Sarah Refvem and I stood in the ladies’ restroom, cold walls on all sides and a system of paint-chipped pipes curling above our heads. She stood facing the mirror, staring deep into her own eyes as if trying to unravel a great riddle. With a few swipes of a chalk marker, Sarah connected a series of squiggles to form a face.
“Try to line up my face with it,” she said, sounding unsure. “You might have to stand behind me.”
I snapped a few pictures, shuffling around the tiny space. Suddenly, Sarah reached up and erased the face. She hesitantly drew a circle. A few shots later, she wiped it away and scribbled an arrow. She turned sideways for a profile shot. Her eyes were hardening a bit- something about this shoot wasn’t working.
Sarah had first caught my eye (and I hers, per se) when the UO BFA student was featured in the Oregon Daily Emerald for her show of paintings at the WOW Hall. There she was, staring out at me with a look so personal and vulnerable that it held spectacular power. I remember flipping through the stack of papers, meeting a hundred sets of those eyes. Who was this woman, and how did she learn to be utterly fearless?
We sat down yesterday on the roof of the EMU to talk about portraiture. Here was the same girl who was described in the article, her bright red hair flaming in the sun and a quirky flower print skirt smoothed across her knees.
I asked her if she ever paints self portraits. “I paint so many self portraits,” she said, her hands suddenly flying into rapid motion. It was as though she could see, hold and run her fingers over the works as she talked about them. “When you’re painting yourself it’s the most personal experience. My hands do it for me, if it’s a fully honest moment. I can be painting something, and my brain will be working on a hundred things.”
Sarah’s lips and hands told stories of a childhood in wealthy, suburban Lake Oswego, of a great upheaval at 16, of the moment she discovered she was a painter and of rebellious, barefoot explorations at art school in Oakland. She spoke of her first tastes of success as a professional painter in Eugene, but also of social anxiety and long nights spent in her studio sipping wine and swinging between depression and euphoria.
Her eyes followed her gestures, inspecting the memories she was juggling. Every so often, she would break concentration and meet my eyes, fixing me with the same gaze that I’d seen in the paper. She was letting me into an internal world of creative forces, light and dark. Did I understand what she was saying? I wanted to say, “Yes! Yes, I understand.” I knew it wouldn’t quite do, though.
Lately, Sarah’s been painting photos that she finds in thrift stores- a detail from a photo of fidgeting summer campers, a child lost in his own world while the rest of his family smiles for a portrait. She sees group pictures as brief nodes that tie together dozens of narratives, an opportunity to find and recapture individual stories in paint.
“Looking at these photos, I realized that gender and time period and all these things aside, you can just look at a picture and say, ‘That’s me,'” she said. “In a way, anyone you paint is a self portrait. It’s like a bridge between you and whoever you’re painting.”
After my recent picture frame adventure with Kelsey Ivey, I had the idea to play with self image in a mirror, and Sarah seemed like the perfect person to do it. I had tried and failed to find an unlocked room of mirrors on campus (Gerlinger dance hall and the rec center workout room are no-no’s), so instead we trekked to this forgotten bathroom tucked into a stairwell of the AAA building. But now, in this claustrophobic place, the muse was stretching out of reach.
At the EMU, Sarah had talked about her uneasiness with painting live models. “I’ll get so curious and start to ask them questions. What do they think about while they’re up there? Do they ever wonder what we’re thinking? It becomes this weird, psychological, f’d up, jumbled thing.”
Sarah usually paints portraits from photographs her subjects have snapped of themselves, and she’s been putting off posing live for a painter friend for ages. “The idea of sitting there and being aware of what it’s about…” she said, trailing off. “Painting is like my little safe hiding place.”
Sarah paused for a moment and looked down at the chalk markers lying in her open hand. She closed them into a fist. Perhaps a mirror was the wrong stage, a medium where bridges double back on themselves. “Can we go to the drawing room?” she asked.
We walked up two flights of stairs and she punched a code into a door handle. Here was a place in total contrast to the cramped bathroom- an expansive floor, dozens of lights, walls of windows. Sarah was suddenly a whirlwind of energy, pulling me into her vortex as she unfurled sheets and snatched up random objects from a set of shelves.
When she sat atop the pile, surrounded by the subjects of a hundred still life studies, she looked up and stared directly at the lens. Something was back.
Here was the result: a Francis Bacon-esque composite of two images, a self that projects and divides and combines in electric ways. Sarah Refvem.