Underneath every one of Sarah Grant’s paintings is a tic-tac-toe board. Painted on paper rather than canvas, they often include dozens of layers of paint on top of that simple game, all hidden by the topmost layer of color. “From that foundation, I get past the fear of the white paper,” she says.
Grant, a Des Moines artist and owner of Sticks Inc. Object Art and Furniture, held an exhibition at Central College in August and September. She is a printmaker turned painter, which is why she does all her work on paper—it’s more natural to her origins as an artist. Although she earned her M.A. in printmaking from the University of Iowa, she felt the art form was not reflecting her true self—her love of color and her lack of patience. “I move fast. I think fast. I paint fast,” she says.
When she completed her master’s, Grant had only taken a few painting courses, and she clearly remembered the advice of a professor during her undergrad years at Colorado State University: “You should go back to the drawing department. You’re not a good painter at all.” Despite those words ringing in her head, Grant decided to literally cross the river—since the painting department was on the other side of Iowa’s campus—and try her hand at painting. This transition is the subject of one of her pieces in Central College’s Mills Gallery, a 2010 painting titled “I Met Me at the River.”
Grant is loath to categorize her work as abstract, or any other genre, but she does describe it as “conceptual.” Her process—stapling paper to the wall and playing with different shapes and colors—began while she was earning her M.F.A. in painting at Iowa. Her professor stopped by while she was working on her thesis project and took out his pocket knife. He asked Grant what her favorite part of the painting was and then asked to cut it out, since it was clearly distracting her from the big picture. Grant says she realized in that moment that the special shapes she created while painting could be removed or hidden. It was OK to cover them up. “That’s what I do when I paint,” she says. “I find special places and colors, and some I keep and some I discard.”
Still, her process—and the work itself—is constantly evolving. Recently, her work has changed; she’s gone for fewer layers and more simplicity, an homage to her earlier self as a printmaker. Several of her paintings in the exhibit have cut-up pieces of her old prints hidden in the layers.
Grant describes this new simplicity as a reaction to the complexity of American culture. “I just felt like: ‘Whew, I need to step back. I don’t want to think about the complexities of things. I want to organize simply.’”
The Mills exhibit featured work from throughout Grant’s 33-year career as a painter, so viewers could see the evolution of her artwork right before their eyes. “This is of the story of my painting up until 2011,” she says. “Something else could happen tomorrow.”
In fact, Grant is already working on a new set of paintings, to be displayed at Olson-Larsen Galleries in Des Moines this October. And her work is changing again. “They’re not looking a thing like these,” she says with a laugh.