I am a great fan of the artist Sabrina Ward Harrison. In fact, if I had to make a list of the artists alive today that I am most inspired by, she would easily make the top five. But I hate the word “fan.” It sounds so lemming-like. As if I have turned off my brain and jumped into a crowd of people simply because there are a crowd of people. I am not a groupie. I am not enamored with Sabrina in a way that is unhealthy or brainless. I do not need her to validate me or even notice me. (Although, if I’m honest, there was a time where I did think I needed her validation...or every artist’s validation for that matter.) Why I am enamored with Sabrina is because she extended an invitation to own my own life by challenging me with wake-up call after wake-up call. My life intersected with her art at a time when I was searching for my own permission and awakening to my own voice.
I can’t remember how I first heard of Sabrina, but from the beginning her work fascinated me. It was messy yet beautiful. And she weaved photographs and words into her art in a way I had never seen done before. The effect was a sort of haunting awakening. “There is more. There is so much more” is the sense I was left with when I first interacted with what she made. And I desperately wanted there to be more.
When we were living in California I purchased a book of hers called The True and the Questions in a stationary and novelty store in Pasadena. It was the only book of hers left on the shelves that day, and I remember thinking this moment in time was meant to be. The book was left there just for me, a gift. The magical moment was only helped by the fact that we were still new to living in California and that we had ridden a train (which I’d never done) to get to Pasadena. I was seeing everything with new eyes and drinking it all in thirstily. Sabrina’s book was a book of questions, and I jumped right into asking them. It was all very timely.
I first met Sabrina at an art show of hers in LA. My husband, Tony, and I went together. I had never been to an art show like this one. Hell, I don't think I'd ever been to an art show period. I walked around in awe. Paintings, some as big as me, hung on the walls. Some of them were ones I had seen in her books. I found myself not knowing what to do there. It was all too much to take in.
I met Sabrina’s mom and dad who were at the art show to support her. They were kind and down to earth, although a bit mysterious themselves in some way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. They spoke of Sabrina’s wildness and how it couldn’t quite be tamed. I wasn’t quite sure if they were proud of this or apologizing for it, but I wanted to explain to them that her wildness is what gives me so much hope. I didn’t have words to say it though. I didn’t have words to say much of anything.
When I was ready to leave, Tony, encouraged me to go talk to her. I had brought a book with me to have her sign, but it felt so icky to me. I didn’t want to be clingy or needy or silly. I didn’t want to say cliche things like, “You have changed my life and will continue to change my life,” even if I knew it was true. At the same time, I realized I might not get another opportunity to be around her. She is sort of an illusive artist, a free-spirit, a wanderer. Who knew if our paths would ever cross again in the future. So I took my trembling self over to her and shyly thanked her for her work and kind of held out the book in an apologetic sort of way. She was warm and bubbly. She made small talk as she dipped a Japanese brush into black ink and sloppily, yet beautifully, in typical Sabrina fashion, painted the words “Welcome Inside Mandy” in the front cover of the book.
She could have not written a better message for me because I could not have felt like more of an outsider at that time in my life. I wanted desperately to settle into my own skin as an artist, but I was failing miserably at it. Here I was, unsure how to even walk around in an art show (for the record, I still don't like art shows) and feeling oddly shaped and clumsy in my movements. I was observing everyone around me and noticing I wasn’t eccentric enough. I wasn’t rich enough. I wasn’t prestigious enough or elegant enough or flamboyant enough to be there. And yet Sabrina, the artist, was welcoming me inside.
And then she did the unthinkable. She told me that it would take a moment for the ink to dry and asked if I would mind standing on the table with her. “Wait, what?” I asked. “Would you stand on the table with me?” She asked again. This time with a bit of intensity she had not yet shown. She motioned to Tony who was holding our camera and said, “The only way I’ll take a picture with you is if you stand on the table with me.”
I looked at Tony with my eyes open wide and gave a tentative smile. He motioned me up and got ready to take our picture. I could not believe I was doing this. Now my uncoordinated body that wasn’t feeling comfortable in its own skin was going to stand on a table for all to see. They would know I did not belong there. They would know I was a misfit. A crowd started to form around us and Sabrina told me she was getting embarrassed. “You?” I said. “They’re all wondering who the heck I even am.”
Sabrina put her arm around me and made me feel at ease, at least as at ease as a person can feel when standing on a table in the middle of a crowd of strangers. We laughed, and I realized in that one moment she had truly welcomed me inside. We were standing above everyone that, in my mind, would have held me back from ever being an artist. It was as if the rush and noise and chaos I had felt in my head since entering the gallery had all frozen and the people were all motionless and it was just Sabrina and I breathing the same air and being unimaginably equals. I will never forget that moment. A thirty second moment frozen in time.
As we got down she thanked me for doing something daring with her and she handed me my book, welcoming me inside.
I had one final in-person encounter with Sabrina in the two years we were living in California. I got the opportunity to go to a two-day workshop with her in a suburb of LA. There was a crafty, creating element to it. We collaged books. We painted and got our hands dirty. But quite honestly I could have done without the art projects. I enjoyed the conversation with Sabrina immensely, hearing quirky stories of her own imperfections, the places she’s lived and visited, the books she’s read and was reading. My favorite moments of that weekend were the times I was laying sprawled out in the grass, barefoot in the sunshine, and journaling my answers to the questions Sabrina was reading from poetry and from her True and the Questions book. The dreams that poured out of me onto paper that weekend are still very vivid and still very much a part of the trajectory of my life.
I remember fondly when Sabrina had us share some of what we had journaled with another person at the workshop. My partner was a tall, gorgeous blond. A petite actress who had her own self-conscious flaws she was working through. I typically hate being forced to partner up with a stranger like this at an event, but we found in each other a safe place to speak dreams and fears out loud. It was freeing.
That weekend Sabrina signed my The True and the Questions book cover for me. This time she wrote, “Free yourself and leave ripples, Mandy.”