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Printmaker Sabra Field's Curiosity Is Relentless

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Cricket Moon, Woodcut, 8 x 8 inches, 2018

Crunchy snow and sudden patches of black ice cover the path from the garage to Sabra Field’s farmhouse-like studio in the tiny hamlet of East Barnard, Vermont. A deep-blue sky prevails on this bone-chilling morning, and winter sunlight floods the gallery space that greets you inside; its cherry-red walls bear an eclectic sampling of the octogenarian printmaker’s nearly six-decade-long career. Beyond it, in an airy workspace, is a sprawling worktable strewn with prints, drawings, and sketchbooks; around a corner and down a half dozen steps is the storied printing press with which she has made a living and a name. Field’s lyrical landscapes of the Green Mountain State have turned her into a local celebrity of sorts; a national treasure whose work, widely cherished by fellow Vermonters, has helped put the state on the map of the nation’s imagination. Just off the studio is the modest one-room apartment she set up after the death of her husband and business partner, wildlife artist Spencer Field, in 2010. Inhabiting the adjacent main house where they’d had a buzzing creative life together was unthinkable. I was here to finally spend time with the friend my mother had adored and revered all her life; the two went to high school and college together, and an ice storm thwarted a studio visit on a trip to Vermont two decades earlier; she pointed to the spot where a car spinning 360s had led her to disinvite us for our safety. Before heading off to visit two galleries in nearby Woodstock, and her four stained glass window commissions at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, across the border in Hanover, New Hampshire, we sat down to discuss the enormity of her move to Vermont as a single parent of two; the pitfalls that can destroy an artist, like following a copyright lawsuit, or a particular animal, to the bitter end; and why she’d rather be remembered as a craftsperson than an artist. Good luck with that.

Snow Moon II, Woodcut, 18 x 36 inches, 1993

IRK: Was there one moment when you decided that you would be an artist?

Sabra Field: Well, I decided when I was about eight years old. And I was given an autograph book, which was something people gave little girls, and probably boys, in that era. And you were supposed to fill out questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” So I said, “I want to be a horsewoman and an artist.” Couldn’t ever afford to be a horsewoman. And Spencer wouldn’t let me raise anything that we couldn’t eat. So there we went. I just happily gave over my life to pictures.

IRK: That was it?

Sabra Field: Mm-hmm. But there were a lot of distractions, like going to high school with not a whole lot of art courses, and taking all of them but not feeling really inspired. And finally getting to Wesleyan, which is where I learned to make prints.

IRK: Tell me about studying with the printmaker there. And was he super-helpful and encouraging?

Sabra Field: He was a pragmatist. His own prints were fine, but he was never going to set the world afire. But he knew production methods. He’d worked in Stanley William Hayter’s atelier in Paris instead of going to college. So if you had a technical question, man, he could answer it—in any printmaking media that we had at the time. I remember I pulled a good proof of a more demanding block than he had expected me to do. And he held it up in the class and said, “Now that’s what I was waiting for.” Coming from an old geezer, an old drunken geezer, that was great.

IRK: Tell me what it was like teaching yourself how to use color in the printing process. It must have been a real challenge, yet you broke new ground.

Sabra Field: Dare I say, one print at a time? I did have a little familiarity with Josef Albers’s color. And so I leaned on him. I also bought myself a book of Color-aid paper. There were times when I was really quite desperate for color solutions. And I remember I had people visiting in the studio; they were ready to buy something. I said, “You’ve got to come downstairs and help me with something.” And I ran this proof by them. And, you know, they were mystified. Like, “She’s asking us what to do?” But it was probably three or four years into my studio here until color just sort of came to me.

Mesa, Woodcut, 4 x 4 inches, 1999

IRK: So essentially, you didn’t even learn color printing at Wesleyan.

Sabra Field: No. It was not a popular thing to do. The artist of the hour was Leonard Baskin. Black and white.

IRK: And did that have an appeal for you?

Sabra Field: Oh, I loved his work. It was the market that taught me if I’m going to sell stuff, you’ve got to have color. So it was just a toe in the water and, “Oh, they liked that one, huh? I’d better add a third color. How about a fourth? What if I overlap?”

IRK: You have a unique color sensibility.

Sabra Field: I just see color more vividly. I’m trying to replicate what seems right to me. I’m not making any statements about color being a philosophical thing. I love it bright; you can’t throw bright enough colors at me, short of Day-Glo. I don’t tend toward muted. Muted is hard for me. When I have to throw in a little neutralizer I’m not so happy, but I do it. For myriad reasons: to represent distance, for instance. Pragmatic decisions. The image comes first and the color scheme has to be compatible with it.

IRK: Can you tell me about Cosmic Geometry, the project that became a mural on the outside of the Middlebury College art museum?

Sabra Field: It attempts to be a way to position myself in the universe, and to also see all the connections—between science and art, for instance. I mean, let’s get real: Everything is part of everything; that’s the tagline of the whole suite. Now it was Paul, my son, who said, “Mom, you don’t need to hang these all in a row. Stack them!” And once I did that, I realized that I could work across from one to another, and I could organize it into actually five sections of four prints each. And I had already gotten the idea of man-made versus natural; architecture being part of art may be the biggest part. I had been collecting things over years, like a ram’s horn that was waiting for me on a bus trip across Canada. I stepped off the bus, and there it was. I said, “There it is. It’s the same ram’s horn that inspired the Ionic capital!” So I sort of ran from one similarity to another. I think it probably took me a year to put it all together.

IRK: It’s such a big piece, and it really works all together, as a whole.

Sabra Field: Yes, that’s really the way it’s meant to be. And it’s a little dispiriting to realize that people buy images for the wrong reasons. Like if they’ve been to Florence, they want just the picture of the Duomo. But that’s all right. It’s called being in business in order to be able to make pictures.

Snow Brook, Woodcut, 8 x 8 inches, 1993

IRK: You’ve done a wealth of work that is not the Vermont landscape, yet that work is far less known. Does it annoy you to be typecast as a landscapist?

Sabra Field: Well, it really used to. But I now understand that the landscapes are not only something I’m deeply in love with, but they’ve supported the rest of the operation. And I don’t know, in the restaurant world, would it be called having a special? And then people sometimes order the top line on the menu. It’s just the fate of being part of a capitalist world. And I have a lot of choice and a lot of opportunities, and I’ve picked my way through the minefield of mistakes. Made some of them, but not too many.

IRK: What are some of those mistakes, and what could a young artist learn from them?

Sabra Field: Learn wholesale. The woman in Woodstock who runs the gallery now—she doesn’t own it; she runs it—it’s her dad who helped me understand when I was just about to throw away the opportunity Vermont Lifemagazine gave me. And he, who was a furniture salesman, taught me what wholesale means. That really gave me the beginning of stability. And stability allows you then to go and take the time to do something that maybe you never sell, but maybe you love.

IRK: So you had a resistance to selling wholesale?

Sabra Field: I didn’t even understand it. In graduate school we were never taught anything about how you survive as an artist. It was assumed that you wouldn’t and that you didn’t care. A liberal arts education was supposed to sort of polish the graduates so they could talk the talk, maybe become a museum board member. But a maker? Forget it.

IRK: What other mistakes did you either make or almost make?

Sabra Field: Well, I think I alluded last night to the artist who gets so hung up over abuse of them or their work that they fight back, to the point of lawsuits. And that is a fatal error. It not only saps you of strength, it destroys your confidence, and it costs you money you don’t have. So you’ve got to figure out your way around that. You’ve got to stand up for yourself, at the same time you’re standing up for all your peers and colleagues. But you can’t let it make you into a bitter person who focuses only on abuse. I’ve seen people just throw their lives away over the invention of a kind of nib on a pen. That happened to a friend of mine who was a professor at Castleton. He just blew it by becoming so obsessed with what he didn’t understand, really. Because what he was being dragged into was being a pawn in a manufacturing scheme. What? Is that what you wanted to do with your life? I don’t think so.

Dartmouth HItchcock Medical Center Chapel Window

IRK: What have been some of the biggest challenges of running your own business as an artist?

Sabra Field: Well, once I married Spencer, he became the business manager. He had run men’s shops, so he knew about billing and shipping. And as long as I could keep him committed, he did a lot of that stuff that I’m awfully glad I didn’t have to do. I don’t have any proclivity for it; I’m not good at it. Crossing that bridge, finding someone to manage me without telling me what to do aesthetically, was huge. Spencer would say, “Oh, that’s nice, dear.” And sometimes he would hand me a watercolor, like that one of the heron. And I would make a print out of it. But it was a very loose collaboration, where I knew I could always say no. And he had no feelings of having to make his name known. Once upon a time he had a show, and it wasn’t a happy experience. He just wanted to paint something and hand it to me or somebody else and have us say, “Oh, that’s really cool.” That’s all he wanted. Whereas many other couples who involve two artists all of a sudden involve two people that can’t get along together. I’ve seen that happen, and I’m so glad it didn’t happen to me. But you know, it almost can’t be avoided in a lot of situations.

IRK: I think you once said that working as a team made you much more productive.