Getting Lost with Sarah McDermott

March 18, 2014 by

Over the next few weeks, we’re tracking our resident Sarah McDermott’s artist’s book project (currently untitled). This is the first post in the series. 

DSC_1327When Art-in-Education Artist’s Book Resident Sarah McDermott recently returned to the suburban Washington D.C. area where she grew up, she was struck by all the natural, lush, green space juxtaposed against highly-developed, low-density infrastructure. As an adventure in orienteering, she tried to walk the length of Tripps Run, a highly channelized urban stream that runs through Fairfax County, VA.

But Tripps Run disappears, goes underground and through backyards, and gets directed through a series of narrow pipes. The book taking shape in Sarah’s workspace in our letterpress studio traces the paths she had to take as she tried to follow the stream. In succinct vignettes, the book examines her serendipitous encounters as the area’s 1960s-era infrastructure mediates her experience of the stream.

DSC_1251“I’m interested in critical geography or Marxist geography, in how people construct space,” says Sarah, who was an urban studies major at Brown University and is interested in psychogeographical strategies of navigating and mapping landscapes. “For this book, I’m looking at how we negotiate space with nature, to be able to live alongside it.”

Halfway into her 10-week residency, Sarah has been preparing imagery, meticulously working out binding structures, and making paper from milkweed. Her test drawings, sketched out in panels, bear traces of the comics community in Providence, RI that Sarah was “obsessed with” after graduating. Inspired by the small, artsy city’s DIY ethic of cultural production, she learned to make books and enrolled in graduate school, looking back at comics to examine how to develop a consistent style and move a narrative.DSC_1352

“With a book, you have so many surfaces to play with,” says Sarah, who likes to begin with and transform raw materials. (“Fiber becomes paper, receives print, becomes book,” she writes in her artist’s statement.) “With a book, I get to have my hands in so many different processes and because I approach book arts from a craft perspective that’s important.”

And yet, Sarah often works against a handmade aesthetic, combining machine-made papers with her own hand-pulled sheets, using a graphic illustrative style with emphasis on crisp linework and pops of flat, isolated colors. It’s part of her strategy, a “gotcha!” bait-and-switch.“There’s a certain amount of trickery that I like in my work,” Sarah explains. “We’re so divorced culturally from the process of making things that it’s hard to imagine a book being made with someone’s hands. I want things like handmade paper to sneak up on the reader–for them to realize slowly that elements of the book are completely handmade.”

It’s in this kind of hybrid, in-between space that Sarah is carving out a practice–straddling the small press and the artist’s book object, the collaborative and the individual, craft and content. She frequently collaborates with writers of experimental fiction and has contributed cover art to the literary magazine Birkensnake. Its low-budget laser-printed interior pages juxtaposed against its often elaborate hand-printed covers, Birkensnake is an extension of Sarah’s goal to evoke delight in a handmade object, especially in unexpected places.

“I really try to elicit wonder through a tactile experience,” Sarah says. “The sense of wonder is what I like about art: it makes you reconsider how things work; it makes the world look a little different.”DSC_1264

In Sarah’s current project, Tripps Run will look different indeed, flattened and fragmented into a series of letterpressed and silkscreened vignettes bound together in a small book that fits easily in the hand (and in the back pocket). It will act as a map for unexpected discovery–taking us along a laundry line, under a sidewalk and past a birthday party–and a record of everyday spatial negotiations in which confusion and disorientation, and maybe even wonder, can arise.

“Growing up, my parents really let us ramble around outside. I think it made me confident in navigating the world,” Sarah says, inking up the Vandercook and testing a range of greens, eager to get started on production. “Taking walks and getting lost is important, because it increases your spatial awareness and your power of observation. This project is about letting yourself get a little lost and then constantly re-grounding yourself in the land.”

Sarah McDermott is a Washington D.C.-based book artist and printmaker who teaches at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in the Art and the Book M.A. Program. She holds an MFA in Book Arts from University of Alabama and has been an artist-in-residence at the Center for Book Arts in New York and Pyramid Atlantic Art Center. Her art-making motto is John Cage’s first rule for students and teachers in art departments: “Find a place you trust and try trusting it for a while.” See more of Sarah’s work at