Alright – so today we’ve got the honor of introducing you to Sara Lee Hughes. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation, we’ve shared it below.
Sara Lee, appreciate you joining us today. We’d love to hear about a project that you’ve worked on that’s meant a lot to you.
In the last five years I have worked on two very meaningful projects. The first one, a collaboration with a friend on a very unlikely friendship, and the second, the making of My Super Hero Cape.
The Journey of Two Unlikely Friends
The Journey of Two Unlikely Friends is an animated film highlighting the true story of the former Neo-Nazi Michael Kent and his unlikely friendship with his probation officer, Tiffany Whittier. Thi is the link to the project The Journey of Two Unlikely Friends https://www.saraleehughes.com/
Texas musician, Steven Collins and I collaborated on The Journey of Two Unlikely Friends after Steven first heard Michael and Tiffany speak at a conference in 2018.
My inspiration for the animation comes from a deep appreciation for the work of South African Artist, William Kentridge. He created an animated film style that centers on telling stories through a process of successive drawings: drawing, making small erasures, then photographing. This process is repeated as the drawing evolves and the “scene” ends or morphs into the next “scene”. This is unlike traditional animation, where you would create a cell for every change.
The Journey of Two Unlikely Friends was created in order to share the extraordinary experience of how one human being chose to support, not judge another human being and the radical change that ensued.
My Super Hero Cape
From the fall of 1988, until his death of AIDS in August of 1991, my father and I shared a remarkable friendship after being estranged for eight years. During those three and a half years he wrote to me.
The letters illustrate and underline the importance of living a life true to yourself. They are full of invaluable life advice from a man in his late forties to a young woman in her early twenties. Since his death, I have turned to the letters countless times for advice, strength and support. They have provided me with comfort and confidence, they have empowered me.
I began working with the letters as subject matter for my paintings, exploring what objects the letters represented: a quilt, seen in my painting Closing the Gaps; a wedding dress in my painting Father Daughter Dance.
I am inspired by the television programs and the culture of my youth, movies , theater, and books . In the film Like Water for Chocolate the main character Tita has crocheted herself an afghan and it trails behind her (seeming endless) as she is carried away in a wagon. This was a very powerful image for me and years later it motivated me to sew the letters together.
To create My Super Hero Cape I photocopied the letters then coffee dyed them, giving them a patina similar to the thirty year old originals. I then sewed them to aged cotton and muslin panels, then I hand embroidered these panels together. Included in the cape are the original sketches for the paintings Father Daughter Dance, Closing the Gaps, My Two Selves and several other works. There are thirty plus typed letters and handwritten cards. My father’s letters have helped navigate my being true to myself.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your background and context?
I enjoyed drawing as a kid and I loved to make things. I also enjoyed being on stage. I went from high school to college in pursuit of an acting degree. The need to create something tangible began to trump the need to create a something intangible. I quickly changed my major to costume and lighting design.
After graduating South West Texas State University, now Texas State University, I moved to Philadelphia, PA. I was accepted into Temple University’s graduate theater program for costume design. Unfortunately Temple was in the middle of a strike 1990 and that made for a sporadic experience. The silver lining was that I spent a lot of my time in the Philadelphia Museum of Art drawing from their collection. I quit the graduate program. My dad’s death taught me that life was far too short to stay with something that made you unhappy.
I found work in costume and prop departments for theater, tv and film until I met a scenic painter who took me on as an apprentice. It proved to be an incredible education and began my skills as a painter. After several years I enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I wanted a traditional education in painting and drawing. Scenic painting was my “bread and butter” for quite some time as I honed my skills in the drawing and painting of the figure. After graduating PAFA in 1999 I my focused on my studio work.
Over the years I have had to be flexible with my studio practice due to income and the size of my work space. I have worked both full time as a studio artist and I have also had to pick up side jobs when needed. All of the side jobs have been in some way connected to painting. Incredible opportunities presented themselves when I moved to New York in 2004. I was the studio assistant to the Tony Award winning Costume Designer Gregg Barnes. I worked on the restoration of what is now known as Jane’s Carousel in Dumbo and I worked as a scenic painter for Oliphant Studios. All of these jobs contributed to my painting skills. In 2008 I moved back to Texas. I taught and worked as a scenic off and on until I was able to resume a full time studio practice in 2018.
My current paintings are representational narratives influenced by growing up in the south during the 1970’s and 80’s with divorced parents and operate as metaphors for discovery, other-ness, identity, connection, balance and truth. As a body of work, they highlight moments, memories and ideas that mark a journey of navigation through the differences between my gay father, my straight mother and the socio-cultural norms of the era and those proceeding. In this work I am most interested in exploring and sharing the connection I had with my father before his death of AIDS, the profound guidance it had on my life afterword and how this personal experience fits into our country’s broader social and cultural heritage.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
The best example of my resilience, is my patience in knowing that I am in this for the long haul and I will always return to my work no matter my situation.
I have never been able to go for very long with out creating something. I have changed size and format when my space has not allowed me to work in a way that I wanted. I have changed medium when the parameters of my studio practice could not support oil painting. The reason I choose paint is because it is such a satisfying challenge to figure out how to paint a representational image of the abstract ideas or experiences that I have. My first question is always “How would I paint that?”
When our daughter was born I knew that it would take a while before I would be able to return to a full time studio practice. I was working as a scenic for the Theater Department at Texas State University. I would “wear” her while painting backdrops at work. I found myself needing to create something beyond what I was doing for the theater department.
I did not have a lot of time outside of work and family so when a break would present itself I would go out to our garage, set the kitchen timer for 5 or 10 minutes and busy myself. During these breaks I made small cardboard ‘tiles’. Then came small cardboard houses, replicas of my childhood home and of my father’s childhood home. As the breaks got longer I painted small floral paintings. Then came my Lady Bird’s head paintings. All the while jotting down my ideas for larger paintings. As Marlowe, our daughter, got older I included her in the creating. I would set up an entire table of art supplies so that she would work her way around the table, giving me about an hour’s time to create these small whimsical paintings.
As Marlowe neared school age I began to plan what I wanted to paint once I was back in the studio. I pulled out my sketch books and began to prepare surfaces. Before I knew it I was dropping her off for her first day of Primary. I quickly returned home. My oils were set up, a panel was on my easel along with a mirror. I painted my first self portrait in five years. It was glorious and I have not looked back.
What do you think is the goal or mission that drives your creative journey?
As my work evolves my mission is to create work that will provide the viewer a visual experience that will prompt them (ie: get under their skin) to think about and perhaps even try “stepping into someone else’s shoes”, to see life from someone else’s perspective. This is a tall order, I know. I am not there yet but every painting is getting me closer.
- Website: https://www.saraleehughes.com/
- Instagram: @sara.lee.hughes
- Twitter: @saraleehughes
- Other: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFTVLHe1dcw
Vanessa Lain Photography