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Sarah Mundy leads a life devoted to the arts. By day, the 33-year-old Portsmouth resident works as art teacher at the town’s public high school, leading teenagers through the fundamentals of painting, drawing, ceramics and sculpture, and by night (and school vacation), Mundy churns out an impressive collection of her own. Including handmade bowls and mugs, planters and vases, earrings and necklaces and more, Mundy’s menagerie exudes a distinctly aquatic feel, distinguished by oceanic colors (aquas and seafoams give way to melting yellows and gritty navys) and earthy textures. One can almost feel the grains of sand caking the bottom of one of her soup crocks, or the salty film coating a tidal dispenser bottle. Her nautical sensibilities come from a life lived on New Hampshire’s Seacoast; once a student at the same Portsmouth high school she now teaches at, Mundy went on to attend the University of New Hampshire for both her undergraduate degree, in studio arts, and her master’s, in arts education, where she combined a proclivity for teaching with a determined dedication to her own oeuvre. That mélange — between working full-time as a teacher and moonlighting as a scrupulous, serious artist — isn’t always an easy task (“I wish I had seven more hours in the day,” Mundy says, “so that I could go do my day job and then have time in the studio”). But still, it’s one she tackles with a true sense of purpose. “When I was a student, the ceramics room was basically the only reason I made it through school,” Mundy says. “I really want to bring that to the kids now. This generation faces so much more than we did — with anxiety and everything — that the art room is such a unique place for them. I really feel passionate about helping them and being there for that.”

For Trust the Process, Mundy chose a ceramic figure sculpture she made last winter, titled “The Seer.” ­­The following conversation has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

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“The Seer” by Sarah Mundy

New Hampshire Magazine: Coming across your work, “The Seer” really struck me. There’s something about the six eyes stacked on top of each other that creates a really trippy optical illusion. Where’d the inspiration for it come from?
Sarah Mundy: When I started to think of the idea for it, I had just read “Dune.” Have you ever read “Dune”?

NHM: Yup, I have.
SM: So you know how Paul and the Bene Gesserit women can see the present but also the past and the future? In the movie representation they look like us, but I started to think about, physically, what would that look like? Like, a manifestation of what that would look like. I started to get thoughtful about the eyes and got hung up on them, and then sculpted a bunch of little eyes and these were born out of that.

NHM: That’s such a cool part of “Dune,” how the Bene Gesserit women are so intuitive and can see into the future.
SM: With my ceramic wares, my mugs and stuff, I’ve always gotten inspiration from nature and New Hampshire, and then with my sculpture, they’re less for-sale and more for creative expression. I felt super inspired by that first book. It spurred me down the road of sculpture.

NHM: Do you make a sculpture like this with ceramics?
Yup. It began with some reference images of students and I had a mirror set up so I could look at my own features, and I started with a solid 15-pound block of clay. From there it’s a really plastic, additive process, where you’re sticking clay on and trying to map out the major forms and then carving away. Once it was done, I added all the dots by hand with slip in the hair, and then I stained it and painted it and fired it and glazed it and fired it again (laughs). It was painted solid green with underglaze and then I washed all the green off, so that it stayed in the nooks and crannies.

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“I’ve been making and selling work forever, but I think in the past my focus was always to create things just to sell, to make money. Once I got my own studio, it was like, ‘Okay, I don’t need to make as much. I can make what I’m interested in and the money will come — or it won’t, and it’ll be okay because I have my space.’” —  Sarah Mundy

NHM: You said that you used “slip” to add the dots. What’s that?
SM: Slip is really, really watered-down liquid clay, and I put it in a squeeze bulb and squeeze every individual dot on. That’s how I do it with my mugs, too.

NHM: How long did the process take in total?
SM: This one I made at home over break and it took me a week and a half-ish of consistent work to sculpt it. People ask, like, “How long does it take you to make a mug?” And I don’t actually know, because it’s so broken up into phases and chunks of time; it has to dry out and get fired and then get glazed and get fired again, so it’s a multi-step process. But I would say the better part of two weeks.

NHM: Did the way you were approaching it evolve as you went?
SM: This is actually the second one I made; the first one I made had four eyes and I traded it for a tattoo with a tattoo artist out in Dover. He fell in love with it and I sent it to him. Going through it the first time, being able to look at the piece at the end, there were things I wanted to change about it. Like, I really wanted the eyes to hit in a really trippy way where it played with your eyes a little bit, and I didn’t feel like the first sculpture really hit that mark as exactly. With this one I played with the placement of the eyes and tried to make the main pair where they would actually fall on a human face, and then split the difference with the above and below pair.

NHM: Were the three blue dots on the face made to represent the past, present and future?
Yeah — and it felt lunar. It balanced out the blue in the eyes as a visual weight thing, too. It felt very night sky. I mean, it’s so nerdy to be like, “I really was inspired by ‘Dune!’” It’s just so great. I had just read through the first book over the winter and tried to read the second one, but it wasn’t as good.

NHM: Are you a big sci-fi person?
SM: I like sci-fi!

NHM: I’m not super into it, but I think I really enjoyed “Dune” because it’s set in the future without focusing on science or technology. It’s all very human-based, often governmental problems set within this future society.
SM: And it’s a classic story of good-versus-evil and all of that. It was really captivating in the way it created its own language and evoked really strong imagery. I’d like to go back and revisit this series of sculptures but I just haven’t had the time. As I continue to work on them, they do become more of their own thing. I started at square one with the idea in my head, feeling inspired by “Dune” and creating an otherworldly-priestess-woman almost, and then once I had the first sculpture, I was like, “Oh — this is really cool!” Then I dug deeper into that and let it evolve.

NHM: What emotions and feelings do you think the piece communicates?
SM: It’s funny that you ask, because I wanted a placid, serene look, and the first mask that I made didn’t have that. It just looked happy; it had a totally different facial expression from the one you’ve seen, and I do think this one comes across as meditative and serene, placid.

NHM: I completely agree. It’s almost like it’s looking past you, seeing the past, future, present thing. The thousand-yard stare, but not in a bad way.
SM: She’s seeing more than what’s in front of her. I think she’s kind of bad, but in a good way (laughs).

NHM: What’s your favorite part of the sculpting and ceramics process?
Everything in ceramics, if you’re doing it right, is a flow-state, because it’s so tedious and you have to be so locked in. But with sculpting, I like searching for the right answer. If you put the nose in the wrong spot for something like this, it’s gonna look funny — and you are gonna put it in the wrong spot. That’s part of it. You have to work through giving things the right proportions and sizes and shapes in relationship to each other. And with something like those eyes that wouldn’t really exist in nature, there is still a right answer — for me, visually — so I have to just work through it, and I think that process is really meditative.

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“The Seer” by Sarah Mundy

NHM: What do you find is the biggest challenge in living creatively and being an artist?
This is gonna sound super corny but I see it in my students all the time. There’s a belief system that we have that parents say to kids: “You’ll never make any money doing that,” or “What’re you gonna do with an art degree?” I think the biggest hurdle is to either believe that it doesn’t matter, that you don’t have to make money — maybe having that other job is helpful — or being able to make that leap and having the faith that you need to create regardless and then the pieces fall in place. I know so many artists who make a living being an artist and just being an artist, and the first thing that they had to do, which was the hardest part, was just believe that they could make that happen.

NHM: It’s ridiculous that it’s so widely preached. For some reason there’s this widely-held belief — and I’m wondering if it’s generational or what — that if you’re not in STEM fields, you’re not gonna make money. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that if you’re passionate about whatever your craft is, you’ll find a way to make money doing it.
SM: If you’re dogged in your pursuit. With me in ceramics, there was never a moment where I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna stop doing this.” It was the only thing that I was interested in. It’s always been like, “I’m here doing this thing, and if you like what I make, then you can buy it!” And that’s always worked out well for me. The belief that we’re not artistic, or that we don’t have what it takes to make quality work, holds, I’d say, most people back from creating in the first place. There’s the 90/10 rule that says you have to make so much stuff, and 90 percent of it isn’t gonna be worth anything, but 10 percent of it might be really, really good, and to get to that really good stuff you have to make so much.

NHM: Absolutely. And, you know, if you love it, you’re not doing it just for that 10 percent. You love the process of it.
SM: Exactly. That’s the important part to learn to love as a beginner artist or a learning artist. It really is about the process and how that process makes you feel, especially in such a digitally-connected, fast-paced world. When you put all of it down and you get your hands on clay to make a sculpture, all of that other stuff has to be paused.

NHM: Do you think, personally, your biggest challenge was getting past others telling you that you wouldn’t make any money as an artist?
I was really lucky when I was 18 to have a receptive group of people that wanted to buy the crappy little mugs I was making at the time. Honestly, I think it’s usually like this for ceramic artists, because mugs and bowls and plates feel so much more accessible to the average consumer than a $2,000 painting. I had this ridiculous confidence that if I make the things, people will buy the things, because they weren’t crazy expensive. Now I’m at the point where I’m selling mugs for $45 on average, and some of them for $150, and you don’t always know if someone’s going to buy them. I’ve found that if I just make it, I can usually find the right person for it. If we’re talking about my own barriers, I think it’s the same as anyone else. When you have a bad run of it, or you make that 90 percent of stuff that’s trash, or when I’ve made a ton of work that I’m not happy with, there have been times where I’m like, “Maybe I’ll stop for a while,” because you just feel defeated. But then the organic desire to keep making stuff has always come back. And ceramics goes wrong. The process is built to go wrong every step of the way (laughs). You get numb to it over time.

NHM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from an art teacher or another artist?
SM: There’s too many good ones, but I had a professor in college named Al Jaeger — he’s actually a New Hampshire potter as well — and he always put the focus on the creative expression of an idea or a mood, and he told me to pick the vibe ahead of time. If it’s playful, focus on that word, “playful,” like, what does that mean? And then every step of the way, make sure that what you’re doing is playful. I think about that a lot when I’m trying to come up with a new design: What’s the energy of the piece that I’m trying to create? I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had a lot of great teachers, but I think about that all the time. Narrow it down to the most essential word and then make every decision out of that — in pursuit of that word.

Find Sarah Mundy’s work on her website, and follow her on Instagram to get a sneak peek behind her creative process.

Categories: Q&A, Trust the Process