Sara Hagale Discusses the Therapeutic Nature of Her Practice and Why She Doesn’t Think About Authenticity
August 31, 2021
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with artist Sara Hagale in August 2021. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Shown above is “Walkerings.” All images © Sara Hagale, shared with permission
Grace: What are you currently working on?
Sara: I am currently working on some polymer clay glow-in-the-dark ghosts for the Halloween season. I made some last year just for myself and decided I wanted to really lean into it this year and sell them. It’s always refreshing to switch mediums. I definitely learned some more about polymer clay and how tricky it can be. Regardless, I’m so excited to release them.
Grace: When did you start working with polymer clay? Has that always been part of your practice? How do your subject matter, concepts, or themes change based on the medium?
Sara: I started working with polymer clay when I was around 9 or 10 years old. My mom got me a craft book centered around Sculpey. I would sit for so long, just making whatever was in the book. I took a long break from it after that. In middle school, I got very into stop-motion, which was largely due to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Vincent. I still love stop-motion animation.
I picked my polymer clay fascination back up after college. I didn’t have access to a kiln or ceramics, but I did have an oven, and polymer clay was super easy to find, so I just did what I could with what was accessible.
The best part about switching from drawing to polymer clay is that it reminds you that you can surprise yourself. After doing something two-dimensional for a while, I start to feel stale, so it’s nice to be able to switch to something three-dimensional so easily.
Grace: You took your art practice full-time in 2019. What were you doing prior?
Sara: Prior to how I operate now, I was a full-time graphic designer at a small ad agency a town over. I earned my BFA in Graphic Design from Auburn University in 2016 and began working full-time in 2017. I think the transition between academia and actual design work was kind of odd for me. Towards the end of school, I was already feeling a bit lost and wasn’t sure if graphic design was even the thing I wanted to do. And that’s really scary because here you are, having spent all this money on a degree, and then you’re not really sure if you will even be happy with it in the long run. So after getting super existential about it, I decided I would take the job as a graphic designer and just draw on the side, as my outlet. And honestly, that worked so well for me. After making that decision to let my art practice have no pressure on it whatsoever, I was able to do whatever I wanted and not fear for my livelihood. I think that time was really important in shaping how I view my work and how I sustain my work ethic.
Grace: What’s the connection between your education in graphic design and the minimal nature of your drawings? Does that focus on using only what’s necessary inform other parts of your practice or thinking, as well?
Sara: It’s kind of weird because, in some ways, I pulled away from the mentality of graphic design, but in others, like the minimalist aspects of my work, I leaned into it. I’ve always been really drawn to that period in graphic design history when there was this blurred line between design and fine art. Nothing was too glossy or perfect, which was probably largely due to the processes used. I think the computer has taken away some of the soul in design and, to some degree, art as well. That’s an aspect of graphic design that I pulled away from. It was a tool I was using so much during the day as a graphic designer that it felt like a relief when I could just work things out on paper.
Grace: What are your criteria for deciding what elements are necessary and what aren’t? When does a piece feel complete?
Sara: This is a tough question to answer. Sometimes a piece is complete when I have somewhere to go. There have been a few instances when I’ve started a drawing at an inopportune time, and I have to sort of wrap it up so I can go to dinner. I have to remind myself of the mentality I had starting out—that not everything I draw or post on Instagram has to be It, The Thing, something I’d make a print of, etc. I think over the course of the last year, my practice has been informed by a pattern of drawing and posting, drawing and posting. For me, it keeps me from getting too stuck. It’s important for me to be able to post and not feel any pressure about it. I think if I separated my posts more or had some sort of timed-out post thing, I’d freak out. So, I like to draw and post at the same time and not wait for an “optimal posting time,” which means I may post at 1 p.m. or 1 a.m.
As far as how I decide what elements are necessary and which aren’t, it’s kind of just a gut thing. I used to hate hearing my professors or really anyone say that because I didn’t know what that meant or felt like. I think by drawing so consistently in the beginning and getting in a rhythm and having a process, I gained some confidence, and one day I just knew what felt right and what felt not right.
Grace: You’ve said previously that you think about style as a way to accentuate a message. Can you expand on that?
Sara: Yeah, so I’ve had some pieces where I started them as a pencil drawing and would become frustrated because it was really supposed to be a painting. I think medium can inform style to a certain degree. I also think mood can inform style. If I’m in a somber mood, I’m somewhat less likely to draw in the sort of cartoonish style I’ve done frequently.
Grace: I’d love to know more about the relationship between your more whimsical works and those that are earnest or somber like you said.
Sara: I think the relationship is that they’re both still valid expressions. Like, I don’t have to feel goofy all the time in order to still be me. And I’m allowed to draw something that feels right to me in that moment even if it doesn’t match up perfectly with the other work I produce.
I don’t have to feel goofy all the time in order to still be me.—Sara Hagale
Grace: I’ve read that you base your recurring wide-eyed character on your own experiences—and that you even give it the same haircut you have at the time of drawing—and I’m wondering if you can speak to the idea of your work reflecting so much of yourself, especially since it’s so deeply rooted in emotion. Are you using your pieces as a way to work through feelings around an experience, or do you approach a project after some time?
Sara: I really like to be feeling whatever emotion I depict. It feels almost disingenuous to not do that, but at the same time not completely invalid. I think that’s a mental block that’s personal to me. It’s normal to be able to put yourself in a past emotion, mood, situation, and pull from those feelings. But I find it therapeutic, and even challenging, to analyze how I’m feeling presently, and for that to motivate a piece. I like for my work to be in real-time—working like that grounds me and helps me move forward.
Grace: Because you’re working in real-time, how do you reflect on works once they’re complete, whether in terms of subject matter or technique?
Sara: I’ve gotten in a habit of not over-analyzing a piece once it’s out there. If I take a moment to think about it too much, I’ll more than likely find something “wrong” and get in a loop of changing and re-scanning, which is exhausting and also not necessary, in my opinion. Unfortunately, it’s something I still struggle with from time to time. But essentially, I don’t want to torture the piece too much, especially if it’s already working.
Grace: Beyond your own experiences, where do you draw inspiration from?
Sara: Apart from my experiences, I draw inspiration from my past or nature or how a song makes me feel. I’m not sure if those still count as my own experiences. I tend to stay away from looking at too much visual inspiration because I don’t want to interrupt what’s going on in my own brain. I’ve found it’s debilitating to have too much swirling around up there.
Grace: How does that work in practice? Do you have time limits on social media or experiencing other people’s work? Does it manifest in other ways?
Sara: I don’t follow too many artists on Instagram, and, oddly enough, art rarely makes its way into my Explore section. There was a time, especially in school and when working as a graphic designer, when I was very diligent about exploring a variety of work. This was usually via Pinterest. It can be really inspiring, but sometimes it made me feel like everything had been done, which to an extent is very true, but not the best thing to be thinking about when you’re trying to express yourself.
Grace: A theme of constraint, whether in terms of limiting outside inspiration or using only what’s necessary, seems to run through your work. Does that feel accurate to you?
Sara: This does feel accurate. Limitations can be really comforting to me but also present a challenge. But it’s like solving a puzzle, which makes the experience all the more satisfying and fulfilling.
Grace: How much do you think about authenticity as an artist, and what role does it play in your work? I’m thinking about both your subject matter and that you leave smudges and remnants of earlier lines visible on your pieces.
I think the most authentic thing is to not think about authenticity at all. I just banish that word from my brain because once you start trying to be “authentic,” it becomes inauthentic and it shows.—Sara Hagale
Sara: I think the most authentic thing is to not think about authenticity at all. I just banish that word from my brain because once you start trying to be “authentic,” it becomes inauthentic and it shows.
In school, I remember doing thumbnail sketches for projects and loving it. Then I’d put it in the computer, and it would lose something that’s difficult to describe. I think seeing the lines and the erasures and all the behind-the-scenes construction feels wrong but also right? It kind of feels like something you shouldn’t be seeing, but it tells a story—and if you erase that, you erase the story. Of course, sometimes I do erase the lines if they become too distracting. It’s a push and pull.
Grace: You tend to sell primarily prints. What happens with originals?
Sara: I keep all of my originals, besides a few that have slipped through the cracks and into the hands of some very caring people. I am just very attached to my work still, so I keep them safe and dry in some nice acid-free boxes. Sometimes I have to go through them to find a piece to re-scan, and it makes me thankful I’ve kept them.
Grace: You seem to strike a delicate balance between your personal life and your art on social media, and your main feed is notably solely focused on your work with minimal context. How do you manage your social media presence?
Sara: To a degree, I’m still uncomfortable with sharing too much. I like keeping my feed about my work, but I’ll share a few stories from time to time if I’m feeling wild.
Grace: Other than the glow-in-the-dark ghosts, what’s next for you?
Sara: I’m not sure I know quite yet! For better, or worse, I operate on a short-term basis. I have a hard time visualizing the future and setting expectations for myself, which is something I’m trying to work on. Ideally, I’d like to really dive into a project, and I have a few ideas, but nothing is certain yet.