Updated: Apr 1, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sabra Field: Oh god, yes. When I started out, I was just sort of stumbling through life, trying to find my way. But when I had him to do the shipping and the billing...I mean, it’s self-explanatory. I remember he really didn’t like shipping at the beginning. And he said one day to me, he said, “Does that really have to go today?” And I said, “Sweetheart, it never has to go. [Laughing] But if we don’t send it out, well, what’s going to happen?” And he got it immediately. He started doing it daily—never getting behind. Very responsible management, even though he didn’t really like it any better than I’d like repetitive printing.
IRK: That makes sense. Is drawing a passion of yours or is it more a means to an end?
Sabra Field: It’s a means to an end. I’m not a natural draftsman; I know that. This guy, Wmb Hoyt, can draw anything anywhere anytime. And it’s almost a disability. If you’re that good at it, then you really don’t go the step that turns the drawing into...I won’t say what. I like to see it come out of the end of the pencil, when it starts there. But probably my best tool is my eraser.
IRK: How did you decide to move to Vermont, and how would you say that choice has shaped who you are as an artist?
Sabra Field: I think it’s made all the difference. And I do have one admirable ancestor: a civil rights hero named Anthony Haswell. He not only ran the first newspaper in Vermont but was also the first printer for the state, and his newspaper stood up against Congress when they passed the Alien and Sedition Act. Matthew Lyon gets most of the credit; he was a congressman. But Anthony Haswell backed him up with his newspaper. And I just…I can’t forget. I’m going to cry now. I can’t forget at this time in particular that my family can be proud of a civil rights background. So when I divorced I said, “I’m going to live in Vermont.” I’d gone to Middlebury. But I’ve had this really strong feeling that I was supposed to be here. And I happened to buy this house because I was visiting friends nearby, and I had just lost my parents so I had a little money to buy a house with. Went real estate shopping, saw this place, and within several months I had bought it. I bought it with that husband I was still with but the handwriting was on the wall. And I moved up here as a divorced woman, and managed to change the property in my name. Quit claim, I think it’s called.
But it changed me. I came to a place that was so unpretentious, so honest, so decent, and they took me in. You know the myth of being an outsider and never finding your home? That’s a myth. I could have been a threat because I was a single woman then. And I was still pretty cute. [Laughing] But people understood that I wanted to be able to work alone in my house. And that’s called home occupation here. Like, people do it. It was so opposite of the disgusting suburbs that I had been living in that everything just seemed to develop from that.
I could have gone to New York. Everybody that was an independent artist wanted to go to New York. I took a look at it and I said, “First of all, people who go to New York get chewed up like hamburger and spit out in somebody else’s image.” That’s not for me. I’m not strong enough to defend my aesthetic against that kind of pressure. I did have a good gallery then, but they betrayed me, and I should have understood that that was going to happen the minute I stopped going in once a week to see how things were managed. The other reason was I couldn’t afford it. I mean, I had two little kids, and how was I going to afford private school on no salary? I don’t think so. So I realized I had to really live cheap. And although there are many things about Vermont that are expensive, the lifestyle can be really simple. And the way I used it to describe it was, “Hey, you know, my parents had to buy memberships in clubs so that we would have an outdoor place to play, my brother and I. I just open the back door or drive over to the lake.”
IRK: What happened with that gallery?
Sabra Field: What they did was raise my prices without telling me, so that when they sent me my check it didn’t match. I thought they were selling for my price. They weren’t. They were jacking the price up, and then if they sold something, they would only send me 50 percent of what I had specified.
IRK: That is a con. It’s really unethical. What happened then?
Sabra Field: I told them to send everything back, and they did. Nothing was damaged; nothing was lost. It was surely a common misunderstanding that I just wasn’t sharp enough to manage to my own benefit. But you look at what the dealers have to go through, and it’s not a pretty picture. The dealer that I’m going to introduce you to in Woodstock this afternoon, that’s a business that has gone through a couple of generations, but the woman who started it frankly said, “I don’t need to make money; I just don’t want to lose money.” So she could treat us as what she called herself: an agent. She was promoting us but not living off of us. That’s pretty unique. She wasn’t tempted to do that kind of a sleazy thing. I don’t know of any other dealer that I can honestly say I could trust.
IRK: Tell me about your processes. For example, do you still do woodcuts or linotypes by hand and then reproduce them digitally, or are some series all done on a printing press?
Sabra Field: All of the above. I always do the print myself first, but if I can tell by looking at the damn thing that nobody’s going to want to buy it, I’m not going to publish it. And so it just stays in its virgin state. If I want to put it into an edition of multiples, then I sign one, take it over to the printer, and then we wait and see, did anybody actually buy it? And then we’ll go from there. But I have to take the initiative to make up an edition number at the beginning or publish it unnumbered, which is the ancient way it was done until just a hundred years ago.
IRK: Tell me a little bit about the difference between archival pigment printing, which you do now, and hand pulling everything like you used to.
Sabra Field: It’s not just an issue of time on my part; it’s quality on the part of the buyer. With the archival pigment print, they’re getting something that doesn’t fade, on heavy paper that won’t mildew or wrinkle. I mean, the product is so superior to the stuff I studied and then learned how to do and did; it’s a whole new world. For instance, I can have the gallery shades up all the time now, because otherwise the work would be ruined within a short time. And I’ve had to tell people, “Oh, I’m so sorry you said your red barn has faded. Well, bring it back and I’ll see if I can’t fix it.” Sometimes I can take those depredations of time and make it good again. Most of the time I can’t. And a lot of the time, people won’t even notice that it’s happened, so something all shabby and faded is hanging on their wall and representing me, and I can’t do anything about it because I don’t know where they are. But probably, if anything survives me, it’ll be an old, faded, wrinkled print and people will say, “Who wanted that?”
IRK: That I highly doubt. Do you ever get people who say, “Well, I insist that my print is hand pulled”?
Sabra Field: Oh, yes. That’s been a constant issue. And I just have to let that drift on by. But they’re looking for a kind of authenticity that isn’t on the paper; it’s in the head. And if it’s signed in pencil, you know that I have seen it, signed it, and approved it. And if you don’t like it, well, I don’t mind. That’s okay. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to argue about it because it’s exhausting for me to try to turn you into a 21st-century person when you really aren’t one. I try to think of analogies that can speak to people. So I say, “Okay, you’re going to have an appendectomy, and the surgeon says, ‘Would you like us to do it with a brand-new technique that’s barely invasive, or should we do it with a saw?’” And there are other examples, but some people are never going to respond; they’re always going to want to buy real artist blood. They want to know that we somehow suffered on their behalf, and just plain money exchange isn’t enough.
IRK: Exactly. Do you work every day?
Sabra Field: It’s not so much a routine as that there’s nothing else I want to do. So I’m always thinking, whether I have a pencil in my hand or I’m standing at the printer. I’m existing as a—artist is the wrong word; that’s gotten so pretentious. I’m a craftsperson who doesn’t really think about anything else. Nothing else really matters to me. It’s very selfish; I know that.
IRK: You’re engaged with what you do all the time.
Sabra Field: All the time.
IRK: Are you working on a particular series right now, or do you tend to work on several projects at once?
Sabra Field: I’ve got one that’s on the bulletin board over there developing, which is keeping me from going crazy doing a job I’m doing for money. It’s a group of nine images.
IRK: How so, going crazy?
Sabra Field: Well, when I’m engaged in a project like I am now for Norwich University, I’m doing the damnedest to do the best I can do. But it’s kind of a soul-destroying effort. Even though I know they’re going to love it, and they’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to have money in the bank, I would rather be working on something which is completely, uniquely ready in my head but doesn’t have the time to come out of the pencil yet. But it will if I have faith and keep healthy enough. And then that one will have to drift off into time like Cosmic Geometry,and maybe there will be another job that comes along that pays me to spend the time on that.
IRK: How big of a role do commissions play in your work, and what are some of the specific challenges that come from doing them?
Sabra Field: They play a bigger role than I wish they did. For years and years and years, I’ve been saying, “I’m not doing any more commissions.” I say it just like that because it means that you are pleasing somebody else. Oftentimes, it means that you are doing something that you’ve already done. They say, “Oh, I love your so-and-so. I want one, too,” basically. They’re asking you to repeat yourself, and you know that that’s a kind of artist death. Why would you do that? Well, you would do it for money and the freedom that that earns to do something you want to do. It’s a pragmatic decision. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense, because the audience for the particular piece is big, and you know that it will be appreciated and perhaps bring more jobs.
IRK: Tell me a little bit about the Norwich University commission.
Sabra Field: Well, that has some history. This is to celebrate their 200th birthday as a military school; that they’ve now become a university with a lot of other things going on. Within living memory, it was just for guys who were headed for the military. For the piece I did for them 20 years ago, which was to celebrate another anniversary, I was given pretty much license to do what I chose to do. What I chose to do was the whole campus, because at that time, it wasn’t so gigantic. It was in a lovely setting in a village in Vermont with mountains around. I did a drawing from a place I selected to be my point of view, and then I just went home and did the damn thing. When I brought the preliminary plan up to them, which was a pencil drawing, no color, the president just said, “Oh, that looks good. Do that.” That kind of affirmation is—you want to run out of the office before they change their mind! That turned out very well. I’m hoping this will go as well.
IRK: You’re quite a traveler. Has travel been mostly for your work, or is it sometimes just to get away?
Sabra Field: I never travel without my drawing book. It’s just a part of travel for me. So if we went somewhere it would just be a given: Sabra needs the time every day to draw and paint—go amuse yourself. And Spencer was great at picking up a book or finding an adventure. I’m not the kind of traveler that a lot of people end up being, who is compulsive about ticking off places or getting away. I mean, who needs to get away from here? It’s perfection. It just can become a little old if you don’t spice it up. The reason to live in Vermont is that you’re so glad to get home; you go away so that you have the jolt of getting back. Travel I couldn’t do for a long time. I was really stuck here because there wasn’t any money to travel. And as soon as I got enough money, I went to Italy, for obvious reasons. And I have a trip planned to Hawaii for this spring.
IRK: That sounds great. And, of course, that is where...
Sabra Field: Spencer died.
IRK: That bonfire in Sabra, Bill Phillips’s documentary, was just incredible. It was so moving. I mean, obviously everyone is going to depart this earth somewhere, but to be together exploring and to have such a thing happen in such a beautiful place must be very poignant, let’s just say.
Sabra Field: I think that’s a good word.
IRK: And yet, you return, so there’s obviously a deep spiritual connection.
Sabra Field: Yes, there is.
IRK: Tell me a bit about the work Sea, Sand, Stones.
Sabra Field: That’s the one that I drew when Spencer and I were in Hawaii by ourselves, the last time, before he died. I had not drawn a wider scene; I focused right on that edge of the beach, not really understanding why. But after I got back from Spencer’s death, I said, “You know, that’s just not going to stay in my drawing book. I know I want to turn that into a big print.” And I had a show coming up, so there was a handy reason to plug away at it, and working on it helped me through the initial grieving process. And somehow I think I was manufacturing a graveyard or grave markers. It’s a mystical piece. I solved a number of technical problems, and it just made me feel somehow that I still had a place in the world.
IRK: It reminds me so much of some of Kyoto’s gardens of sand and stone.
Sabra Field: I know, I think you’re absolutely right. And I’ve been a fan of Japanese stone and sand compositions forever.
IRK: There’s something very moving about it, and this is before I had seen the documentary.
Sabra Field: No, I agree. It was a happy accident that I was working on that before Spencer died. And one of the reasons was that we didn’t take any friends with us. We somehow knew that that was...we wouldn’t say the words “This is the last trip,” but we somehow intuited that, and we didn’t want other people with us. So I had endless time to work and think about it, and what he did was wait for his iPad; he was determined he was going to have one of the first iPads. He wasn’t well, but when that iPad showed up on Kauai, he all of a sudden had something to absolutely engage him, which gave me more time.
IRK: What is it like to look back on a career that has been so successful, not from a traditional or recognition-based standpoint, but one that you have cultivated with purpose?
Sabra Field: Well, I think maybe one of my rallying cries to myself has been to defend the work, maybe even to defend my ideas in my head to myself. Nobody else is going to do it. And I’m almost incapable of stopping. I have to do it. So I have to figure out a way to make it work each time. And I have to know that some of it’s going to be painful, but there will be that jolt at the end that will say, “Oh, man.” And then it won’t even really matter if I did it or somebody else did it. It’s got its own life.
IRK: What are some things you did to sustain your creativity as a budding artist that might benefit young makers?
Sabra Field: Well I guess, hope springs eternal. You have to hope as you’re being turned down, as you’re making mistakes. You don’t know what the road ahead is going to be. I thought I was going to be a fine art printmaker like Carol Summers or Leonard Baskin. And I ended up being sort of a...I won’t say a crowd-pleaser, but a very middle-of-the-road accepted artist. And I’ve learned not to resent that, partly because I understand the limitations of my capacity to do it and partly because I chose to come to a place where there’s much less traditional fine art, or there was at the time. And I knew I had to do that. And that gave me my style, because I figured out what I liked and what other people liked that I liked. So there’s a common urge to visualize, to depict, to make real or help come true. It’s almost a group effort to visualize ourselves.
IRK: What else?
Sabra Field: Endless capacity to keep doing it over and over and over. Just don’t throw in the towel. Give up what you have to give up. Don’t worry about it—don’t resent anything that allows you to keep going.
IRK: You just described yourself as a craftsperson but not an artist. Why would you not consider yourself a fine art printmaker?
Sabra Field: Well, I guess it’s simply the nonacceptance of many powerful people. I don’t press their buttons because they can’t make much use out of me. I’m a middle-of-the-road artisan and I really like that, because I can’t stand the pretentiousness of the current art scene, which has just burgeoned and grown. And I’m not going to mention names, but you know the names: the people who make crap and sell it to idiots because the idiots have the money.
IRK: Yes; the market rules.
Sabra Field: Oh, yeah. But if I burn out on anxiety or resentment about that, that would be stupid. My goal would have been—but I abandoned it long ago—to be anonymous. You know the old saying: “Anonymous was a woman.” And there were anonymous craftsmen that built the great cathedrals. They didn’t have to sign anything or really sell it. They just made it. They died. The next generation came along and perpetuated the aesthetic. And now, we’ve turned it into a marketplace that is, in the long run, kind of demeaning.
IRK: Tell me about the new nine-piece project on the wall. What’s going on here?
Sabra Field: Well, it’s really just forming. And what I’m trying to do is cope with manmade alterations to the landscape. Aerial is part of this concept. You’re able to look down, which artists seem to be compelled to do, to their peril sometimes. A recollection of the islands off the coast of Maine. A very distinguished bridge just up the river in the town of Orford that goes across the Great Connecticut, which isn’t so great by the time it gets up there. And, of course, the Middle West—when you fly over the pattern of the rotating watering systems, it’s just so beautiful: checkerboard green and yellow.
IRK: And on the bottom center?
Sabra Field: On the bottom is the wind farm. I know what I’m going to do now. I’ve got many too many wind turbines. The current way to build those is gigantic and fairly separated. So I’m going to focus in on the center of one configuration of blades and have a couple more in empty spaces. But mostly, the print is going to be the way the blades cut up the background. It might even be just two colors. The irony is that now, the wind turbines that are being built are huge. So they don’t need to be on the top of a distinguished ridge to be an interruption of the aesthetic of our landscape. And I’m still of two minds about that, because naturally, I don’t want to advocate a source of power that uses fossil fuel. And I don’t consider them nearly as harmful as the acres and acres of black glass. And I say to people, in defense of the fact that I’m using it as subject matter at all, “Well, if you want to be against something, be against building another highway.” That usually just stops them in their tracks and the conversation has ended. So I’m going to poke away at that between working on the Norwich commission. When I think about changes I need to make in those drawings, I will find a moment to do that. But I won’t allow myself to do the final
iterations, cut blocks, print, whatever until that’s completely finished. I set the ground rules.
IRK: I love the number nine. It’s kind of perfect.
Sabra Field: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Number nine. They might end up being bigger than that, but that’s a decision I can make after that size is done. I just to happen to love the square. And so, when I see an opportunity to focus on those squares, I do so. I think we need to eat something. I never had breakfast. What about you?
All photos of artwork courtesy of Sabra Field. All ©Sabra Field.