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How this artist took inspiration from ceramics and the desert to make huge textile exhibit

Sarah Zapata is an artist who works in textiles weaving and sewing massive amounts of material, and then creating immersive installations out of them, as they cover the walls and floors of a gallery space. But, her latest exhibition at the Arizona State University Art Museum, “Beneath the Breath of the Sun,” actually began with the museum’s existing collection of ceramics.

It was part of an artist residency with the CALA Alliance that brought her to Phoenix for several months to complete it. Zapata spoke more with The Show about her exhibit and said she was inspired by the desert in making it. 

Full interview

SARAH ZAPATA: Textiles are just so incredible. I think it truly is like at its core, it's a love letter to weaving. I think it's an incredible human expression, and it's one that's still incredibly prescient, and it's also very traditional as well as being very contemporary. And so I feel like it's a way to talk about a lot of different things at the same time as well as also being really accessible.

I like this idea of really making work that's accessible for people and breaking down these ideas of like culture is for the elite, it's for everyone. And so using a material that people all literally have a very physical connection to I think is a really incredible entry point for them as well as perhaps seeing something in a different way that they didn't anticipate. So rather than thinking about textiles adorning the body, I like to think about textiles adorning the space and directing the body. And how they can be architectural and these large installations that the viewer literally becomes a part of.

LAUREN GILGER: Right. And that is true of this exhibition at ASU Art right now. Like you walk into the installation literally like you're really like enveloped in it, right? I want to talk about that in a moment. But let's talk first about how this kind of came to be. This project it sounds like at the ASU Art Museum and through this artist residency with the CALA Alliance, like started, it sounds like with ceramics, in fact, not with the kind of textiles you usually do. Tell us about that.

ZAPATA: Yes, absolutely. The ceramics really were the foundation for the work. And even when I was working with the curator Alana Hernandez, we really started looking at the collection of ceramics at the ASU Art Museum. which translates to I believe over 3,500 objects. It is a vast collection and there are some crazy things in there. And really, I wanted to focus on some work that had not been shown before. There are actually many objects in the collection that were, once they entered the collection, they were never shown again. And then also what I decided to focus on as well were objects that were sort of traditional objects. So more traditional ceramic vessels that also had their artist's name, just listed as anonymous artist in the show, we changed it to be artist once known because at one time, the artist was known.

And so it felt like this incredible way that I feel like I'm always trying to present my work and thinking about tradition and honor and really how, you know, I'm able to show my work because of so many incredible people that came before and so many incredible people that will come after and thinking about how these objects are contemporary and incredible explorations and abstraction and utility. And how they can really be the grounding element of the show and really exalted to a contemporary space.

GILGER: So you lived in Phoenix for some time when you were doing this, when you were the artist in residence for the Alliance and you were making this work. Tell me like, was there anything about Phoenix about the desert, the Valley here that, that influenced this inspired this? The colors are probably one thing. Like it's, it's sort of this bright orange explosion in a way.

ZAPATA: Yeah, I think Phoenix. So even being originally from Texas, like, I, I had never been to Phoenix prior to being there for four-plus months. And so I naively really thought it was just going to be what I was used to and what I grew up in. But it is very different, and even coming out on October, where it was still over 100 degrees. I don't know how y'all do it in the summer, when it's over 120. But the presence literally of the sun and like the desert, it is just so pervasive, like you can't be outside without feeling like this incredible sensation on your body.

It's just like something that I feel like I've never experienced before, and I've been to other deserts. So it was just, I think palpable in a way that I never anticipated. Like this work is very much about the sun and air. And if you would have asked me a year ago, I would be making this work about that. I never would have expected it. But I think that's also the importance of really spending time in a place. It's a very specific part of the world and to give that back to Arizona as well, it feels very interesting.

GILGER: Yeah. Talk a little bit about the process of creating these weavings. Like you, you have, I'm guessing like a giant loom and then are things sort of stitched together. Tell us about the, the how you make this, it, it's huge. I mean, it's massive.

ZAPATA: Yes. So it's all worked in panels. So really at the beginning of every installation, how the whole room is going to look is basically decided at the very beginning. I'm very organized and very Capricorn. And so I like things to be very much set in stone. But then that way, there's just so much work to be done. And so improvisation can take over in, in the structure that's already set. And so it really started with weaving once I got to Phoenix, after we had started looking at the ceramics. I was so fortunate enough to be able to borrow an eight harness floor loom from the fibers department at ASU and was working on patterns there. And then also I had on loan an industrial sewing machine, also from ASU. So it's a mixture of weaving just a ton of cloth and then seeing how much material is made and then sewing it on to these panels. So very similarly to weaving, everything is worked row by row. So it's a lot of work, but it's also like a lot of transformation and a lot of using yarn in different ways.

GILGER: That's really fascinating. OK. So final question for you then, Sarah, it's such an interesting project, right? To be able to live here and experience this place and try to create something, you know, that that is in reference to it in some way. What do you think you learned about this place as you went through this process and created this piece?

ZAPATA: I mean, I think it was, it was extremely eye opening. I think the way that Arizona exists is just very interesting. I feel like it is sort of this like skeletal representation of the U.S. in this way where it's very much, there's so many things convalescing within the land. And I think that's also why it kind of became this sort of landscape in a way. I had never been somewhere where you're surrounded by reservations. And I think that's an important reminder, too, and that like we are also on occupied land in this way.

And I came to Phoenix on Oct. 7, and I think that seeing all these things that were happening and how everything was so tied to land, but also no one owns land in this way. And I think that's why I sort of focused on the sun and air and these sort of evasive concepts that are still very much a heart and tied to, to where we are, but no one owns them in this way. And yet they're also like ominous in this in this way as well.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.