Book Arts student displays work in Ferg

Francie Johnson

Artists find inspiration from a variety of sources. For Suzanne Sawyer, a soon-to-be graduate of The University of Alabama’s Book Arts Program, inspiration can strike simply from walking through campus.

“My ideas often come very unexpectedly,” Sawyer said. “I might see something, such as the mistletoe that hangs in the trees next to Woods Quad, and get inspired to make something.”

Sawyer is about to complete her third and final year toward earning her master of fine arts degree in the Book Arts Program. For her undergraduate education, she attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in art education and a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Sawyer started the Book Arts Program in 2010 with fellow third-year Book Arts student Amy LeePard, who is both her colleague and friend.

“In Suzanne’s work, I think the energy of her art is fueled by the integrity and authenticity that she brings to her process,” LeePard said. “It is an integrity and authenticity that permeates both her life and her art. She is really committed to speaking her truth and listening to the truth in others, and I think that really comes through in her work.”

LeePard said Sawyer’s dedication to her art and all of the hard work put into creating it is evident in the pieces themselves.

“For Suzanne, having integrity means working hard, taking risks and listening deeply to what is resolved and what still needs work,” LeePard said. “I’ve never seen her walk away from something simply because it was difficult or hold on to something because it took a lot of effort to get there. I think the aesthetic value and the fine craftsmanship of her work come out of that commitment.”

A collection of Sawyer’s work, including sculptures, prints and an artist’s book, is on display at the Ferguson Center Art Gallery as part of an exhibition titled “A Burlap Bloom.” The title of the exhibition, also the title of the artist’s book, was inspired by a line from a poem by Eder J. Williams McKnight, featured in the book.

Sawyer said her work was inspired by the Gee’s Bend quilters, descendants of former African-American slaves who developed their own quilting style using remnants of clothing. Although their quilts are recognized throughout the world for their abstract-art qualities, the quilts were originally created out of necessity rather than for artistic purposes.

“I was inspired by the resourcefulness of the Gee’s Bend quilters and the strength of spirit and hope inherent in keeping one’s hands busy and one’s mind focused on something higher, whether it be beauty or craft and whether out of necessity or aesthetic pleasure,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer owns her own art studio, Down Home Girl Studio, which she founded in 2010, recently after she arrived at the University. The title for the studio was inspired by the Old Crow Medicine Show song, “Down Home Girl,” originally recorded by Alvin Robinson in 1964.

Through her art, Sawyer explores the different ways humans relate to one another, focusing on the themes of identity, duality and anonymity.

“Particularly, I am interested in how we are known by others and ourselves, how we perceive one another, or even how we might wish to remain unknown or disguised,” Sawyer said. “Authenticity is key for me – I am interested in how authenticity or the lack thereof manifests in relationships.”

In order to explore these aspects of human relationships, Sawyer relies on a collection of personal symbols that often manifest themselves in her art.

“Each symbol is related to a memory or relational concept in my own history — a mark of my identity — but the symbols are not necessarily readily accessible for the viewer, so I remain anonymous to some degree,” Sawyer said. “If I share the meaning behind some of the symbols, such as issues of fertility, wanting to be known and being marked for life by an experience, they are universal concepts.”

Sawyer said these symbols are often influenced by nature and can include things like pea pods, forsythia and other plant forms. She has recently been experimenting with using mistletoe as a symbol in her work.

“Mistletoe represents a duality that I find interesting,” Sawyer said. “When it is hung over a doorway at Christmas, a couple can kiss under it. In that sense, it’s romantic and sweet. On the flip side, the plant itself is a parasite – it embeds itself in the branches of a tree and takes its nutrients from the tree. It sheds new light on the tradition of hanging mistletoe over the doorway.”

Sawyer said her childhood also plays a role in inspiring her artwork.

“I am deeply influenced by my experiences growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” Sawyer said. “References to that region and the concept of home are demonstrated regularly in my work.”

Sawyer’s exhibition, “A Burlap Bloom,” will be on display in the Ferguson Center Art Gallery until April 28. For more information on Suzanne Sawyer or Down Home Girl Studio, visit downhomegirlstudio.com