Walking up the stairs to Sarah Nicole Phillips third-floor flat on the border of Gowanus and Carroll Gardens, we were greeted with an abundance of plants, art materials, and open windows, making us feel immediately comfortable. Her studio, neatly fitting into her bedroom, is sunny and organized, which is handy since her current work is precise collages, made from hundreds of collected, re-used security envelopes. The work speaks to camouflage, botany, security, and human-imposed order clashing with the chaos of nature.


NNNY: Describe your studio practice.

Sarah: I began playing with security envelopes when I had an office job, I would tear open the mail everyday and started noticing the intricate patterns printed on their insides. I’m interested in reusing materials, or more specifically, not making more materials. My artistic background is in printmaking, and from time to time I have a crisis of conscience; it bothers me that while printmaking I’m not just bringing one thing into this world, I’m bringing multiples of that thing into this world. For this body of work, the imagery is inspired by naturally occurring camouflage. That’s what the printed pattern is for, to hide documents, and it made sense to echo the botany and camouflage idea in the work.

My process starts with flushing out the idea and sketching a lot, then gathering the envelopes, organizing them by pattern and color, then arranging them; it’s all very deliberate. Many of the plant shapes I used are based in reality – I took a lot of pictures of foliage. Nature is better at telling me what it should look like. Some shapes are cut out free-form, but most are traced or drawn from the photographic source material. I use dry mount photo-adhesive to apply the shapes, and then run the finished collage through the printing press, which really squishes the adhesive material to bond the piece together.

I began working on these after receiving a Brooklyn Arts Council grant for a solo exhibition scheduled for 2009. It really was poignant creating this work while the economy was tanking and so many people were being laid off, including myself. In some of the pieces I tried to capture the feeling of losing control - that the worlds of mortgage payments, medical bills and dwindling 401Ks were overwhelming so many folks.  One of my main sources of used envelopes I was using, an environmental not-for-profit, went bankrupt during this time. That occurrence was ominous, and added another dimension of meaning to the work.


NNNY: What was the evolution of you becoming an artist?

Sarah: It became apparent in undergrad, like, I can’t do anything else, this is the path.  After high school I didn’t know what to do with myself, so went traveling around the world for three years, and came back and still didn’t know what to do! I then went to school at University of Toronto and studied art and art history. After that, I had a personal tragedy – my brother died. It was my brother’s risk taking and non-conforming spirit that told me inspired me not to settle down into a 9 to 5 job. Fairly impulsively, I moved to New York to attend grad school at Brooklyn College.

NNNY: What successes and difficulties have you had as a foreign–born artist in New York?

Sarah: Culture shock wise - there were no challenges coming from Toronto which is a fairly culturally similar place. I was more surprised by the differences in American culture as a whole – attitudes about homophobia and racism, health care, and specifically the insane amount of hoopla surrounding political sex scandals. Also, the reverence that is given to the credit score; a number that I had never heard of until moving here. People seem to be very concerned with improving their credit score…people for whom that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

My biggest challenges with being foreign-born are immigration-based. Although I love Toronto dearly, I have made a home in Brooklyn and would like to stay. I have had so many immigration problems, you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve been told at the border when re-entering the US “You’re no better than a terrorist”, I’ve been accused of forging the stamp on my passport. I have approached all my work visa and immigration status very professional and have always done things correctly…the kind of treatment I have has been totally unwarranted. They (USCIS) confused me with another Sarah Philips at some point, and that has caused all these problems at the border. They claimed that I had once entered the country as a tourist, while I was here as a student, which is a big offence in their eyes. It was easy to appeal that accusation, as at the time of the alleged offence I was in the hospital with a broken leg. Regardless, this incident resulted in a visa denial is on my record, so I’m marked; whenever I need to cross the border I’m escorted into the scary “secondary” processing room and giving the third degree. It is psychologically difficult not having control over whether I can stay where I consider to be my home. It’s made me hyper-aware of the plight of undocumented immigrants in this country. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to successfully navigate the immigration system not speaking English and being from a culturally different country.

NNNY: How has moving to the United States influenced your art?

Sarah: My work became much more humorous after the move, that happened in Brooklyn. It became lighter, undercurrents of humor came into my work.


NNNY: What are your upcoming shows, projects, etc?

Sarah: In the spring I spend a lot of time working my rooftop garden so art production slows slightly. Since completing body of envelope work I’ve created a couple stand-alone screenprints. I am currently experimenting with printing peanut butter cup wrappers. I have yet to see what the outcome of that will be.



For more information on Sarah Nicole Phillips please visit her website: www.sarahnicolephillips.com

© 2010 Non-Native New York

Selected Artists