William Dean Sarno
William Dean Sarno is a sculptor who always knew a few basic things about his life, and works with a strong ethic that comes from knowing sure-footed direction. He always knew that he wanted to travel, and likewise knew as young man visiting the Art Institute of Chicago that he wanted to make art. Using the GI Bill to attend art school, he found decisive steps towards a clear interest took shape quickly. Studying art became all consuming, and he mentions that starting later than other students may have had something to do with the intense level of activity that described the start of his career. In addition to his studies, the young artist captained a fabrication workshop which quickly took shape, and with numerous employees his sculpture and portraiture talents found a matching demand for museum installations and anthropological exhibits. The real-life work relationship set many precedents, as did the abrupt change of lifestyle that followed the drying up of arts grants during the Clinton administration. Faced with a major transition in life and fatherhood, he found a versatile work environment full of adequate movement with the LA Times Classifieds department, until that opportunity also closed up and left the artist looking for a new adventure. He chose, true to his energetic character, to embrace an intense and wildly different existence as an organic farmer in Tennessee.
Beginning a description of the viewpoint that informs Sarno’s work is well illustrated by these major life shifts in his livelihood, and becomes circumplex when the importance discovery plays for his work is described. He feels that art is entirely about doing something fun, the sort of fun that in practice may be something like a journal, but in experience can give rise to godlike feelings of creation. He recalls being initially concerned whether he would inherit that gift which was already understood in his family to be paramount to life’s enjoyment. His grandmother played seven instruments, was a pianist for Dean Martin, and it came as a matter of grave concern when it appeared that the young Sarno did not have a lick of musical ability in him. He knew differently, and found his match easily enough in the visual arts. As though confirming the lineage with music was but one manifestation of possibilities, that flavor of polymathic ability simply skipped a few generations as he sees the musical ability resurface in his son Nolan. He found this common thread when he discovered the young man plucking around the fret-board of a guitar. Asking what he was doing, why he was not trying to play a song, he was informed his son was ‘looking for sounds’. In this there is a real commonalty with making sculpture, looking for the notes that will make up a song.
The artist has found through his travels an interest in how people regard art, the way it sometimes defies the ability to easily relate. He cites the experimental verification of this in the works of Bauhaus, particularly Josef Albers, noting the way relation can be informed by familiarity with the subject’s material application. He tells a story about the workers who installed the sculpture Split Button by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in Philadelphia. How does an individual who is not versed in the dialogue of art approach such a work? For one thing, he replies, the viewer approaches the work on the terms of his own knowledge about how objects in the world are made. A workman installing the object surveyed the situation and pronounced to the artists, “I can fix that for you, you know. I’ve got a welder.”
Most people who are not involved with art will tell you that they know what they like, and just as freely admit they don’t know anything about art. And it’s hard to translate how personal everyone’s knowledge can be involved in the piece, just one more reason to appreciate what art does for the public at large. What people see in art is often the leftovers of how their own knowledge frames the encounter, and this is how art indirectly exposes ourselves to our own, differing frameworks. This can be truly interesting for people who have worked with various materials, and can include a perspective on fabrication. He often reflects on an artwork in the light of work’s interplay with a final sculpture. Depending on what one knows – woodwork, anatomy, metal, systems – one notices and can appreciate different aspects of a work. In the end, after experiencing a widening array of places and materials, the lesson becomes plain that one should not close their mind to the possibilities of doing and seeing. Just one work can unfold countless new experiences for different people.
One can even see the coalition between work and levels of understanding by getting into the wildly different yet epic painterly approaches of Mark Rothko or J. M. W. Turner. There is a degree of workmanship in evidence even with the laying of color, and for someone that has known a material relationship to work, there is in evidence some display of the artist’s life story, what they went through to arrive at what the viewer sees. Sarno feels that you often have to actually engage a technique to really get into a show. This is a fascinating anecdote about art that can be quickly shared in description, but is powerfully challenging to achieve without rolling up the sleeves and making the difficult crossing between encounter and being so involved one can really see the story. He mentions this challenge, related over time in the Arthurian myths and rekindled in W. Somerset Maugham’s book, the Razor’s Edge: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."
The artist has drawn much of his creative vitality from having always been able to pick up and leave. This attitude is reflected in the way he has lived his life, the way he has approached gathering work experiences, and how he approaches the inner movements of his creativity. Once life faces him with reaching a concretized point of being afraid to move, he moves right away to diffuse the obstacle and the potentially toxic experience of ennui. There is a subtle and encouraging connection between getting lost and being clear. Even in the less literal sense, he finds that making art can directly lead to being experientially far from the activity at hand. Working in a familiar way, undertaking the often repetitive tasks behind his sculpting techniques, art is far less a fixed point of directed awareness, rather it can be a comforting departure for mental wandering. “When I’m sanding, not every part of me needs to be there.”
This separation of art and state of mind can overlap when activities are reversed, especially when he is actively creating, and he observes an interweaving of very distinct lines of thought in and out of the studio. In the middle of going about life’s daily business, he may be suddenly be overwhelmed by the solidification of some creative seedling he had planted in the back of his mind. In the studio his thought may be miles away from artistic concerns. Inversely, the subconscious may deliver answers to creative questions in dramatic flashes while he is pushing a shopping cart around the grocery store, or feeding the chickens on his organic farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It all serves to strongly illustrate the differences between levels of consciousness that make up his life. Even with direct involvement in conception and fabrication, fully driven by intentional aims, he arrives at results he could not have previously known could exist. New discoveries that arrive simply by working towards what he does know, sometimes appearing before him unexpectedly, the unknown just arising from himself after years of close-working familiarity.
Amidst the gradual process of building skills, embracing changes in perspective, and allowing his creativity to run its own level of background activity among the levels of his conscious mind, he recalls the moment where he questioned where and why things came out of the way he managed his work. It seemed to him to be like running, a process in which his being is constantly involved with his environments, both within and without. Totally embracing the work involved and the benefits that can seem spontaneous which hitch along for the ride, he turned his creative approach to farming in an analogous way. Having resolved to take up farming, the most direct action was to approach a local farmer, and offer to work for free, in trade for gaining the skills, and getting his hands into the actual work of farming. The farmer found this strange and didn’t expect much of it, but Sarno’s methodology translated into a year of having the most fastidious, detail oriented and uncomplaining farmhand a farmer could hope for. The artist explains new ventures this way – “If you leave for somewhere else, what else can you really take with you (but your attention and your effort).” Hard work is something of an inner challenge to the comforts of movement the traveling artist has embraced throughout his life. “(Work is) jealous of other roads, other possibilities that may be easier than digging in to what you’ve committed to. But it is the hard thing that will make you great.”
Odd and priceless qualities can be discovered by getting to know others, and art is one platform where these qualities surface. He applies this consideration to his work creating portraits of people, feeling strongly that the artist should get to know something about the person they are portraying, to be able to put something actual into the work. One thing that people can see when looking at your work, is a glance at what sort of language the artist has developed. This language isn’t necessarily going to be found pleasant or even come close to being familiar, such as the reception faced by Georges Seurat, nor even suited to what is considered relevant and contemporary for the situation at hand.
The continual uncertainty, cultural shifts and sheer energy that moving around interjects into the thought process all keep creativity reassuringly alive for him. He finds little that is sanctimonious about making art in itself, feeling that the fact of it is not a one-direction faucet that is strictly ranged between on and off. It also includes a considered and rational level that is scientific, and even then he mixes up this methodology, as he does not have the patience for pure scientific method. It comes down to personality, he confides. There is no real why to it in the end, you enjoy it or you don’t. When the time comes that you actually want to make the work, it is easy and natural. He recalls being moved to tears by this lesson about joy and work by observing the fruition of music in his son, observing his look for the marks and shapes of his musical instrument, and seeing the continuation of his grandmother’s passion.
Sarno has found that there is also a pronounced release in finding joy within one’s creativity, something that proved so crucial for a man who has struggled with dyslexia and finding a way to fit into the world. Art can reveal good qualities about people who are otherwise considered incapable. This is especially true with kids and the arts, where there are no limits; society has yet to impose anything on them. He would love to see the schools incorporate more doing, and less drilling, if anything to delay the creativity-interfering imposition of standards as long as possible.
Ultimately the sculptor wishes to relate that much good comes from letting these things, creativity and human bonding, become enriched by taking their own natural course and speed. Allowing ideas to work unconsciously just as much as making work a consciously engaged adaptability to a situation. He espouses movement and change to keep the world refreshed, so that it can provide opportunities to discover new things about yourself and others. He finalizes this with an earthy example – in learning about land ecology as he produces food and livelihood from his farm, he found in the cycle of living and productive land that there are benefits from leaving dead leaves on the ground. Left to themselves, they break down and nourish the soil, far better than scooping them up, setting them on fire, and sending the nutrients up and away as smoke in the air.