Sarah Turmel values humanity. The 24-year-old multi-discipline artist learned firsthand the varying means an artist can take to achieve varying ends. Crave money, decorum, social currency? Dedicate yourself to the “gatekeep-y” white walls of gallery life, as she calls them, and you might just get it. Turmel, early on in her tenure at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, revelated that her path lay elsewhere. A sculptress at heart, she honed her craft during day-long clay sessions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and dedicated herself to community-based art initiatives like Wrong Brain, a Dover non-profit committed to “providing a venue and outlet for unconventional, under-represented and emerging artists,” where she volunteers as a resident. “Art is inherently political,” Turmel, who sells a shirt on her website that declaims “Eat the rich,” says. “I don’t think that’s something you can avoid and I don’t think it should be avoided. Art should be for the people — but then the people you see who’re able to buy these gallery pieces are, excuse my French, a bunch of rick *expletive*.”
Turmel grew up in Northwood, N.H., and moved to Portland to attend Maine College of Art & Design for her first year of college. Not meshing with the small-school, upper-echelon aura permeating campus (“I was surrounded by students who…money wasn’t an issue for them, where I was constantly like, ‘Alright, how am I paying for groceries this week?’” she says), Turmel transferred to Alfred University, finding a student body she could relate to, professors she could learn from and expansive facilities she could satiate her curiosity with. Taking on ink drawing, painting, glassblowing, photography, screen printing and ceramics, among other pursuits, Turmel immersed herself in the “isolating, but beautiful” rural town of Alfred until she was forced to move back to New Hampshire, in the spring of 2020, thanks to the pandemic. She moved back to Alfred in the fall of 2020 to finish her senior year, and then settled in Newmarket, N.H., post-graduation, excited to ensconce herself in the Seacoast’s vibrant arts and music scene.
In the midst of her collegiate journey, Turmel took up screen printing original designs on t-shirts to pay bills and make rent. She hasn’t stopped. Turmel sells her work (via stickers, prints and clothing) on her Instagram (@sarshaha) and website (sarshaha.com), and receives an increasing influx of commission work designing concert posters, fliers and wall art. Nevertheless, the doggedly-devoted young artist just can’t shake an innate desire to sculpt. “Sculpture is my actual calling,” she says. “I just can’t make money off it.” Part of what draws her to ceramics is the inherent life the pieces take on; aspects of the creative process extend beyond the maker’s control, and Turmel especially attempts to imbue her pieces with a certain anthropomorphism — something she came to appreciate while taking a dance class at Alfred. She frequently emphasizes capturing bodily curves in sculpture, and even explains that, as we’re talking on the phone, she’s moving her fingers to demonstrate the fluidity she aspires for. Trying to capture the human figure, in all of its wonderful idiosyncrasy, and bloodletting a bit of personal emotional turbulence, something every artist inevitably does, tremendously inspire her work. Sarah Turmel, after all, values humanity. “In a perfect world, I would love to just make these sculptures and also pay bills,” Turmel says. “Personally, I get more fulfillment out of being involved with places like Wrong Brain, where it’s art for the people and community and not reputation or money and stuff like that. It’s nice to be involved in accessible settings. Art should be about expression; it should be about your community.”
For Trust the Process, Turmel chose a sculpture she made in 2021, titled “Margery.” The following conversation has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
New Hampshire Magazine: What materials did you use to make Margery?
Sarah Turmel: I really like working with white stoneware. It gave me options: I could fire it at whatever temperature I wanted because it was such a high-fire clay. When it’s sculptural, it doesn’t need to be fired all the way up, so I got to play with that a whole bunch. For her glazing, I mixed both myself; I did a low-fire glaze on the inside with some kind of mason stain, and the outside was terra sigillata that I had formulated myself.
NHM: When did you first start making Margery, and how long did it take in total?
ST: I started her in 2020 and finished her in 2021. I fired it just twice, but for a long time didn’t want to glaze at all. I really liked the way it looked just as a clay form, especially under harsh lighting, because I’d get these crazy shadows and sometimes glaze can erase very fine details, which is why I ended up settling on the terra sig on the outside to preserve that raw form. I finished her in 2021 because I took several months figuring out how to glaze it (laughs). I spent two and a half weeks building it, and then I spent months deliberating on how I wanted to handle the rest of it.
These pieces were about me still getting to know myself. It was a way to express parts of myself that other people don’t readily get to see.
NHM: Was it made as a passion project, just for yourself?
ST: I ended up including it in my thesis, but, yeah…Everything I made during that time was just for me. I had battled for a while — I felt like I should be making art that was saying something profound or telling some kind of story, and I just didn’t feel like that was necessary at the time. I was going through it a bit (laughs), and just had spent so much time trying every type of media. When I started making these sculptures, I found that it was the most freeing form of expression for me, and that was something I wanted to explore while I had the time and the facility access to just go crazy with it. It ended up being a lot about the process for me. I know you’ve probably noticed I’ve been calling Margery “she” here and there (laughs). All of my sculptures I made during that time in that specific way, I gave names to; instead of titles, they got names. A lot of times I’ve referred to them like they’re people, because while I was building them I felt like I was creating a body. There was a very personal aspect to it. When I was building them, they felt like something that deserved my respect and something that was living and making decisions on its own. Part of my whole process was letting the clay make some of the decisions. I’d be building and I’d be pushing, trying to shape it a certain way, and fighting gravity a lot because I like to have them sit on very narrow bases so that they look like they’re floating a little bit, but I was also letting the clay go. I never had an image in my head of exactly what something would look like when it was done as I was starting it. I just let it build itself, in a way.
NHM: How’d you come to the name Margery?
ST: It’s after the Vulfpeck song (laughs). There was a lot of Vulfpeck listening happening in my studio. “Margery, My First Car.”
NHM: Why did you specifically choose Margery for Trust the Process? What about Margery stands out to you, opposed to the other sculptures you made during that time?
ST: I think everybody knows what I’m up to most of the time. (Editor’s Note: Sarah consistently posts her commissions and posters on Instagram, along with updates of her progress tackling an often mind-boggling workload.) It’s not like I’m done sculpting. It’s something I’d really like to do this year. Like, actually; not just like, “Oh, I made a cup! Now I’m going to go sell it at a market.” I want to make stuff that I actually care about again, and I think having this conversation is going to help me give myself a kick in the ass to actually sculpt and not anticipate profit afterwards.
I had a friend in my studio yesterday, and we were talking about Margery in particular, and my friend was like, “Why don’t you sell her?” And I’m like, “I don’t think anybody is going to buy her for the price I think she’s worth, and I feel a personal connection to that one.” I don’t think I’d want to let it go so I can pay some utility bills. It’d be like, “Great, I just traded this thing that means a lot to me to immediately hand the money to somebody else for something arbitrary.”
NHM: I know you said it was a lot about the process for you, but what kind of emotions did you channel into Margery? What do you hope people pull from it?
ST: As far as emotions go, this felt like the purest form of expression for me. At that point in time I had this cocky attitude, like, “I’m about to leave college, I know who I am!” I was aware I had changed a lot as a person, but I was like, “Yeah — this is who I am now. Cool!” But absolutely not. These pieces were about me still getting to know myself. It was a way to express parts of myself that other people don’t readily get to see. These are abstract vessels, and I don’t know what specific things someone will pull from them, but it still felt like a reflection. I used to be very shy, believe it or not, and I think I still toe the line between introverted and extroverted. I guess this process of working with the clay was also about me learning to let go. With some of the things I was dealing with at the time, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that there are things in my life that I can control, and there are things in my life that I cannot. I have to accept that and acknowledge that and focus on the things that I can control. Since these pieces were so much about having this collaboration with clay and not forcing it to be what I wanted it to be, it helped me deal with that a lot.
NHM: Did you have any direct influences at the time? Anything you were really inspired by that made you want to make something like Margery?
ST: I was always really inspired by the figure. It was a thing one of my professors would say to me. His name’s John Gill. The way that he built his own pottery was thinking about bodies and the figure and the relation to space, so when he’d be giving advice, it was nutty. He had these bright red glasses, thick as hell, and he’d be like, “Alright, sit down. I want to show you something.” And I’d be like, “Alright John, what’re we looking at?” He’d pull up, like, a musical from the 1950s showing a woman in this extravagant, ruffly dress, and it’s a five-minute-long musical number and she’s changing dresses and spinning around the stage. We’re watching the video, he wouldn’t say anything; he’d just look at me every now and then and be like, “Yeah. Yeah.” The video finished and he’d say, “Do you know what I mean?” I remember once telling him, “Yeah!” And he just replies, “No you don’t!” He’d always show me videos like that and say, “Think about how you can make your pots say something like that.” I found myself thinking about people a lot.
During that time I was taking a figure drawing class and a dance class, and my dance class was very contemporary-based. We’d start class by laying on the floor and our teacher would play something and say, “Just move, but don’t get off the floor. Move slowly and with intention, but focus on what your body feels like in relation to the floor.” It felt silly the first couple weeks; I was like, “I’m just writhing on the floor with some other people, what am I doing?” But when you really got into the mindset and thinking about it…it helped inform my work a lot.
NHM: Walk us through the process, step-by-step, of making Margery.
ST: Essentially I just built up cones with varying heights and widths and shapes, fired those, not to vitrification — just so they were dry, something I could use without breaking — just bisque fired, that’s the term. I would take a good chunk of clay, about five pounds, and I would cut it off the block and beat it into the table. I had this nice stone table at the time, and there’s this thing I did where I take a chunk of clay and throw it but pull it at the last second. It’d hit the table and stretch out a little bit, and I’d do that over and over again until it got to be like a slab. Then I’d move it over to a table where it wouldn’t stick quite as much and just beat it. I felt bad because my studio was basically one big room that was divvied up into 12 studios, and there’d just be 20 minutes of the day where I’m beating clay on a table, loud as hell. I wanted it to have the mark of my hands on it. I didn’t want it to be slab-rolled, uniform; I wanted it to be imperfect so you could see my fingerprints in certain areas.
From there, once I thought that was a good thickness and had enough of my fingerprints on it, I’d put it over one of the cones. Usually I’d leave it overnight, come back the next day and drop it on a table so it’d get a flat side. It was always a small point, because I really liked making these pieces seem ethereal, like they’re floating a little bit even though they’re not. From there I’d scoop a chunk of clay — maybe half a handful from this big block I had — and press it between my thumb and my fingers, and it’d become a little round disk patty, usually an oblong, oval-type shape. Depending on how I pressed, I could get a little curve in it or a shape that I needed to add wherever I was working. Over time it built itself out that way, just from making these small decisions in the beginning and building off of them.
Then I’d fire it, do a little bisque fire and start the glazing. I mixed all my glazes for Margery to get the shade of green and the right luster quality that I wanted because I didn’t want it to be that shiny, glossy, coffee-mug-kinda-glaze, but I also didn’t want it to be entirely matte; I wanted it to be a little bit satin. From there I tried different mixtures of mason stains and different percentages to get the right color separation I wanted.
NHM: What’re your goals for the future? Are you working other jobs along with making art?
ST: I have other jobs. One of the other jobs I got hired at, I told them, “My art is my priority, so if that’s a problem with me working here, let me know.” But they’ve been very supportive and told me, “This is your part-time job. Your art comes first, we totally understand that. Just give us a heads up if there’s a day you need.” They’ve worked with me so well, which I really appreciate. I’m not at the point that I can support myself full-time yet, and I think that’s still a long ways off, but that’s the goal.