? Did you know them before you started this project?
No. I found those people through the internet, word of mouth, articles published. Mostly through research. It was really hard to find women mechanics. The first calendar I did I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find any or enough to fill a whole year, but then I ended up having to make it a 14 month calendar because that year I did find enough. It was never easy.
Were the women excited to be featured?
Oh yes. I only had one woman back out on me after I had driven all the way there. [laughs] I think she wasn’t sure about me or what I was doing. I kind of understand because I’ve had t.v. producers from New York and L.A. call me wanting my contacts because they want to do reality t.v. shows about women working in car shops.
How do you feel about that?
At first I thought that sounds great and then I realized I don’t like reality t.v. at all and I don’t really want to be associated with something that’s not my project and I worked really hard to find these women and develop trust with them.
Do you find it flattering that t.v. producers are calling you?
Yes I do.
You stopped doing the calendar in 2009?
The project took over my life a little bit and I wanted to start doing fine art again and I couldn’t figure out how to do both, so I just stopped. [laughs]
According to your projects, it’s clear that you like to travel. Why stay in Louisville?
I did live on my bike for a few years and had a tiny studio in Old Louisville that was $100 a month. It had a toilet, but I joined a gym so I could have a shower. I did that in between trips. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but it’s nice having a base.
When did you start riding a motorcycle?
When I was 18. It was when I lived in Ohio during college. I would ride with a friend on the back of his bike around the fields. I never thought about driving it myself, but one day he pulled over and asked me if I wanted to learn. He taught me.
Are you ever fearful driving a motorcycle?
You should be. [laughs] I’ve gotten into a lot of wrecks and broken lots of bones. One wreck I ended up getting money for which allowed me to do the first female mechanics calendar.
When you travelled across the country on your bike, did you always go by yourself?
So you’re not a fearful person?
What’s your favorite place you’ve travelled so far?
It’s hard to say. It always depends on the attitude that you have at the time and if you’re with somebody or not. I love San Francisco, but I also love riding through Montana. I also love the West, the middle of nowhere, Highway 50 the loneliest highway through Nevada. I spent Christmas in Death Valley once that was awesome. I like surreal places.
Why photograph the restaurant Moby Dick?
When I was driving around taking photographs of my friends for the portrait project, I would see these Moby Dick’s and I don’t know. The parking lots were really clean and the inside always looked empty and they kind of looked a little depressing, but it looked like this family owned thing and they cared about it. Because they leave the lights on at night it also looked like this space ship that landed. I don’t know what gave me the idea but I photographed one at night and then I made a list from the phone book of all of them and would take a friend with me to go shoot and they got to choose which one we would go to. It was like a little expedition.
Does Moby Dick know that you did this?
It turns out one of my friends grandfather actually started the chain. So they eventually found out about it.
How were you chosen to represent Kentucky for the 50 States project? (In 2009, 50 photographers were chosen to represent the state in which they lived. They were given 6 themes to portray).
I don’t know how I was chosen. I got an email about the project and I wasn’t sure about it until I saw a list of the other photographers that were involved. I ended up getting some nice press from that. Weird magazines I’ve never heard of. [laughs]
This past summer you went to Wendover, Utah to gain project ideas to apply for the Wendover Residence Program. Tell me about that experience.
When I went there on vacation, I was just checking it out. I was happy to have my camera out for no other reason than to enjoy making photographs. The people at Salvo [Salvo Collective is a visual art collective in Louisville that specializes in handmade, functional art] were like will you show here and I thought it would be a good outlet for the pictures I took at Wendover. It was never my intention to show them at all.
Sarah Lyon in front of her photograph En Route to Wendover.
You’ve taught at Bellarmine?
Yes. At first I got a lot out of it. It was inspiring, I liked working with kids and when you see somebody grow and you know you’ve had a hand in it, it’s really cool. I’m still in touch with some of my students. It takes a lot out of you too.
Do you think it’s selling out to teach?
There is that “if you can’t do-teach,” but there are artists like Bill Burke who teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for many years. It seems like if you get it down it could be a good thing. You have to be really good at managing time. If you do it right, you can inspire people and be inspired by them. I haven’t ruled out teaching as a possibility, but I don’t have my Master’s.
Will you go back to school?
That’s a big question that I’ve struggled with for years. I’ve applied a couple of times, I hate applying. I think it would be an amazing experience but I don’t want to go into debt. [laughs]
What publication would you most like to be published in?
The New Yorker.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working with the photographer Elena Dorfman. She and I have been photographing rock quarries. She’s going a little bit farther with it but it’s been a fun collaboration.
Do you like having your picture taken?
No, but I don’t hate it as much as a lot of people do.
You don’t come off in person like the way you look in photographs.
[laughs] I look really mean, I look angry. [laughs] It’s just the way my face looks. [laughs]
I know everyone cares about how they look in photographs, but I feel photographers really think about it.
I do think about the lighting, the background, those things. My friend Claude, he’s a really neat guy, he has this cool house and he’s set up his house so that anywhere you might sit it would look good in a photograph. My house is nothing like Claude’s. Just recently a photographer came over to photograph me and it was clear as soon as he walked in, I could just tell, that he was not inspired. [laughs]
What’s something you’re still learning?
To present my work to other people. When people want to come see what it is that you do, that is really hard. Being prepared for curators and collectors, I still don’t have a handle on that and that’s critical.
What do you love about Louisville?
I love that there is a lot going on, that there is an underlying current of creative energy that’s happening here. It can be a really inspiring place. You can leave and come back here. I want to move too, get out of here, but not really. [laughs]
If you do, will you come back?
“Autobiographies: Joel McDonald and Sarah Lyon” is currently showing at Zephyr Gallery , 610 East Market, until February 11th. Sarah will also be giving a talk at Louisville Visual Art Association’s Food For Thought After Dark, Friday Feb 24th, 8-9:30pm at Salvo , 216 South Shelby St. The cost is $15 for LVAA members / $20 for non-members.
To see more of Sarah’s work, go to her website sarahlyon.com .
Inside Sarah's home