OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sage Schmett

Fold away house
Cardboard, acrylic paint, hot glue

Using cardboard, catalogs, magazines and other recycled paper, SAGE SCHMETT returns repeatedly to the motif of the house as a repository for both loss and desire. Her uninhabited, pop-up houses are impressive in their engineering and emotionally haunting. Recently, while indulging in the pleasure of collecting as a strategy, she has turned to domestic interiors, revealing our attachment to the objects with which we share our lives. Sage earned a BFA in Fiber Arts from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2012. Most recently she debuted Dollhouse #1 (2013) in the group exhibition Dwellings, curated by Rachel Gloria Manley, at Center of the Commons in Harvard, Massachusetts. Sage lives and works in Boston.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Houses are recurring visual motifs in your work. Could you talk about the different manifestations of this motif and why it continues to be a staple in your work?

Sage Schmett: I've been making houses in different forms since I was a kid. Back then, I loved making dioramas, especially of little rooms and interior scenes. I also had lots of Polly Pockets (still do!), and would build dollhouses with my dad. So my fascination with building houses goes back even further than my sense of being able to know why, beyond the fact that I just enjoyed it.

By the time I came back to building them in my late teens, houses became more associated in my mind with memory, dreams and the cycle of life and death. I began to see them as imprints of personal experience or repositories of memories and desires.

Cardboard, acrylic paint

OPP: Talk about the form of the pop-up book in general and your material choices of recycled cardboard and hot glue.

SS: I like making art that requires interactivity. I want the person viewing my work to feel encouraged to explore a bit. And with pop-up books, there's an aspect to creating them that touches on engineering and other forms of logical problem-solving. I find this to be a fun challenge. Most importantly, I want the houses to stay safe and somewhat private.

The great thing about cardboard is that it's free. It's also easy to work with and easy to rework when I want to change something. The process gives me a sense of catharsis and relaxation. I like the trance-inducing nature of accumulating tons of miniature pieces, as in the Dollhouse and the repetitiveness of cutting and gluing.

Cardboard, acrylic paint, hot glue

OPP: There's something somber about the ghostly pop-up houses and their grey and creamy-white exteriors. They seem dilapidated, possibly abandoned. And yet, because they fold up, they could easily be carried with you. I read these pieces as about nostalgia and clinging to the past. Thoughts?

SS: A lot of the emotional content of the houses is rooted in my past, for sure. Growing up, we lived in apartments. I always fantasized about having my own house, mostly so I could paint my bedroom a painfully bright color and install bead curtains and other tween decor. I also remember car rides with my whole family. We would drive by impressive, old New England homes, and I'd imagine interiors that were filled with adorable nooks and secret passage ways.

After my father passed away, I rummaged through his things. I discovered a box of photographs. The pictures were all of gorgeous, unfamiliar houses. I began my Dream Home series shortly after. The pop-up books are replicas of the houses my father photographed. Building these homes helps me stay connected to him, and allows me to realize our shared dream of having a place that is ours. Going through his apartment and his belongings was such an intense, private experience; it felt like I had stepped into his own inner world. The whole thing left me with this impression of how houses can be so personal and otherworldly at the same time, even just by virtue of the stuff that's in them. Though it probably just indicates a lot about the person who inhabits it, the why and how of accumulating dreams, desires and memories in the form of stuff and clutter. These ideas have stuck with me and show up repeatedly in my work.

Dollhouse #1
Cardboard, catalogs, hot glue, acrylic paint, other collaged materials
2' 9"x 4'3"

OPP: In 2013, you shifted from focusing on the exteriors of houses in your pop-up books to the interior in Dollhouse #1. This piece has a dramatically different tone to it; it is excessively lived in. Who are the imagined occupants of this house?

SS: That shift in focus seemed natural to me at the time. My life had changed a lot. Time had passed since my dad died, and I was falling in love. I felt less vulnerable sharing things about myself in my work. I focused on exteriors before as a way of exploring architectures that my dad and I both liked. But I became interested in how houses' interiors can reflect private parts of the personality, both my own and those of people I care about. They are places to hold all the things we like, all the things we bind to our memories and dreams. I wanted to make a piece that would enliven these inanimate objects come and the space.

My process still involved architecture and kinetic, pop-up influenced elements such as a rotating toy carousel and a ringing phone. But I became much more immersed in basically "shopping" for things that appealed to me. I spent the better part of a year collecting pictures of toys, junk and clutter, mostly from free catalogs, magazines and decorating books. It's actually a rush! Once I had cut out an item and mounted it on cardboard, I felt a lot of satisfaction. It's a bit strange: I'm probably more excited to find a tiny paper version of a beloved object, than the real thing. I love the challenge of being constrained to such a specific scale when choosing an object. Outside of that, I just choose images of objects that genuinely appeal to me. The mess and clutter adds to the intimacy of the scene, but it also makes the house more alive, and it allows me to keep adding more stuff to it over time. The only occupants I can imagine living there are myself and my partner.

Dollhouse #1 (detail)
Cardboard, catalogs, hot glue, acrylic paint, other collaged materials
2' 9"x 4'3"

OPP: Could you talk about the interaction of two-dimensional and the three-dimensional in your work?

SS: This interaction has its origins in the dioramas I used to make, but it also comes naturally as a result of my interest in both architecture and collage. I like how the mixture of both elements plays with the eye in interesting ways, with a kind of push/pull effect happening between flatness and depth. I also love how it photographs, since in the right lighting it can end up looking very realistic, obscuring the true scale of the scene. In this way, it gives even more life and focus to all these flat, throwaway objects.

Past Manicures (1 year) (detail)
Nail polish, toothpicks, glue
12" x 12"

OPP: Speaking of throwaway objects, let's talk about your 2013 piece Past Manicures (1 year). I definitely see a connection to the houses by way of process: the collection of lots of tiny objects. Your earlier description of the houses—"imprints of personal experience or repositories of memories and desires"—certainly applies here, too. Is this piece a singularity or a new direction in your work?

SS: I see that piece as more of a continuation of my previous work, in that, as you mentioned, I was still collecting lots of miniature parts and trying to make them all say something when they're all together.

I took an interest in nail art about two years ago. After I would paint my nails, I found myself looking at them a lot throughout the day. When I was ready to paint my nails again, I would carefully remove the polish and save the pieces. The polish bits resembeled little jewels, and for some reason I loved them. Since the piece is a survey of a year's worth of manicures I had done, there are certain memories attached to each one. I'm not currently working on any other nail-based pieces like that one. For now, nail art is a fun hobby.

For the past six months, I've been collecting pieces for my largest house yet, and  I recently began building the structure that will contain all of them. I love the architectural side of things, but my heart is really in the collecting. Since I find that the most fun, I see it continuing to be a major part of my work in the future.

To see more of Sage's work, please visit sageschmett.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video,
collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia recently created a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists runs until October 12, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, is on view at Design Cloud in Chicago from July 25 - October, 24, 2014.