Some artists have no problem defining their work. They can rattle off what it means to them, what it might mean to you and what kind of mood it’s capable of evoking.
But Sabrina Small has a hard time doing that. It’s not that she’s trying to be difficult or that she’s stubborn or elusive. She’s actually quite gracious in attempting to describe the curious figures and forms that have become synonymous with her name.
“It’s not so interesting for me to draw a traditional portrait,” Small says. “I’ve done a lot of stuff with monsters, human oddities, freaks of nature, that kind of thing. I need something to be just a bit off, be it a Siamese twin or a girl with three eyes and one arm. It varies.”
In this moment, sitting in a twisted position on a chair in her living room, the 41-year-old artist with a fondness for monsters and freaks comes across as vulnerable.
“I don’t like it to be scary, just somehow subtle,” she continues. “I like it better when there’s humor to the work, or if there’s something sexy or erotic. I don’t plan it. I don’t sketch it. It just comes.”
Her rented 1936 bungalow on Whitaker Bayou is so undisturbed and off-the-beaten path, it’s easy to see why Small might feel intruded upon and why, despite having a large studio near Gillespie Park, she recently ditched the space to work in her guest bedroom, instead.
Uncluttered and sparingly decorated with her own art, Small rented the house from a friend who collects her work. She moved in about a year-and-a-half ago, after finishing a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, on Manasota Key.
The bungalow contains the meaningful possessions of an artist who has never owned a car, doesn’t watch (or own) a TV and pedals her Cannondale bike — saddlebags and all — 45 minutes to wait tables part-time at the Old Salty Dog on City Island.
A small square record player sits on a bookshelf. Beneath it are books, board games and piles of records — the soundtracks to her art.
A Philadelphia native, Small moved with her family to Sarasota when she was a teenager. In 1987, she graduated from Riverview High School and then moved to Baltimore, where she graduated with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She spent the 1990s moving from city to city — Miami; San Francisco; Budapest, Hungary; London; and then back to Sarasota, where her parents, Harvey and Jeanie Small, still live.
“I like to travel,” Small says. “But I prefer living in places, so I can be fully immersed.”
In 2002, after five years of Sarasota living, Small bought a one-way ticket to Copenhagen, where she hopped a train to Germany, applied for a six-month Visa and was granted a two-year stay.
She renewed the Visa twice, living for six years in a sixth-floor walk up in Berlin, feeding coal into a furnace to heat her flat. The lifestyle and choice of city baffled her Jewish parents.
It was the Hermitage residency that brought her back to Sarasota and eventually led to her teaming up with artists Tim Jaeger and Joseph Patrick Arnegger, founders of s/ART/q, a local non-profit group of contemporary visual artists.
In its first year, the organization produced two high-profile downtown art shows and hosted a live T-shirt screen-printing party that drew hundreds of people.
“It’s been a very positive experience,” Small says, understated as usual.
She reaches for a record, places the needle on the vinyl and lets the sounds of African jazz music fill her cottage. Looming over the couch on the wall in front of her is a drawing of a girl with long black hair and boots stretched out in what appears to be a stark, industrial city. Unlike many of the females in Small’s work, this one is neither two-headed nor one-armed. She later reveals that it’s a kind of loose self-portrait.
“I don’t know why I create things until much later,” Small offers. “Usually it comes from something that’s going on in my life, but it’s always in retrospect that I understand it.”
Lately, she says she’s been stitching art on squares of white fabric. The process is less impulsive and more exacting than to what she is accustomed. One of these works-in-progress is tacked to a wall in her studio. The image — a wig resting on a gold stand inside a blue birdcage — is more revealing than the faceless Siamese twins hanging opposite it.
“It’s really meditative,” Small says of stitching. “I can’t be so spontaneous. It’s a nice break, in a way.”
Sabrina Small loves to listen to records while she works. Here are her top five albums:
>> “Bo Diddley,” a compilation of Bo Diddley’s singles since 1955
>> “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango
>> “The Budos Band” the self-titled first album by The Budos Band
>> “First Take” by Roberta Flack
>> “Little Girl Blue” by Nina Simone
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].