Sarah Shepley lives in South Paris, Maine, and has been a significant force in the arts community here for many years. In March of 2020, she and her husband Mark Brandhorst, and their dog Cora, went on a hike near their home. On the way back, they decided to walk across Hall’s Pond over the ice to their house. The pond was beginning to thaw, and the ice gave way. All three succumbed to the collapse of the ice. Only Sarah and their dog Cora survived. That was also the beginning of our COVID lockdown and, of course, a period of solitude for Sarah, going inward and healing. This interview sheds light on Sarah’s history, her artistry, strength of purpose, and her amazing resiliency and compassion . . . for herself and others. She is an inspiration to many, including me.
NM: How do you use your art-making to deal with challenges in your life?
SS: I have had a practice of keeping journals for probably thirty years. It is a consistent practice. Twice daily, I just sit in front of the blank page and allow whatever wants to rise to arise. Often, words and images come, so it’s a combination of these two. This practice, for me, is like a portal and a map. It’s a way that I enter into a non-ordinary space to understand things from a broader perspective that are challenging in my life. It is a map because I am able to see reflected in the images and symbols meanings that my ordinary mind may not know. A year and a half ago, I lost my husband in a drowning accident. After the accident and almost losing my own life as well, I very specifically committed to starting a series which I called the Grief Journals. This is where I was able to allow the art to help me grieve. It helped! It was a lifeline!
I think that I first used my art in this way when I was turning 29 and left my first husband. I just went into another space where I painted these huge black and red women. They were so expressive! It was like this whole other part of me was coming through. For the first time, I realized that my art was my companion, a daily companion in this grief and this grace that I was going through. The process put me on a path that I think has defined me as an artist ever since. I use it also in teaching others how art can be a healing modality.
Most recently, I am getting my book, Under the Crescent Moon, printed. It is a compilation of art and writing that I did in the first year and a quarter after Mark died. It feels very much like an arts ministry in the sense of giving voice to not only my suffering but also my ancestors, who also carried loss. I dedicated the book to my grandmother, who lost both her first husband and her son. She has been very, very much a part of me in this process.
My larger path has to do with the Latin cultures and what I call the “Ecuadorian Arts Initiative,” that I launched in 2016. This is really about my travels throughout Ecuador, teaching art to children in orphanages, schools, and foundations. I went each year, and the project built upon itself and my connections. Then COVID hit, and Mark died. I didn’t go last year, and I’m not going again this year. We don’t know from year to year how things will look or what the challenges will be.
NM: What are the challenges on this path for you?
SS: One big challenge is that there aren’t any really clear mentors. It’s almost like I have a map, but I have no guide. It has been an interesting life process because there’s a LOT of letting go. That happens continuously. This arts ministry has been a “solvent” against my conditioned self.
NM: How have the challenges changed your art-making?
SS: My art has changed dramatically in the past year and a half going through this period of grief. It has pulled me way down into my life and myself. My art now comes from this deep place and informs how I work and my subject matter. Whatever I put out into the world now has to be deeply rooted in the personal, my personal.
NM: Do you feel tender putting out your work?
SS: I always feel partially vulnerable because of this loss, but it also feels like there is a kind of strength that I can embody. It is the strength to choose to show up in spite of being vulnerable. The choice to show work that is vulnerable, deeply personal, and risks the possibility of being misunderstood. But it can also bring about very deep conversations in a group of people. You never know.
I really want to have a show of my Grief Journals which will be very, very personal. I feel like I’m resourcing the teacher part of me, the woman who wants people to understand that art can be a powerful tool for healing. By giving people the opportunity to see these raw images from the sketchbooks and to have the book available, there is an opportunity to help others along the path. As Frances Weller writes, “those who can go into that wild terrain of grief bring back medicine for others.” I don’t want to hide this. I don’t want the work just to be my personal story, but I want to share it with others. The love that is behind it is really my only protection. This is also a great source of strength.
NM: Do you ever doubt yourself?
SS: Less and less
“to die before you die, is to really know how to live”
NM: Thank you Sarah for all you have shared today.
Image at top: Sarah Shepley, The Spaces In Between, mixed-media monotype and linocut, 8 x 10 in.