Sarah Stevens

Studio Visit  |  December 2012
Sarah Stevens works with a combination of photography, sculpture, found objects and digital media. She works from her studio in The Model in Sligo which is where I met her.

Studio viewSarah’s studio in the Model in Sligo, 2012.

An evident interest in the past or the forgotten can be seen in her work. However, Sarah is not interested in recalling people’s memories in a nostalgic kind of way. She is interested in recording a certain time and how still, in our modern world, there are certain places that are trapped in time or that seem to have become hidden museums of sorts. Sarah’s work records these worlds; the spaces and the possessions that have been left behind by people. She is interested in the fact that they remain long after the person who owned them has died. Her work is very much connected to the transitory nature of life.
Since 2007 Sarah has been taking photographs of abandoned spaces in Ireland. This led to her project ‘Derelict Nation’. She is interested in both new and old buildings as well as empty public spaces such as train and bus stations. Over the years she has had the opportunity to photograph a lot of buildings that came into existence as a result of the Celtic Tiger. The Mill Apartments in Ballisodare in County Sligo is one such place. New, modern apartments were built in 2006 where an old mill once stood but they have never been lived in. Sarah’s photographs document the decline of these apartments.

The Mill Apartments in BallisodareThe Mill Apartments in Ballisodare in County Sligo, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Mill Apartments in BallisodareThe Mill Apartments in Ballisodare in County Sligo, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sarah said she was not interested in entering into a political dialogue or debate about why these buildings have ended up in this way. Instead she wanted to capture how they exist in their present state and present this to the public through her blog so people could see what will soon no longer exist. This project generated a lot of interest with the general public.
Sarah is interested in a public audience; she wants to expand the reach of her work beyond an art audience. She has found it very interesting that since she started putting her photographs on the internet people have been getting in touch with her to tell her about their connection to and history with the buildings. If people are interested in sharing their stories about the houses then that may become a part of the work but it is not the primary focus of it.
The interiors that Sarah shows in her photographs are something that she thinks people should have the chance to see before they disappear. It’s about recording what’s here now. If there is something very personal in a house then she feels that it is not up to her to show that, she is more interested in the overall idea that these places have been abandoned as if someone just walked out the door one day and never came back. She has found some incredible objects in houses but does not usually take them unless it is absolutely clear that nobody is coming back to claim them or if the space is very badly vandalised and so the objects will be damaged or stolen anyway. She said that she is trying to approach this grey area from the right place – she does take some small items but preserves them and then makes it possible for them to be viewed by everyone. 

Objects in studioVarious objects that Sarah has collected over time.

Sarah has accumulated quite a lot of religious statues over the years. She said that people often think at first her work is based on religion but she said it is simply a consequence of the time of the houses that she visits.

Religious statuesReligious statues that Sarah has found in abandoned houses.

In an abandoned post office in Donegal she came across a box of very old church magazines and took two of them to her studio. One dates back to 1914, the other 1917. She is planning to do some drawings from the books and then donate them to a museum because she thinks that as they are 100 years old they may start to deteriorate if not properly cared for.

booksThe two books from 1914 and 1917 that Sarah found in an abandoned post office.

With some of the small objects she finds in houses she has started to make sculptural works incorporating wax, wood and the small objects. One sculpture she made recently shows a set of old rusty keys set into wax which is then displayed as the front of a light box. The delicate nature of the thin wax that holds the keys emphasises the fleeting temporality of our lives. This key will still be in existence long after we are gone and it is certainly still in existence beyond the life of its owner. To make these sculptural pieces Sarah sets up a wooden frame, hand-made to size and sealed with layers of plastic, she then places the object down on to the plastic and pours a layer of wax onto it to set.

rusty keyRusty keys embedded into a layer of wax, 2012. This piece forms the front of a light box.

The move from working solely through the medium of photography to making these combined sculptural forms came about quite organically for Sarah. Her photography has always been about the objects she comes across as well as the abandoned spaces. She had an exhibition last year called ‘Derelict Nation’ that showed a large amount of her photographs and this was helpful for her to see where she could take the project from there. She has taken a lot of photographs through windows, either from outside looking in or inside looking out. The progression to setting up the small objects in light boxes did not come as a huge change from what she was doing with her photography. 

Coolaney Train StationPhotograph from ‘Derelict Nation’. Coolaney Train Station, County Sligo, 2007. Closed since 1963. Image courtesy of the artist.

One particularly interesting building Sarah told me about that she had photographed was Abbey Manor Hotel in Dromahair, County Sligo. When she was photographing the hotel Sarah said that everything had been left exactly as it had been when it was a functioning hotel. The tables were still laid for dinner, the bar snacks still hung behind the bar and the beds were still made. But there was grass growing up through the carpet, the floor had lifted to form an undulating slope. Sarah posted the photographs she took on her blog and the response she got was huge. This is the point that this particular project turned into a collaborative work for Sarah. A lot of people got in touch with her to tell her about the times they had spent in the hotel. The audience became a part of the work.

Abbey Manor HetelAbbey Manor Hotel, Dromahair, County Sligo, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

The press also began to take an interest in this project, possibly because what had happened to this hotel was such a visible result of the fall of the Celtic Tiger. Sarah however wanted to ensure that she kept her focus on the physical presentation of the building as it stood at the time and not move into the political conversation of how and why.
Another aspect of Sarah’s work that is very much intertwined with her general practice is her work in a community context. Among other projects, she has worked with a group of older people in Liscarney House Day Hospital in Sligo as part of an Artist in Mental Health programme. She held animation workshops with them that centred around the idea of ‘the place I lived as a child’ and she said there was some really great conversations about people’s childhoods. Although some of the patients she worked with had dementia they were able to tell amazing stories in great detail about their childhood. In these sessions the group drew their memories onto paper and Sarah recorded their voices as they spoke about what they illustrated. Sarah then scanned the drawings to digitally compile the work together in the form of a video. Unfortunately this work cannot be shown in public due the sensitive nature of the project.
At the moment Sarah is working on a time-lapse video. She wants to show the passing of time in an abandoned house by observing the movement of light across the stillness of the interior. She finds it intriguing that in the middle of almost every modern town or village in the country there are so many hidden museums in the form of abandoned houses. She wants to draw people’s attention to the fact that right beside them is this pocket of ‘preserved time’. Sarah is currently in the process of making a video of the time passing in one of these ‘museums’. 

Timelapse imageWork in progress, image from a time-lapse test, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sarah has an exhibition coming up in two separate venues, The Courthouse Arts Centre in Wicklow in 2013 and The Custom House Studios and Gallery in Mayo in 2014, with the working title of ‘The Vanishing Present’. What she finds fascinating about the work she does is that she is looking at the past, sometimes the quite distant past, but that it is still here now. She believes that it is really important to record the past that is still present and to honour it in some way because it will eventually be lost and irretrievable. 
More of Sarah’s work can be seen on her blog here

One response to “Sarah Stevens

  • Anna Leask

    Very talented lady with a really interesting and well documented project. I’ve been following Derelict Nation and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going back in time. Looking forward to seeing the time-laspe.

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