Manning the sleepy desk at the Plaza Galeria space where her first solo show, Innercapes hangs, Sarah Nolan is used to low foot traffic.
“It’s mostly tourists and sandwich lovers,” she says, referencing the nearby Subway.
Making the best of her downtime, she’s painting a monumental piece on board titled “169 Faces.” It features miniature abstract portraits inspired by mug shots she’s seen published in the local newspaper.
“I chose 169 because that’s 13 times 13—thirteen being unlucky,” she points out. “It’s inspired by the beautiful ‘Operation Decansos’ where the [Santa Fe] New Mexican publishes all the DWI drivers who were booked.”
“I could not think of a single person I know who hasn’t had some pothole in life,” Nolan, who goes by Sermarr—a variation on a childhood nickname—says as she picks up a brush.
Along with the images of those with outstanding warrants and representations of herself and select family members, famously troubled historical figures are also emblazoned. “People you know have had bad times like Job, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lancelot…all these people throughout history who have had horrible times in their life and sometimes they come back—Cain is in here—and sometimes they don’t.”
The rest of the pieces in the show are also inspired by the old “if it bleeds, it leads” newspaper adage.
“This is art food,” she says, as she opens up a folder containing several clippings of stories revolving around horrendous crimes, all of which fuel her work.
“Instead of landscapes, what I paint are psychological portraits of confusion, humor, bad spots in life; there’s always a story for every single piece,” the Mississippi-born artist says, explaining the exhibit’s name.
She then points to a mixed-media piece triggered by the story of a 6-year-old girl who was sold to a brothel by her parents. Another one is inspired by the true-life tale of a man in his 70’s who was taunted during middle school and decided to take revenge on his oppressor by seeking him out and killing him.
“He’s a little off the map,” she says of her subject, “but his behavior is very much like a lot of us you know, where we never fully recover from some of these scars.”
A lifetime CEO, it wasn’t until Nolan fell ill with pneumonia two years ago that she immersed herself, full-time, in art.
“Doing this is just as improbable as everything else I ever did, but at least I’m consistently improbable,” she says in her Deep South twang.
Ditching the briefcase for the palette, she says the right side of her brain quickly took over.
“I think the pneumonia short-circuited my left brain,” she says, “and so I moved much more into a creative sort of mold. And so when I got better I just started painting like a fiend! My left brain is sort of an orphan now, the poor thing. I had to figure out something the other day—my plane flights or mortgages or something—and it was a big strain.”
Succumbing to that permanent creative spurt, she finds herself constantly producing pieces like Faces that, though not officially in the current show, will eventually form part of another narrative-driven project.
“The only thing that hangs all this work together—‘cause some of it is on board, some of it is on upholstery fabric, some of it is on paper, some of its on imbedded metal—the only thing that strings them together is that they’re all innerscapes; they are stories,” she says.
“I guess I’m more Southern than I think.”