- Words and Photos by Kristy Calabro
Street Storytelling with Sara Lynne Leo
Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, on the corner of Elizabeth and Spring, was the very first Comix sighting. It was of a metaphorical, red balloon, weightless, floating up, up, and away. It said, “YOU HAVE TO LET IT GO,” with a tearful response of, “I CAN'T...” Sweet, poignant, heartbreaking. This was our introduction to Sara Lynne Leo, and the rest is herstory...
You'll find Sara Lynne Leo's Comix on lampposts, fire alarm boxes, and obsolete phone booths and at times living in their own miniature worlds amongst other larger pieces of art. The Comix are little doses of food for thought: bite-sized morsels of intellectual nourishment served on the streets for all to enjoy for free. They give you a taste of what else this multi-talented artist has to offer. There's been such a strong response to her work because everyone can relate to their universal messages. Take a smidgen of charm, a pinch of humor, and a dash of relatability, "mix" it all up and you get a recipe for street art success. What initially seems like smart and humorous comics, Sara says starts from a dark thought, that the artist explains later.
Sara grew up outside of Hartford, CT and has been making artwork her whole life. She went to art school, which left her feeling disillusioned and jaded because it felt like a competition to see who could be the most obscure. “A lot of the artwork being produced was devoid of any applicable meaning and dealt with high concepts and big words that ultimately felt like it was only being made to impress people by how incomprehensible it was,” said Sara. This was frustrating for her, and she switched directions and schools, and later realized that 90% of her skills had been self-taught through YouTube tutorials, books, and a lot of practice.
“In the end, my experience left me feeling mostly like a ‘self-taught artist’ and...that being a ‘trained’ artist is actually a bit overrated,” said Sara.
She tried to do work that was more commercial for a few years in the film and animation industry, but this also began to feel uninspiring. Sara felt like her “artistic compass” was broken. “It felt like I had to choose between being a pompous artist or a sellout, and because of this, I stopped making art for a while” ... After a much needed break, some growth, and some struggles, Sara began to regain a personal connection to her artwork.
Living in NYC for almost ten years now, Sara felt like street art was a canvas where she could express herself honestly and share it with others without the constraints of financial gain or motivation. Up to this point, Sara picked up so many skills along the way: animation, motion graphics, digital illustration, web coding and design, sculpture, props and costume fabrication, molding and casting, all different types of painting and drawing, and also photography. She uses these skills in her artwork, but as of right now, she is focusing on street art and her mural painting business where she makes most of her income.
She's always struggled with the money flow in the fine art world. There are thousands of starving artists who are trying to make it and then you have the elite artists and collectors who are buying and selling a handful of art for large sums of money. If you are an art fan, most of the time you have to pay to see exhibits and if you are an up-and-coming artist, you usually have to pay just to be considered for open calls and gallery shows.
"...when an industry becomes so monetized, with a huge financial gap between those who are on the 'top' and those who are on the 'bottom,' it quickly skews the idea of what art should be showcased, featured, and is considered 'relevant' and dare I say... 'good'," said Sara.
Street Art avoids a lot of these issues, and Sara took herself and her artwork in a new direction. On Street Art, "...You don’t have to pay to be seen, and you don’t have to pay to see it, and because the artists aren’t [usually] making money off of it, the artwork tends to come from an honest place of self-expression or a desire to share a message that’s important to them," said, Sara.
Her work is about the “everyday man” and the struggles we all face. She tries to keep the artwork very human and relatable. She thinks the streets were the right place for her Comix where all different types of people can consider and respond to her characters and messages. The feedback Sara receives from her Comix has been overwhelmingly positive, and usually, the first thing she hears is that the images and punchlines are funny, but they actually start off coming from a dark thought and then it turns humorous. Comedies and tragedies are built around the same basic principles, and both use intimate looks at character development throughout a story's central theme.
"I always hope to give the audience two reactions: first being a laugh at the silly, satirical dry humor, but then also a nod to the serious side of the piece and the fact that it is rooted in pain or struggle." said, Sara. She finds that keeping the characters labelless, furthers the relatable nature of the messages. "They are always genderless and raceless not because I don’t think people have different experiences, but because I am trying to highlight what makes us feel the same," said Sara. "My 'doodles' are meant to be an idea or an experience, not an actual person – a surrogate for the onlooker that can easily be projected onto like a blank canvas." said Sara. She rarely does the same paste twice. They are all hand painted, because she rarely has access to a printer. It's always new characters and phrases when pasting. She likes to keep it fresh for all you street art hunters out there!
She wants the characters to feel like small people who are living in the city along with us and giving their personal reflections about everyday life. "Rather than a sticker or picture that very much seems like it is a 2D surface, I wanted my characters to be part of the environment. This is why I opt to have them interact with the surfaces, whether it be a ledge or a more 'tangible' object like the band-aid or the Uno Card. It’s a way I hope to bring them to life," said, Sara.
In one of her Comix, a scarred character is holding up a band-aid, and it says, "YOU NEED THIS MORE THAN ME." Sara's accompanying tagline on her Instagram page says, "HE KNOWS WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER." The "YOU" could be any one of us walking down the street. We all have scars, whether physical or emotional and we are all trying to get through this thing called life. We are all in this together.
She asks questions we’re all thinking like, "ARE YOU HAPPY?" It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. "WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR? A PLACE TO BELONG." A simple answer, but to make it a reality is another story. One Comix shows a sad character holding a cone and looking down because their ice cream had fallen to the ground... "THIS IS EXPECTED." She serves us a helping of the truth at times we didn't even know we needed it.
Sara also makes bigger wheatpastes, bolt ups, and posters. Pic courtesy of artist (@saralynne.leo)
Picture courtesy of artist (@saralynne.leo)
Pic courtesy of artist (@saralynne.leo)
Sara is a secret and self-proclaimed "occult nerd." She has tried to be a “professional” tarot card reader and the cards and their meanings still influence her today. The story is a bit deeper. She has struggled with mental health over the years and with an obscure phobia called “Death Anxiety” that still affects her on a daily basis. It's a condition where someone’s natural and healthy fear of death is distorted, amplified, and overly sensitive to the point where daily functioning becomes impossible without constantly obsessing and preparing for death.
"Over the years, I’ve sought out help to work through this issue and explored many different healing tools anywhere from medication to meditation. For a period of time, I found myself mingling around the “spiritualist” community and while I definitely don’t consider myself a religious person or super spiritual, it led me to tarot cards and the traditions and practices behind them."
There is some mysticism that comes with Tarot, and the cards have their fair share of skeptics, but Sara has studied them for years, and has found that you don't have to have a belief in "magic" or "spirits" to use them. It's not fortune-telling, but a tool for self-reflection.
Tarot cards are pulled from a deck, and those particular images and scenes are meant to be interpreted and read like a story, made for the person, who is receiving that reading.
"For me, the cards are a collection of codified symbols and imagery that have been refined and used for hundreds of years. As an artist, having a sort of dictionary of symbols and an understanding of semiotics and archetypes has been immensely helpful for storytelling and art-making." said, Sara.
"9 of Wands" by @saralynne.leo
Pic courtesy of curator @walkinggirlnyc
"My 9 of Wands/Weight of the World piece first bloomed from a common experience that we all have – taking on more than we have to. However when I began to work on it, I quickly realized that the roots of its meaning could be found in the 9 of Wands Tarot card. The meaning of this card can be summed up simply as 'exhaustion' and 'burdens' that seem never ending”. The traditional image on the 9 of Wands cards (Rider Waite Deck) shows a man struggling to carry a bundle of sticks to his destination in the far distance. However, the man is carrying the sticks in a very impractical and almost illogical manner, implying that perhaps he is making the task harder on himself by choosing to carry the bundle in this way. There is a bit of victim blaming in the card, however it’s a lesson that I think we all need to be reminded of at one time or another: You’re making this harder on yourself, you don’t have to do that." - Sara Lynne Leo
She finds true inspiration from the likes of Michel Gondry, Thom Yorke, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and visual artists Francis Bacon, Jeff Jordan, Kiki Smith, Jan Švankmajer, and the influential stop-motion animators and twins, Brothers Quay. "I’ve always been a giant fan of creepy surrealism, and these artists hold a special place in my heart," said, Sara. Her work has been compared to Shel Silverstein, and she can definitely see the comparison. "I have read some of his books growing up, but I can’t say that he is an active (or intentional) influence on me – although I can appreciate his work," said Sara. Her artwork is very illustrative in black and white and she also gets compared to Keith Haring, Mr. Doodle, and Blu who have similar visual styles. She is humbled to be compared to these artists although she feels that they are all very different, (but all great in their own ways!)
Sara read comics when she was young and always was someone who's had an absurd and dark sense of humor. The subject matter of her work always comes from a personal place. They could come from interactions she had with people or personal musings about life.
She thinks she has this sense of humor and outlook on life because of her struggles with Death Anxiety. 'It’s not something I honestly ever talk about with people, but I really do think it’s informed a lot of my perspective." said Sara. She lived undiagnosed for a long time, and was in a lot of pain. She's been to some very dark places, and it has caused her to see death irrationally in almost everything and ultimately she became very detached, afraid, and existential.
"It was a really difficult lens to break from, but over time I’ve gotten significantly better, and in the end I found that rather than trying to 'eliminate' this part of myself, I’ve learned to co-exist with it and have sympathy for the dark and pained parts of myself." said, Sara.
Sara likes to think that the journey that she went through is reflected in the artwork. By finding humor in the pain, not deflecting the suffering, but accepting it and talking about her struggles in an approachable and inviting way.
Pic courtesy of artist (saralynne.leo)
Along with the Comix you may have noticed a geometric shaped angel with wings. This is Sara’s visual signature that’s become like a logo or symbol that accompanies her street art. Her characters are meant to feel like part of the city, and she didn’t want to “break the 4th wall” by putting a written signature on the paste up. When she first created this image in her teens, it had a childlike nature that captivated her, and she began drawing it everywhere like a personal tag. This winged icon has now become synonymous with her work.
Sara hopes to merge both her interest in street art and animation more. (call it, Street Artimation?) "I’ve just started a new project where I actually bring my characters to life on the street by adding movement! There are a lot of different angles I can take on this, so it’s been taking me some time to figure out how I want to do it…." said Sara. She'd love to do animation work with Jeff Jordan and animate his paintings and has always secretly wanted to do a music video for Radiohead. She'd also like to travel and spread her art around the globe, and she's met many international artists who have offered to paste her work overseas.
She's always drawn to the stories that find profound meaning in things that aren’t necessarily special or the ones that are sometimes overlooked. A lot of the street work pulls from this because it's meant to depict everyday experiences, and as she says, "...seeks to synthesize these common place situations into just a few words and a simple expression in order to highlight the deep and sometimes existential meaning behind the basic things we experience every day." Sara is really humbled to see her work resonating with so many people in different ways. She’d like to think it’s because of the type of story she is telling. "I heard someone say: "There are two types of stories - ones about extraordinary experiences that are noteworthy, and ones about everyday experiences that are relatable." I think my work falls into the latter...," said, Sara. This isn't "The End," it's just the beginning. We look forward to the next chapter and following Sara's artistic journey through the streets; wherever her story may take us!
For more information:
Follow Sara on Instagram @saralynne.leo
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