Sabrina Tillman Bean is an Austin-based paper collage artist who was influenced by the rich culture and artistic vibe of New Orleans. She later studied art history at Vassar College, deepening her appreciation for the wonderful colors and textures of visual art. Her own artistic penchant was realized many years later on a return trip to New Orleans where she began to experiment with artistic applications of various papers that she had collected for almost two decades. In this collaboration with “Let’s Keep It Real” podcast, Sandy Joy Weston sits down with Sabrina for a socially distanced interview.
Sandy Joy Weston: I’m going to go right into the first question I ask every guest when we start out. These have been weird, crazy, wack-a-doodle times right now. They bring out the best in us for some and they bring out the worst in others, but in the last 30 days, if you could just say one word that pretty much sums up how you were feeling what would it be?
Sabrina Tillman Bean: In limbo. Limbo.
SJW: Why limbo?
STB: There is, as you said, so much going on, and I don’t need to tell people we’re in a pandemic, we got civil unrest, and you really don’t know day by day what is coming around the corner. Not that we ever really were in control.
SJW: Nah, we never were.
STB: But we had the perception, at least, of that. Well, now that’s been removed.
SJW: Universe works in powerful ways, Sabrina.
STB: Absolutely, absolutely.
SJW: So, that being said, for you, where’s the limbo come in?
STB: Well I’m like, “Should I … plan? Is it even safe to plan? Will we be here? Will we still be on the planet tomorrow?” In other words, “What course do I take? How do I prioritize now, given the looming uncertainty?”
SJW: I got you.
STB: That’s what I mean by that, but still, you know you still got to keep putting. We’re still here, so you got to put one foot in front of the other and persevere.
SJW: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m so glad you said that because I think that there’s a lot of people that have those sentiments. Me? I am that pippy-trippy true optimist, hug a tree. I think the world is going to be here and bigger and better, and I think we’re going to come out with a better world. What do you think of that?
STB: Well, I hope you are absolutely right. Hey, and I can go with that. I can go with that. That sounds wonderful to me.
SJW: Where do you live now?
STB: Actually, I live, and I do say I live in Austin, but I recently, and I mean very recently, like within the past year, moved just outside of Austin. South of Austin to a smaller community.
SJW: So, when did you start drawing? When did you start creating? Painting? I don’t even know, what was your first mode? What did you start with?
STB: Okay. I started, actually, with my first collage piece, which was really my first intentional piece as an artist. I was supposed to be on a two-week trip to New Orleans. It turned into a two-and-a-half-year stay in New Orleans for good and for some not-so-good reasons. The company that I was working for, and I was working for them remotely, folded while I was there. So I had to quickly regroup and find other work. I was really sad and depressed about that, obviously, but I’d had my son drive from Austin to bring me a few things, one of which was this large bin, and I mean large enough to put a body in, okay, of paper. He was like, “I don’t want to bring that. What do you need that for? Why?” I was like, “Just bring it, okay?”, because I didn’t know myself. I did not know why I wanted. Anyway, I had it for months. Didn’t even pop the top. I mean I didn’t, until just one night there, I was sitting on my bed and something just said, “Why don’t you open that up and go through it?”, and I did. I started going through it. I tell you, just touching the papers, looking at what I had collected, and I was like, it is wasteful to just keep this in this bin sealed away from the world, and from yourself. So I started picking through or whatever, and that’s how the elephant piece was born. That was my very first. I never thought about collage. I never thought about paint, other than as a part of the audience or viewer, or spectator. I never thought about me being an artist. I had dabbled with crafts: jewelry-making, different stuff like that. Decorative boxes, but fine art? No, no.
SJW: So, take people that aren’t artsy out there and explain how these little pieces of paper become this beautiful painting.
STB: Well, what happens is a sketch. Everything starts from a blank piece of canvas or a blank board, or a blank any surface. It could be the back of a notebook. If you’re just starting out, just something that will allow you to adhere pieces of paper, but what I do is make a rough sketch of the vision in my mind’s eye. A very rough pencil sketch of that, and that’s usually inspired by a photograph. For me, I even take a still shot using my phone of scenes in movies.
There’s wonderful cinematography, and if you’re a creative type and thinking along those lines, you’ll see a scene and go, “Look at those doors.” I just rewind if I can’t get my phone and snap it, but anyway, you’re going to do a rough sketch on a substrate. That’s what your surface is called, and for me, I am going to lay in the paper. I only use paint for embellishment. Most of my works are solely paper. They are not painted, and a lot of people do think when they look at them, they think I painted them. I use the paper as you would a paintbrush, and yes-
STB: It does involve going through magazines and newspapers and tearing. Some collage artists cut. I prefer to tear to have a rough edge for texture as I’m layering, but some people cut and I love their work too. Anyway, and then you adhere it with an adhesive that’s also a sealant. There are many different forms, and there are many different ways to do this. Some people dip the tiny piece of paper into water, and then they put the glue on the surface and stick it on, but the whole idea is you’ve got this vision in your head of, and I wish I was looking at a piece to talk about, but I have one piece called The Dancer. It’s like this flamenco dancer in this red dress that’s just all over the place. It’s flying up or whatever to suggest movement.
SJW: So, and guys, I can’t wait until you see her website. What is your website so in case they are somewhere they can pull the paintings up?
STB: Oh, certainly. It is www.Sabrinabeanstudios.com.
SJW: All right, so getting back to what inspires you for the different ones. You said you have it in your mind’s eye and you’re being inspired. I know that one of your tips to people is to tell a story with each piece, be thoughtful, think about what feeling you wish to evoke. So do you think about that with each of these individual pieces?
STB: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, I do. I’m thinking about, “What is it that I want to say with this piece that hasn’t been said before in this particular way?” When I say that, I mean using paper. We’ve all seen artwork that involves people drawing heavily on the music industry and musicians for work, but how often do you see one that’s done exclusively in paper? I’m very mindful. I’m working on a piece now, that’s never been seen because it seems like it’s taken me forever to finish it, but it’s a woman sitting at a bus depot. You can tell from her clothing and just the way the depot looks that it’s not contemporary. Maybe 30, 40 years ago, and I also, even though I have my own ideas about what images I want to evoke or what topics of discussion, what points of discussion I might want to raise with the piece, I still want to leave room, and that room is going to be there whether the artist wants it or not, for the viewer to look and say, “Well, I think maybe a partner left her and she’s going somewhere to start a new life, and she’s hoping, that look on her face, she’s turned, ‘Maybe he’ll come,’ or, ‘Maybe she’ll come and get me. Maybe I won’t have to go.’ There are any number of interpretations of this particular piece. It’s just this lady and her suitcase. She’s sitting alone in a bus station. Again, you also want to leave something to the reader, or your viewer. I keep talking about it as if I write books… as if I were a writer.
SJW: No, but I know exactly what you mean. But they’re parallel. They run parallel.
STB: I think you’re right. Some people’s works are reflections of the times. Like you see a lot of politically-charged work right now. We’re seeing so much more of that because of these pivotal times we’re living in. I don’t necessarily think about that kind of thing. I think my work is more slice-of-life, deeply personal, and that’s the way that I relate to other people in my day-to-day life. I’m a one-on-one kind of person.
SJW: Ok – I have a question for you from a fellow artist. This is a young man, 17, who just loves art, but he said, “I can’t get past being so critical of my stuff.” He doesn’t know what to do. He draws with charcoal. And he’s saying “Please ask Sabrina, what can I do? Every time I look at something, I start comparing it to other people. Like I’ll go and say, ‘Oh my God.’ I think it’s good, and then I’ll go online and see somebody that did it so much more advanced than me.”
STB: Okay. Two things I’d say. One is that if he’s making these comparisons, is there, in his own mind, skills that need to be honed? In other words, I mean I’m not seeing these other people’s work, or his for that matter, but if he thinks that the issue is one of “I don’t think mine is as good as theirs,” and is it a question of his skill level, well right away we know, you got to jump in there and start honing your skills. Not to be like them or produce what they produce, but to achieve a level of self-satisfaction with what you have produced, whatever your particular self-expression is.
Now, the other side of that is the issue, let’s say he is super proficient and knows it. Well, that means there’s something else probably going on where no matter what he sees, and some of this is, I think, is natural. We look at what we did and we’re like, “Really? That’s a piece of crap. Get a garbage bag. Get a garbage bag for that, okay, and throw it out as soon as you can,” but that’s just us wanting so desperately to put our best foot forward and we can’t see the beauty. We can’t see the mastery in our own work because we take it for granted, and not just artists do this. I mean people tend to do this generally. We don’t see our own value, so it may be that question. I mean I can’t say for sure; I don’t know this young man. It could be a combination of things, but he needs to get it sorted in terms of, “Is it technique/skill, or am I dealing with being my own worst enemy?” That’s where I’d start, and I hope that helps.
SJW: It does. Now, do you break a lot of rules? Because you’re telling people here to break rules, experiment and discover, allow the work to guide you. Do you just put yourself out there, Sabrina?
STB: I do. Not in real life, but I mean-
SJW: With your art.
STB: Yes, Now I’m like, “I’m getting ready to blend. I’m mixing this with something else. I’m mixing this adherent with something else, and guess what? I’m using a spray sealant. I’m not doing what they said, and I don’t care what they say. I want to see how this works, and if it doesn’t work, well fine. I learned my lesson,” but I find that when you venture into the unknown, there you give yourself an opportunity to discover. You don’t know what you might stumble on that even may later become other people’s rule. You see what I’m saying? But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it also helps you to find your style, your unique style. If you’re staying within parameters, and remember, you want your work to be distinctive. There are millions of artists out there, okay? So why should I buy your piece? What makes it distinctive? Well, there are no rules for making a piece distinctive. I mean there just isn’t a guidebook for that. You have to find that through trial and error, and sometimes even what appears to be a straying from the rules, a mistake, an error, that may be the key to the piece, but you got to go with it. The piece, just like a novelist, the characters start informing him or her of where we need to go next. “No, that’s not what I would do in that situation. This is what I would do.” So he starts learning and is informed by his character. It’s almost the same thing with visual art, music, anything. That’s what I believe.
SJW: You know what? I am a writer and I’m a dancer, and you can feel it when I’m in, I call it “in my zone” when I’m dancing because I really don’t care who’s watching me. It just takes over my body, and I love watching dancers. You can see it, versus they’re just doing the routine, and the same thing with writing. It’s the same exact thing.
STB: It is, it is, but we have to let ourselves be vulnerable because there is some vulnerability in releasing some of the control, some of the rule, the regimen, the inside-the-box or coloring in the lines, so to speak.
SJW: Yeah. You’re putting yourself out there. It’s scary, especially you create this piece. As you said, you really get into it and you’re doing it for you. You’re not thinking what other people, which is amazing. I think that’s the most valuable lesson. You’re feeling it, it’s an evocative emotion. Don’t wonder, “Are other artists liking it?”, “Are people going to buy it?” It doesn’t matter. You’re doing it because you’re feeling it, and that’s so important with everything, but it’s scary as heck because now it’s out there, you know?
STB: Yes, it is, and this is a piece to that. Art, in any form, performance art, visual art, whatever, it is self-expression. So if the idea you’re trying to convey, the feeling that you want to evoke, whatever, it gets lost and not conveyed just like in communication. Well what have you done? You missed the boat. That’s how I see it. So let’s let go, be free, and see what happens when we meet our canvas and we’re using the tools of the trade, whatever that may be. Your voice, your body.
SJW: I want to make sure I get this one other question in, and I think a lot of people struggle with this: Marketing themselves. I know so many talented people, and like you said, it’s not just with art: musicians, dancers, singers, anything who struggle with putting themselves out there. And now especially you can put anything out into the world virtually but many artists they keep making excuses. So how did you overcome that?
STB: I haven’t. I have not. It’s a journey. I haven’t overcome it. When Covid hit something became clear to me. Although it was important pre-COVID, if you are going to put yourself, and your work is you, that’s an extension of you, if you’re going to put yourself out there, sweetie, it’s going to have to be online right now. The bulk of your energies have to be devoted to branding, creating an online presence, being very clear about the valuation of your work and visual artwork, whether it’s painting, drawing, whatever, it’s very labor-intensive. You need to keep everything that went into it in perspective, and that should transfer into what you’re asking. Your time, your labor, your vision.
SJW: I think that’s hard for art. There’s certain things like, okay. Someone’s a trainer, someone’s a mentor, someone’s a coach. You could say, “Okay, this is what I charge.” There’s a range, but how do you determine your art pieces? I mean to me, it’s like you took a dart and shot it there. How do you do that?
STB: Well, there are a lot of factors, and one of them is the level of popularity you have, which that’s where the demand for your work comes. Another reason why it’s so important to get it out of there because one feeds the other. You’re not going to become popular if your work is hidden in a closet and people don’t see it. So you start by getting it out there. At first, and you should be looking at, here’s where comparisons are important. Look at what well-established artists are charging for pieces of comparable size and with similar elements. You know, “Okay, no. I can’t go there yet because I’m not that well-established.” Then look at what people who are virtually unknown. Again, similar kinds of work, and then find someplace in the middle. It’s very difficult to do, and there’s no formula, but you have to come up with something because you have to assign it a price, but I would err on the side of caution since it’s very common and go up rather than down because artists typically devalue their work, and they start way too low. Way too low.
SJW: Yeah, because it’s scary, right?
STB: It is very frightening. Very frightening, but the more experience you get, the more you’re out there selling. I think intuitively, you will know when the phone is ringing a lot more. Then you know it’s time to step up that pricing framework, and it’s also to make sure, you should always be continuing to hone your skills. We never arrive anywhere; it’s a journey. We should always be discovering better ways to work, branching off into different areas that are of interest to us, but making sure the work, the materials used and everything is on point for the precedence you’ve set with earlier works.
It is difficult to strike that right medium. Sometimes people will be kind enough to say, “Yeah, I’m going to buy that piece, but I think,” now they usually say it after the sale is final, “I think you charge way too little for that.” You know, that’s after. “We’re good, right? I mean I paid, I got my receipt. We’re done, but you know the next person that comes along, do another one like this, you need to charge twice as much.” People will tell you that.
SJW: Yeah, I’m sure-
STB: They will, and they mean it. I think a lot of times, they’re right, but you do look at the hours you put in. That’s one way, and again, there’s no formula. But look at what’s out there, what other people are doing, what they’re selling their work for. Do they have an established audience? All of those things play into it, and yeah, you might lose a few bucks that first go-round, but you will learn. That’s an investment in your future.
SJW: At the beginning of this interview I asked what word described your last 30 days and you said “limbo”. What would you like the word to be in the next 30 days or months after? What emotion would you want to embody?
SJW: “Action” all right. Why, Sabrina?
STB: Because I feel, in that limbo that I told you about earlier, and I know it’s COVID-related, I feel some inertia. I feel some lethargy, and I’m like, “Oh no, sweetie. That’s happening out there. What’s going to be going on in here?” You have to set forth your intention. See, I know this stuff cerebrally, but I’m like everybody else. Putting things into practice, that’s a whole different animal. So I’m like, “Hey, if you don’t do it, then you’re still going to be here marking time. Is that what you want?” No. So, I want to be about just doing it, action, and here I am with you talking about my art. And this is the first step. This is like a catalyst for that to take place.
This is a wonderful quote from Rumi that I wanted to share: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. The entrance door to the sanctuary is inside you.”
SJW: I love that. I’m all about, don’t make a big hairy deal about it. Don’t overthink it. Just take little steps every day, like your action. Take little steps every day to get you closer to your goal, you know what I mean?
STB: Exactly, exactly.
SJW: Is there anything we didn’t get in that you want to get in?
STB: No, all I would say to your audience is just do it. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time, one day at a time.
SJW: I love that, Sabrina. I love it. All right, my let’s-keep-it-real people. I think you’re going to say that Sabrina has definitely kept it real and I can’t wait for you to check out her artwork, and there’s so many ways you can purchase it. So go do something, whether it’s for the wall, whether it’s notepaper, whether it’s on your phone, whether you commission her. I’m telling you, you are not going to be disappointed.
THIS INTERVIEW IS A COLLABORATION BETWEEN SANDY JOY WESTON and THE FLORENCE BELSKY CHARITABLE FOUNDATION.
SABRINA TILLMAN BEAN:
SANDY JOY WESTON
Founder of Weston Fitness & SJW Productions
Check out my blog at www.SandyJoyWeston.com
The Florence Belsky Charitable Foundation
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