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Sarah Meyers Brent Brings New Life to the Objects we Leave Behind

Through sculpture, Brent combines used objects to create conversations between overconsumption, climate change, and motherhood.

Profile by Rachael Hershon

A white framed mirror and hanging sculpture is part of Sarah Meyers Brent's installation.

Installation view of “Still No More” with works by Sarah Meyers Brent at Lamont Gallery, Exeter, 2023. Photo courtesy of Lamont Gallery/Phillips Exeter Academy.

Upon entering Sarah Meyers Brent’s studio, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It contains the trappings of a typical artist’s space: paintings and sculptures in the works, supplies, and a desk. However, at the center of it rests a table of what some might consider junk. This is the inspiration from which Brent’s work is born. “I’m just in love with material. It has a life of its own with such interesting shapes and forms that it carries a personality of its own and I love the history of the items,” Brent explains. This love is evident in her sculpture work—constructions of everyday items she’s acquired from her home, her children, and the swap shed run by Mothers Out Front, an environmental organization for which Brent volunteers.

From the home she grew up in Hadley, NY, at the foothills of the Adirondacks, Brent couldn’t see her nearest neighbor. “I spent a lot of time running around outside and making art. I was always drawing, painting, or crafting something,” she recalls. Immersed in a rural environment, she fell in love with landscape and the natural world, which play a large role in the creation of her work. Brent started her artistic career with a focus on painting but later turned her attention to sculpture. While working on her MFA in painting at the University of New Hampshire, she began collecting objects such as paint shavings, jewelry, and rags and attaching them to her canvases, which had thick, textural layers of paint. “Adding the collage elements allowed me to further dive into my love of materials and textures,” Brent says. “Then I started collaging on natural elements like flowers and leaves and loved the play of these living things decaying on the canvas in compositions that looked like they were growing. I would paint in vivid colors on top of them in some parts and let others brown and fix them in that state of decay.”

Now, she alternates between creating sculptures and paintings. “I believe my sculptural process is different because I am trained as a painter,” she says. She arranges items “based on color, shape, and movement—the same things I think about when painting.”

While the assortment of items intertwined in her sculptures appears to be whimsical at first glance, her work speaks to our crisis of overconsumption as well as the weight of motherhood amid climate change and “the mental load that women carry around.”

Her work challenges the viewer to consider what it means to engage with the sumptuousness of our world while it is in disrepair, especially when tasked with caring for children. “If I’m able to create art, it makes me a better mother, a better person. It helps to center me. I use my art to work through whatever I’m thinking about in my life,” Brent shares.

Six of Brent’s pieces are currently on display at Lamont Gallery in Exeter, NH, as part of “Still No More,” an exhibition curated by Pamela Meadows that reconsiders the meaning of the still life. Brent’s work adds an essential voice to this conversation by taking what some might consider the typical elements of the still life form and translating them into the 3-D plane. Her sculptures are plant-like—appearing to be both growing and decaying, further nodding to the environmental impact that the accumulation of “stuff” creates.

Sarah Meyers Brent, Vanitas, 2022. Repurposed items, acrylic, mirror, and wood. 43’ x 46’. Photo courtesy of Chase Young Gallery.

One of her works, Vanitas, contains a mirror encircled with objects such as plastic flowers and fruits, beads, leaves, toys, and a bra. Its shape is a nod to the cycles of nature. The sculpture is smothered with white acrylic, giving the objects it contains a fossilized appearance. It raises the question of what happens to the things we leave behind. Because many plastics won’t decompose in our lifetime, will these items from our present be considered relics in the future? The mirror allows the viewer to consider their own role in answering this question and compels them to grapple with the myriad of objects they accumulate by existing. If we are a sum of the objects we leave behind, what stories do they tell about us as individuals? About our communities? Moreover, the shape of the mirror highlights that conversations around the climate crisis are “going in circles” with minimal to no implementation of solutions suggested by scientists and climate activists. This work can also be interpreted through the lens of motherhood. The fossilization of the traditionally feminine objects in the sculpture, such as the jewelry and the bra, suggests that certain aspects of the self might need to be left behind in order to be an effective parent.

Another of her sculptures, Curious Cultivations, is installed along a wall and appears to grow like weeds through concrete. It was originally designed to fit a wall at Chase Young Gallery for Brent’s 2020 “Lockdown” show and was reimagined for a brick wall at Lamont Gallery. It bursts with color, life, and depth, containing various toys, shoes, a hat, and even a wrench. Fake flowers and stems peek out between these items while the bottom of the sculpture contains fake vines and fronds extending toward the floor. The interweaving of both natural elements and man-made items conveys the pervasiveness of overconsumption and the harm it is causing. The shape and articulation of this work suggest that this creation keeps growing, similar to the overwhelm of environmental destruction and the messiness of parenthood. However, the small natural elements woven throughout communicate that beauty persists, even in chaos.

Sarah Meyers Brent, Curious Cultivations, 2020-2023. Repurposed items, mixed media, and wall. 30.5’ x 104’ x 5’. Photo courtesy of Chase Young Gallery.

Birdsong II, like Brent’s other works, combines both natural elements and collected items. It includes a lacrosse stick, a sneaker, headphones, a dinosaur toy, and an upside-down, headless Barbie. These items are combined with leaves, fake flowers, and vines. The items positioned toward the front of the sculpture are covered in acrylic, making them almost indecipherable, while the items positioned in the back protrude, calling extra attention from the viewer, suggesting that addressing overconsumption is “on the back burner” collectively, despite the immediate threat of environmental destruction. The positioning of the Barbie highlights the stress of the climate crisis, especially on mothers—it is turning our worlds upside down. The lacrosse stick and sneaker play an interesting role in this sculpture, reexamining what “play” means for a mother. How can we be playful with our children in the midst of such a grave threat?

Seeing each of Brent’s pieces in conversation with each other, especially with such a mass of random objects, demands a sense of urgency from the viewer. Brent’s work reminds us that our overconsumption is more than just distant pictures we see in the news. The issue is here now—even in the places we may consider to be untouchable, like a museum or gallery—and will continue to invade without immediate action.

Examining the variety of stuff in each sculpture gives us a fascinating look at the internal lives of those around us. Who might have owned this item? What is the origin story of this object? Not only does Brent’s work spread a message of awareness and the need for action, but it also reminds us of our humanity—how the items we leave behind tell our individual story as well as a collective story.

Sarah Meyers Brent, Birdsong II, 2022. Repurposed items, acrylic, and mixed media on wire. 37’ x 30’. Photo courtesy of Chase Young Gallery.


Sarah Meyers Brent’s work will be on display at Lamont Gallery until April 15, 2023. Her solo exhibit at Chase Young Gallery will be on view from April 19 through May.

 

Rachael Hershon

Contributor

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