I had the pleasure of meeting artist and costume designer Sarah Bahr in the process of curating my first fiber show in NYC last year, Collective Thread. Sarah had 3 dress pieces in the show and through the process of working with her we became quick friends. She is by far one of the sweetest most generous people I have ever met and she has the most fabulous sense of personal style too. I have so enjoyed getting to learn more about Sarah’s background and how it supports her work. I thought she would make a unique person to feature here at Future Heirlooms. So enjoy getting to know Sarah, I know that I have.
First, Please briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Sarah Bahr. I live in Brooklyn and work at NYU’s Tisch Graduate Theater Costume Shop as a costume technician. Outside of work I am a fiber artist, video artist, clothing designer, and crafter. I grew up in rural Minnesota learning to work with my hands. My parents, grandparents, and older sister taught me to cook, garden, fish, work with wood, paint, sew, and use my imagination. All these skills I still use here in the big city.
Your background and training is in costume design can you talk about how you started to move towards the fine arts and sculpture from this?
While in my first year of college I took art classes, but soon I decided to pursue a degree in theater. I received a BFA in Design and Technical Theater with an emphasis in costumes and makeup and a Minor in Studio Art from the University of Minnesota Duluth. I loved the collaborative nature of theater and the creativity behind making clothing for characters in plays.
I worked in professional costume shops, designed for small theater companies, and made arts and crafts for years. After I got a job at NYU, I decided to take that next step into the art world by applying to grad school. I felt a pull to blend my craft of making clothing with my fine art, and knew grad school would be the perfect place to experiment. I was accepted into the summer intensive MA in Studio Art program at NYU and studied in Venice, Italy for two summers. In the first part of the program, I focused on painting but soon abandoned my brushes and took up my familiar needle and thread. My first clothing sculpture was a hand-stitched coat made from plastic sheeting. It was a freeing experience to realize my mind thinks three dimensionally and at the same time, conceptually.
How does your formal training affect your art practices? (Both good and bad.)
My formal training has perfected my sewing skills and craftsmanship. The downside is that I always want my pieces to be ‘finished’. I have a hard time manipulating a garment’s form, but I’ve begun to accept it as part of my creative work.
You have recently done work that includes performance and video can you talk about your decision to move your art into this realm? And how these mediums have influenced your art practice?
Whenever I make a clothing sculpture I always use myself as a dress form so when I document my pieces it is easiest to use myself in the photos too. I enjoy this practice because it is just the photographer and I working together.
In grad school I was encouraged to make a video so in my first video ‘love hurts’ I used myself as the model. I never thought of using anyone else, it was just easier because then I was in charge of all the elements. I use my computer to shoot the videos; the advantage is that I can see on my screen what I am shooting. By using photography and video I am able to place my pieces in environments and have a really personal experience with my pieces by becoming the character the garment is made for and experiencing the emotions being brought to the surface. I manipulate the clothing pieces with machine embroidery, hand embroidery, and stitching techniques, which come to life when I capture the process and edit it into a video. I also collaborate with a musician friend Barry Paul Clark who composes original music for my videos. We have a great artistic relationship where I only need to give him a little information about what the video means to me and he comes up with an amazing addition to the piece. The music helps heighten the actions and emotions.
How did you begin to incorporate embroidery into your work?
I have always been interested in embroidery as a craft form. I started using it in my artwork as a medium that I could use like paint, build up a surface, and add texture, color, and focus. The embroidery acts as an emotional expression applied to the surface of the piece of clothing. In my video ‘for her birthday give her a drum’ I used hand embroidery as an act of artistic expression. While I was shooting the video I was listening to Bob Dylan’s album ‘Brining It All Back Home’ and embroidered whatever came into my head. It was hard for my hands to keep up with my mind but I think the outcome was a great mash up of colors and forms.
Can you talk about the conceptual side of your practice?
My work is very personal. The garments function as a second skin that exposes all the emotions kept inside the body, making them vulnerable and visible. I imagine a character and use myself as inspiration. I work with the female form, comment on her identity in society, and fashion’s influence on feminism. I work from my own sketches but I also do a lot of research while I’m working on a piece, letting it materialize and take its final shape as I work on it.
Does the practice of embroidery and/or the handmade affect the conceptual aspect of your work if so how?
I think handmade is an important skill to pass on. I was taught by my mom to sew so my pieces are personal extensions of myself from the start because my hands are making every part of it. Embroidery, a violent act of piercing the fabric with sharp needles, is my emotional expression. Whether I am using a sewing machine or my hands I let the needle and thread move and create imagery spontaneously and compulsively. My videos show the process of my embroidery that parallels the building up, movement, and growth of emotions.
Detail from she once was.
You often use transparency in your fabric choice can you discuss how this affects your work?
I like to expose the craftsmanship of my clothing by using transparent fabrics. This way the viewer can see the seam allowances, stitching, and the void of where a body should be. It is also exposes the embroidery threads on the back side of the fabric, which are usually concealed and not supposed to be seen. It is a metaphor for seeing the inner emotions that I am exposing with my work.
Your dresses are generally made so that they can actually be worn and this remains important to you even though they are often experienced as a sculpture- can you discuss how their utilitarian integrity is important to you?
I think this is my technical side coming through my work because I want to be able to try on my pieces, and I also want the pieces to be familiar enough to the viewer so they could possibly see someone or themselves inside the garment.
What has been the greatest influence on your current art practices?
The greatest influence was definitely going to grad school and working with professors that pushed me and supported me through a huge change in my artwork practice. Though, I wouldn’t be making the work I am now if I hadn’t studied costumes and fashion history in my undergrad.
What is the next direction or step for your work?
I am trying to move away from my ‘perfect’ dressmaking techniques and explore the possibilities in fabric manipulation and the alteration of form. I feel a new video will emerge through this new experimentation.
Describe your studio and studio practice.
My studio is in my apartment which is nice since I work full time and sometimes will only have a little bit of time to work on my personal projects. Even after sewing all day at work I usually can come home and sew some more, because it is my own designs I am working on. When I am in my studio I get really focused and let the world disappear from my consciousness.
What else do you spend your time doing?
In my spare time I do yoga, cook, craft, and make jewelry and clothing for friends and myself. One of my favorite friends to sew for is Manila Luzon , who won first runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3. Most of my friends are in the arts so I usually spend my nights going to see live music, gallery openings, and theater.
Give us an idea of a day in the life of you.
On weekdays I work at NYU making costumes and helping students learn sewing skills and how to make good design choices. I usually come home to make dinner and work in my studio or meet up with friends for dinner and a show. Weekends are laid back, I like to spend time in my studio, biking to the park, and meeting up with friends.
Where can we see your work?
My website is sarahbahr.com
I am also just starting an etsy site. Find me under SophiaFredricka.
Sarah has also began to teach classes at the Textile Arts Center so make sure to keep your eye out for her next class.
Until next time keep stitching.
Joetta Maue is a full time artist, curator, and arts writer primarily using photography and fibers. Her most recent work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the art and craft blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributing to the Textile Arts Center Blog. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, baby son, two cats, a goldfish.