Sara Saltee is an assemblage artist and a creativity coach who helps other artists and writers cultivate lives of creative satisfaction. An avid student of creativity since the great writer’s block incident of 1996 – 98, Sara is eternally fascinated by the creative process and the life stories of creative people. She lives on Whidbey Island in Washington State surrounded by incredible natural beauty and an ungodly number of extended family members. Sara is also the mom of a delightful almost-13-year-old daughter (gulp!).
Carrie: Sara welcome to Artist Strong! If you could choose three words to describe yourself, what would you choose?
Hmmmm…I suppose ‘warm,’ ‘intuitive,’ and ‘encouraging.’
Carrie: Tell us a bit more about your quote: “If you are a creative who is not creating, you are hurting.”
You know, we tend to think of “basic needs” in terms of bare bones survival: food, shelter, sex, etc. but the truth is that our needs for learning, connecting, and creating are just as foundational to our well-being as human animals. These are drives that are innate in our natures – if you have children or watch children you can see the basic truth of this – we want to know and understand, we want love and belonging, and we want to manipulate the stuff of the world with our hands and our minds as a way of making meaning, finding and expressing love for the world, learning who we are and what we can do, and leaving some kind of distinctive mark.
When, as adults, we cut ourselves off from any of those drives, we diminish our own humanity. In particular, when we don’t give ourselves permission or space to create, we cut ourselves off from our inner life and from the processes of meaning-making and we become alienated from ourselves. And that disconnection from our own inner lives creates tremendous hurt.
I know from myself and my coaching clients that the particular pain of denying or suppressing our creative drives often starts out manifesting as a kind of generalized gritchiness and irritation. When our inner demand for juicy creative projects is ignored or shoved to the side, things can get pretty grim. In the short term, we might just be inexplicably grumpy, and particularly easily pissed off at the people around us for not fulfilling our needs. Of course the irritation is really anger at ourselves for not paying attention to the inner voices who know exactly what they need – time to write, time to paint, time to knit, time to sing or compose or invent whirligigs or just sit in quiet and listen to our own thoughts for a while — whatever our particular creative heart is longing for.
Over time, if we keep ignoring our creative needs, our creative selves can get increasingly agitated and desperate, causing us to feel restless, unhappy, and depressed. We can even come to feel like our existence is meaningless, because we’ve eliminated the activities through which we make meaning. At that point, many of us seek therapy or medications to ease the pain – when cultivating a creative practice might be the more direct route to feeling better and getting reconnected to ourselves and our sense of meaning and purpose.
Carrie: How would you describe your art to Artist Strong readers?
I make mixed-media assemblages, usually in boxes or shrine forms. The best way to think of assemblage is that it is basically just a super chunky form of collage. Like in collage, the emphasis is on textural contrasts and juxtaposition of different elements, but in assemblage, at least some of the elements tend to be three-dimensional objects.
What I strive for in each piece is to create a harmonious little contained world that has some internal logic to it and that explores an idea that intrigues me or an emotional state that compels me in a multi-layered way. Almost all of my pieces include snippets of text – either a quote or a bit of a poem, or sometimes just a word – I find that my visual imagination works best when it is riding along with some verbal inspiration. But sometimes I start with an intriguing object and then figure out what context it needs. I love to work with cool objects that have a history and put them in conversation with each other in new ways and create a setting that lets them have new life and speak a new story.
I really enjoy doing commissioned custom shrines to express something about someone’s big life passages – new houses, new loves, new babies, anniversaries, memorials…I love working with people to get a feel for what they want the piece to say and then letting my intuition take over. It is so fun when my intuitive choices turn out to be just the right thing for the person receiving the piece! Those moments of magic make me super happy. (See a sampler of custom shrines here.)
Carrie: What are important strategies or choices you make that help support your creative process?
At some point in my 30’s I caught on to the fact that my creative self was actually driving the bus in my life – despite my belief that my analytical, rational self was in charge – and that she was not above sabotaging decisions or choices I was making that were counter to her needs. I also figured out that daily creative practice of some kind was critical to my sense of well-being. So, I started explicitly factoring in my need for creativity into my job decisions, and I set up a daily routine of 15 minutes per day of art making. It always seems like such a piddly amount, and I never trust that anything can really happen in that amount of time, but by keeping my expectations low but steady, I’ve created a lot of work over the past 10 years! I started that 15 minute rule when my daughter was 2, and now she’s almost 13 – I’ve stuck with it pretty well, not in an absolute way, but as one of the only steady, persistent good habits I’ve mastered…for a basically instant-gratification kind of girl, this is a real accomplishment!
Carrie: How do you take risks in your art?
I guess the biggest risk is just showing up at my computer (writing) or craft table (art) and trying to do something without the skills I wish I had and with no way of knowing if it will be any good! That’s the creative’s eternal conundrum, right? I do try to push my edge with new techniques and materials – incorporating something I’ve never done before in every show. For my current show I used rusting agents for the first time, and did my first image transfer (which for some reason I’ve found very scary). I also challenge myself to be emotionally honest and not rely too much on other people’s texts as a crutch to bring the meaning to my work. For example, I recently gathered the courage to use a set of very realistic looking human teeth in a piece. They’d been in my drawer for years and seemed too creepy to express anything I wanted to share…but I found myself in an emotional place of great turmoil and dared myself to show some vulnerability and a darker side by using those teeth. The piece gets interesting reactions!
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome as a creative and how did you navigate that problem?
I guess the biggest hurdle for me was the time it took to acknowledge I WAS a creative – I spent my miserable 20’s masquerading as an academic – and then the time it took to work out for myself that it was OK to be creative in multiple different ways. I wasted a lot of energy in my 30’s trying to discern whether I was really an artist, a writer, or a teacher/coach. When I finally came to the realization that these three ways of being creative are an irreducible set for me, it has gotten a lot easier to live in my own head. Having a rest from the “what am I?” question has allowed me to focus on more interesting questions, like “what project interests me most right now?” or “What kind of life-assemblage can I create that allows me to express all my different creative drives while earning enough money to support my family, while also leaving the space and energy I need to do my own original work?” Now that’s a puzzle!
Carrie: You offer a unique online class called Chapter Next Workshop. Tell us a bit about it!
Several years ago, I got really interested in the idea of a class that would explore life-design through the lens of the creating process. I wanted to help people grapple with big questions about what to do with the next chapter of their lives by treating it as an art project and applying some of the core principles I’ve learned from studying the creating process from many different angles. The class starts from the premise that we are creators of our life-designs (not in the sense that we have total control – I don’t believe that – but in the sense that we can be in intentional conversation with the world we are in and exert our power of choice) and so we can draw on some core principles of creativity to generate more authentic, truth-based, and beautiful visions for our lives.
I developed a series of exercises that guide us through five practices at the heart of creating: love, trust, play, inquiry, and presence, and help us work through our relationship to the four phases of the creating cycle: inspiration, manifestation, letting go, and stillness. Many of the big challenges all creators face – telling the truth, moving through fear, allowing vulnerability, managing perfectionism, falling into all-or-nothing thinking – these are all things we work with as we identify what we want to create with our own lives. Participants develop different possible future scenarios for their lives, have a chance to tune into where their life is calling them to go, and make some new commitments with themselves about the future they will create. I’ve offered the Chapter Next Workshop a number of times as an in-person workshop and am now excited to be developing the online version for a launch later this year.
Anyone interested in getting updates about the online launch of the workshop can go to my website and add yourself to the mailing list using the fields in the right sidebar.
Carrie: What is one piece of advice you have for struggling creatives?
Find the support you need to nurture a culture of creativity in your life. My favorite definition of culture is “the environment in which things grow.” If you want to grow your creative work, it is so important to intentionally cultivate an environment (of people, materials, space, time, mindsets, inspirations, habits, etc.) that feeds and nourishes your creative life. And, conversely, stay away from things that starve or diminish your creative spirit – people who ‘don’t get it’ or are threatened by your talents; a habit of rampant busyness without clear purpose; saying yes when you mean no; denying yourself the pleasure of play out of some weird moral sensibility that values struggle as an end in itself; prioritizing others’ needs over your own…etc. etc. All the things we can get sucked into if we are just ‘going along’ with the mainstream and not being intentional about designing the life we need. I’m always thinking as an assemblage artist, I guess, but I’d say become an avid collector of the things, practices, and people that make your creative spirit happy and eventually you’ll find yourself occupying the life you were actually meant to live!
Carrie: What is one resource you can’t live without?
My own self-compassion. I’ve tried living without it, and I can tell you it sucks.
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?
A basic biological drive to engage in meaningful conversations with ourselves and the world around us through direct play with the tools and materials that most turn us on.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: How have you cultivated an environment that celebrates and encourages your need for creative play? Share in the comments below.
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