Written by Brett Levine
Photo by Jerry Siegel
Four years ago, just out of graduate school, Birmingham-based artist and sculptor Sarah Heath graced the cover of this magazine as part of a story about the challenges facing recent college graduates. At the time, she was photographed at one of her five jobs—bartending at Bottletree—which was a real representation of the struggle that many recent graduates faced.
Fast forward to today, and both everything and nothing has changed. Bottletree is no more, but Heath still has to have more than one job to make ends meet. Now, however, it is partly by choice. “When Bottletree closed, it was part of a larger paradigm shift in my life,” she says. “I stepped back and thought about how my life could change.”
Change it did. Heath used the opportunity to consider the opportunities she wanted to create for herself. “I was talking to Dorsey Cox, who owns the Stream building where my studio is located, and he asked me a very simple and direct question: ‘If you could do anything, what would you do?’ I answered immediately: ‘I would do ArtPrize again.’” For those unfamiliar, ArtPrize is an art competition, held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that awards the largest cash prize in the world. Heath had entered and competed previously in 2010.
She approached the new challenge like a cross between online dating and a military operation. “I knew that having your work in certain venues gave you the highest possibility of winning, so if my proposal wasn’t accepted by one of those venues, I wasn’t going to take on the project,” she explains. “Luckily, it got selected to show in the DeVos Convention Center, and I was in business.” She then began the challenges of designing, funding, fabricating, and transporting a work 16 feet wide by six feet tall. It was an incredible work. The result?
“I didn’t win,” she says with a laugh. “But I learned so much in the process, I can’t tell you how many people supported me. And I made the work in a way where it was modular, so I still have the opportunity for the piece—“Flight”—to transform into individual works of art.” It has, and it does, as people comprehend both the intricacy and the intimacy of the piece.
“It has been exhibited at the Alabama Center for Architecture, Birmingham chapter of the American Institute of Architects, thanks to the support of Rhea Williams,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a community that truly understands the intersections between art and architecture.” The work will also be a part of an upcoming exhibition of Artists in Residence at Sloss Metal Arts, to take place at Alabama Power Company beginning in February.
So, simply, Heath has used the experience as a way to learn and to both look and move forward. “The ArtPrize experience made me think differently about how I conceive and construct work,” she explains. “I am now working on a proposal for a large-scale, site-specific installation for a major building. The first requirement is to establish the capability to do the work itself, and now, having done this, I can demonstrate that.”
It is this resilient gumption that is most endearing about Heath. Rather than find impediments, she finds openings. “I have a solo exhibition coming up at Lowe Mill in Huntsville in July,” Heath says. “One of the results of working on ‘Flight’ for ArtPrize is that I have been thinking now about how to work more simply. So my new work will focus on recycled and recyclable materials and be installation-based. It is a move away from the highly technical, highly fabricated pieces I’ve been working on for the past year.”
Apart from the changing approach to making work, what else has changed for Heath since first meeting her in these pages? “I have an amazing studio,” she says, “with people I enjoy having the opportunity to share space with. And Birmingham has changed so much itself; it just continues to be a better and better place to live!”
What about work? “Apart from making art, I still have four jobs,” she says. “I still bartend; I’m an adjunct professor in the art department at UAB; I teach art at an eating disorder treatment center, as well as work with children from low income communities as part of a partnership with ArtPlay at the Alys Stephens Center. I am incredibly happy with where I am. I have jobs I love; I have a great studio space; I have a fantastic studio practice; and I keep making work.”
Sarah Heath proves making art is a matter of hard work, bold ideas, faith, and being a part of a creative community that you believe in and that believes in you. Oh—and having an idea, and making it take Flight.