Rachel Sanders is a visual artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) with a BFA in Drawing in 2012. She is an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the Milwaukee Art Museum. She has an energetic and playful spirit that shines through her work and illuminates her role as an avid local arts supporter. Unpretentious and unrelenting, Rachel’s adventurous nature is the catalyst to the creation of a bevy of evolving drawings and paintings.
Rachel shares a studio space with her father in an industrial district of Milwaukee’s Walkers Point neighborhood. Situated across from the Kinnickinnic River, the large unassuming-looking warehouse affords views of the boat marinas and Horny Goat Brewery. It’s a cavernous labyrinth of huge doors and wide hallways housing everything from glassblowers to recording studios, web start-ups to small batch food and beverage, and just about every other creative venture you can think of. After sliding across the black ice of the parking lot I was greeted by Rachel, and we promptly ascended to her 3rd floor studio.
Jenna Wilson: Is there a standout piece in here that you are proud of right now? And if there is one could you explain how it exemplifies you as an artist?
Rachel Sanders: Yes. Actually, I know what I will show you. I biked to Madison in the fall. I’ve done it before but this time I did it alone and I remembered seeing these cows along the way - you are going through farmland the whole time. I wanted to make so many drawings on this trip and I only made two or three, but this was one of them.
I had been riding all day. I was picturing a certain place in my mind, but I couldn’t remember where along it was. Then I saw all of [the cows]. They were back at the barn and there was just one standing right there. I said to myself all right, this is it, this is it! I got out my shit - I think maybe this guy was the first one and then all of them started coming by. It was wonderful. It felt good and I got a little teary eyed. [Gesturing at cows] …What was the question? [Laughing]
JW: Getting out and doing [drawings] in an outdoor space, is that something you would say that you do?
RS: I’m always drawing. I was thinking about that. I always have to be [drawing], and I love to be outside. Adventures like that feel good and I like the challenge.
JW: Do you work in a series? Along with the adventures - do you just work as ideas come to you? Is it random?
RS: That’s a good question. If you keep making things you end up with a pile, and if you keep going you get into a good rhythm. That’s how a series can happen. With these drawings, if I felt stuck I’d say - if I just keep drawing something good is going to come out of it.
JW: What intrigues you about interior spaces? The skewed perspective you have in those drawings is visually interesting.
RS: For me, it is nice to draw what is in front of you. I’m surrounded by this shit all the time and the possibilities are kind of endless. I enjoy seeing that if I make a squiggle it ends up being that bottle there. Observation – that’s my biggest thing, observational drawings. I think I have a bad imagination sometimes. If you said draw a dinosaur it would be terrible unless there’s a dinosaur in front of me. [Laughing] Does that make sense? Which is funny, too, because these [drawings] aren’t photo-realistic.
JW: How do you know when a piece is finished?
RS: It just kind of feels right. It may not be. Some of these paintings I didn’t work on for about a year and then I went back to them. I just get in a rhythm and then when that stops, it’s done.
JW: The interior spaces paintings with the faces imposed on top, it seems like they are extensions of the drawings you were doing. How did that come about? What is the progression that happened there?
RS: They were really playful. Those have a lot of variations of marks. The faces were an interesting addition because each of them is so different. I used a bunch of different colors and different materials and eventually it kind of happened.
JW: Do you do sculptures? I saw the chess sets that you had made. That’s a cool project.
RS: Thanks. Well, I have all this clay over here that I need to recycle if you know somebody that is into that. I do. I like clay but I don’t have the means right now to do it. I did in college, with figure sculptures, which was fun. But right now it’s Sculpey and the oven. [Laughing]
JW: Did the idea for chess pieces come from figural work you had done in college? They are little torsos, little people.
RS: I wish I had it here but I made this little guy out of clay that looks like the pawns, just bigger. After that I started to make these types of little things. I was making weird jewelry stuff and then they kind of developed into – I don’t know if you saw the pins or necklaces I made but they look like that, that’s a painting of all of them.
JW: The falling, chaotic people.
RS: Yes and now I make chess sets.
JW: Nice. In my research of your work and other projects I discovered a fundraising event called “The Fastest Painter in Milwaukee”. What was that all about?
RS: Yeah. [Laughing] Do you know Waldek Dynerman? He was one of my teachers at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design], and he posted something on Facebook - he was being a little shit, being cocky but on purpose. He posted a picture of all these paintings he made and he’s like, “I must be the fastest painter in the world, I just made all these in like a half an hour” or something. I was like, “Oh yeah? Let’s bet on that”. Then somehow that turned into us actually having a battle and dueling to be the fastest painter in Milwaukee. The space [for the event] was next to his studio in Bay View, and the girl running it at the time, Jenie Gao, she let us use her space, which doubled as a gallery – a gallery and living spot. Then we raised money for the Pancreatic Cancer [Action Network], and we made five hundred or six hundred dollars. It was cool because at the end we just auctioned off the pieces starting at two dollars. It was totally fun. [Laughing]
JW: On top of volunteering you are an instructor at several art institutions - Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design [MIAD], Milwaukee Art Museum, and also the Charles Allis Museum.
RS: Yes and the Villa Terrace, they’re connected.
JW: Can you describe your roles at those jobs?
RS: CAVT – Charles Allis Villa Terrace, there I’m visitor service staff so I open and close the museum and it’s pretty boring - but I get to be around art, so that’s good. At the Art Museum I do the Kohl’s Color Wheels. We go around Wisconsin to different schools and events and make art with kids, and teach them about the museum. Then at MIAD I teach continuing education classes.
JW: How does being an instructor to what I assume is a wide range of ages and kinds of students inform your work?
RS: It is fun; I love it. I keep saying that’s the best job, at MIAD, because it’s what I’m most excited about – to work with people and get them excited about working, too. It feels good.
JW: What courses do you teach?
RS: Drawing. Observational drawing. The one right now is called Improvisational Drawing.
JW: Is that music-influenced?
RS: That’s where it stems from, yes. Actually, I always tell my class that the way a read artwork is kind of how you would read sheet music. But I guess that’s because I play music.
JW: What do you play?
RS: I play the saxophone. That’s the main thing.
JW: Do you play with any bands or ensembles?
RS: Sometimes. [Laughing] Sat. Night Duets had me play with them.
JW: With all this stuff going on how do you make time to paint?
RS: I’m not that busy. It sounds like it but I’m here [in the studio] everyday, or I try to be. And you have to make time. It feels good, and I like to do it so I just do.
JW: Are there any particular experiences that you’ve done that stand out as motivating or energizing to you?
RS: School was helpful. I was thinking of [when I] started college. I thought I was bad at drawing and I would always get embarrassed to show my stuff because it didn’t look like anybody else’s. I cried a lot. [Laughing]
JW: I did too sometimes. [Laughing]
RS: Oh God, I always think about this time we had to draw a self-portrait. I don’t know – mine was like Mr. Potato Head meets… it was really fucking ugly. I don’t know where I’m going with this. But school was helpful. [Laughing]
JW: You got past the crying.
RS: Yes. Because I was like, well, I want to be good at this. I came here to learn so I have to learn as much as I can - and be good at drawing and like what I make. Now, teaching is fun and it’s nice to see what people are capable of doing and making. It’s amazing actually.
JW: Throwing around ideas and doing projects with the students probably generates a lot of energy.
RS: I look at a lot of different artists, a lot of different stuff. I think it’s helpful to see tricks other people are using. That happens when teaching too. I just went to that space Art is for Lovers. That was refreshing, it wasn’t stuffy, sometimes you go somewhere and it feels awkward. But it was cool in there. Everyone should get over there and check it out! It was great. People were excited about it, and that’s important. You’ve got to be like “Yeah, I made this!” If you aren’t excited about it, I don’t know how the hell you’re going to get somebody else to be.
JW: You mentioned bike riding to Madison earlier. Traveling outside of the city, that’s refreshing to you, or traveling to other places.
RS: Even just exploring weird little pockets in Milwaukee is fun, places that my pals and I would go on weird hikes all the time. Kind of on the outskirts where the hobos have their camps. People are fishing. [Laughing]
JW: [Laughing] Since you mentioned fishing let’s talk about the boat paintings.
RS: That came about when I got [into this studio]. We were trying to pick, because we could have been on the other side [of the building], but that view is of the interstate. Maybe I would have made better paintings. [Laughing] It’s good because it’s right there for me. That’s what I’m going to do, I love to make and you can just make something – make a drawing right now, you know?
JW: How long does it typically take you to work a progression of the boat paintings?
RS: Usually I will have about three at a time; for me I have to take a step back. I don’t like to be working on one piece. Sometimes it happens fast, like the one in the window – that was just a day. That was fast. That was with acrylic and these [others] have been with oil mostly, so these are taking a little bit longer, and they are not done yet.
I work with whatever I can find. That’s the improvisational part, and it’s gratifying. That’s where the challenge is. You have this bag of tricks and you have to throw them out there, and make little ditties with them. I work with house paint a lot. It’s great – I get the “oops” paint, the colors that some dummies don’t want anymore.
JW: What other hobbies do you have? I know you like to DJ parties sometimes.
RS: Yeah, Anna Deisinger and myself are the hottest DJs in town. [Laughing] No. I like music a lot. We both, all of a sudden, had a lot of vinyl and we thought, “Hey, let’s play this for our pals, we can make money and drink for free!” I also like to go camping and ride my bike. A couple weeks ago my pals and I went down past Sheridan Park and snuck into the woods and set up some tents above Lake Michigan. Stuff like that. We made a fire and it was freezing. Oh, and I just got into football! All my life I hated football. I just ugh - I don’t like it. One day I was in New Orleans and my pals are like, “We have to watch the Packers play, we can’t miss it”, and I said, “Fine, I’ll just drink some whiskey and watch the game”. We ended up at a Packers bar in New Orleans and the Packers won in the last 3 seconds of the game. It was so good. The whole bar went crazy and we were hugging strangers and it felt like we were lifted up into the air. Seriously, and that moment I was like whoa. [Laughing] My friends think it’s so funny because two months ago I’m like, “I’m not watching football with you”. I do love sports – I love basketball so much. That’s a good hobby.
JW: To play?
RS: Yeah it’s fun. And going to Bucks games. It’s cheap too, nobody’s going to those games.
Rachel Sanders is an enthusiastic maker that strives to let creativity run into the full structure of her life. Her jokey buoyancy when speaking perfectly mirrors the demeanor of her work. Her drawings laugh at the sky while her paintings are spin a record at the bar. It’s evident from the presence of a basketball in her studio that one must periodically remember - underneath all the passion is a person who is “always wanting to shoot hoops but her pals never want to play”. Perhaps they are too busy enjoying her paintings.