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Painter Sarah Irvin Explores the Nature of Language Through Family

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Becoming a parent changed artist Sarah Irvin's work.

Convinced that she wouldn't have children because raising them wouldn't be compatible with her studio practice, Irvin came to a realization: What if she created art that could only be made by caring for a child?

"High Note," her new exhibition at Page Bond Gallery, explores that theory, using as a starting point her 3-year-old daughter's budding language skills.

To begin, Irvin uses colored ink on yupo, a waterproof, synthetic paper, to fill the page with words and phrases straight from her daughter's mouth. Because yupo is slow to absorb, it allows a longer time to manipulate it.. Then using a squeegee moving left to right — like with reading — she scrubs out the words so they are illegible, leaving repeating angular shapes reminiscent of a crumpled fan unfolding down the paper.

"I want the viewer to consider all of what the ink held and its meaning, but I've gotten rid of it," she explains, pointing out hints: small marks just above the squeegee line that are the only traces of the original letters. "I couldn't tell you what these originally said, but I like that it's no longer accessible."

"Detox"
  • "Detox"

Her point? Language and memory take shape, change and eventually disappear.

The nine works in the show are all conceptually driven. It's an idea not entirely new to Irvin, who had executed a similar series using the dwindling words of her grandfather as he succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. In both cases, the work can be appreciated formally for its composition and beauty, even as there's another more personal level.

"To fully consider the work, you'd have to know what the process is to help you completely understand it," she says of the visual language she's been using for the past three years in an attempt to better convey parent-child relationships. Irvin has used her art to create series about breast-feeding, newborn sleep patterns and the first two trimesters of pregnancy, among other parent-related topics, in a quest to turn a critical eye to subjects not usually seen as worthy of consideration.

It's not always easy. Like most working mothers, she's constantly seeking work-life balance. She's part of a community of artists creating work about parenthood and caretaking, a role that recently landed her in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the Museum of Motherhood as a keynote speaker about what it means, socially and economically, to be able to reproduce and be a caretaker.

One thing she knows for sure is that motherhood has made her a better artist.

"I appreciate a reason to pull myself out of my studio practice," she explains. "The schedule a child imposes on you is beneficial because you're forced to take a break. We both thrive with a healthy balance." S

Sarah Irvin "High Note" opens Feb. 22 at Page Bond Gallery, 1625 W. Main St. pagebondgallery.com.

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