Artist in Profile: Sarah Walden

Patterns From the Past

  • Sarah Walden is an artist, but she’s also a time traveler. Well, okay, Walden may not have her very own TARDIS, but she interacts with the past in her myriad styles of artwork in ways that would leave Dr. Who himself impressed.
          The East Nashville native first made waves in the art world with Peacoquette Designs, a studio that produces creative fabric patterns that can be printed on just about anything -- drapes, pillows, wallpaper, gift wrap. You name it, and Peacoquette can probably have it printed through print-on-demand services like Zazzle and Spoonflower.
          While Walden’s intricate work — which takes cues from nature, Victorian England, and the steampunk aesthetic — suggests the craft of a veteran artist, but Walden’s foray into patternmaking was actually somewhat accidental. That hasn’t stopped it from being a successful and lucrative endeavor, though, as Walden’s patterns have sold in the seven figures and she’s currently represented by the Pattern Boutique of Edinburgh, Scotland.
          “I was in the process of recording my first solo album when I got pregnant and had to go on bed rest,” Walden says. “That’s kind of when all of the art started popping up. I’ve always been artistic, but never tried to make a living out of it, and discovered print design for fabric and textiles and wallpaper, that sort of thing. I randomly became successful at it. Over a million dollars has been sold — I haven’t made that — but with my images have been sold. That made me have to take myself seriously, because it was just a hobby at first.”
          What began as a hobby has since led Walden to explore other art forms, most notably digital assemblage. Like physical assemblage, Walden’s work finds her compiling digital artifacts into tapestry-like pieces that are too intricate to label as mere collage. A recent piece, titled “Automaton,” began as a simple exercise and ended with an unorthodox take on the self-portrait — while you won’t see Walden’s face anywhere in the piece, it does pull back the curtain on her heart and mind.
          “It reflects my inner workings,” she says. “You see the eyes looking in and the woman’s figure and shadow. The different elements represent, to me, just the mechanisms of my inner life. There’s a little boy being chased by a ghost monster; those are my nightmares. There’s a horse running on a treadmill, and that’s my anxiety. There’s careful calculations and some hieroglyphics and figures from my religious upbringing. Every detail represents part of my inner workings.”
          So how does Walden use all of those images without paying a fortune in licensing? The public domain, of course, which is just fine for Walden, as she calls the early Victorian era her dream aesthetic. (It’s also the theme of her house’s front parlor studio.)
          “I pull from the British Library,” she explains. “I go through millions of images a year. I’ll go through quarterlies and magazines and say, ‘Oh, look at that one tiny image from 1820,’ and I’ll download the image and edit it so that I just have that one character and then I apply it. It’s fascinating to me to think that a lot of these images haven’t been seen in 200 years. Most recently by the person who digitized it, and three or four other people. But I can take something that hasn’t been seen in 200 or 300 years and polish it up and give it a new context, which speaks to my philosophy on a fascination with time travel. I love that kind of interaction between me and long-dead artists.”
          Pieces like “Automaton” will soon be on display at East Side Project Space in the Wedgewood Houston Neighborhood. She’ll have a gallery show there on Nov. 4 as part of the monthly Wedgewood Houston Art Crawl, and her work will be on display for the rest of the month of November. Walden also teases that she’ll debut her “Time Travel Kits,” which blend visual art with audio to create miniature time travel experiences, at that November show.
          While Walden’s aesthetic looks backwards in time, her attitudes about the creation and consumption of art are decidedly progressive. The pieces at her upcoming gallery show will have interactive elements, and any work that customers purchase online will receive a personalized tweak from Walden.
          “I like people to put their own stamp on what I do,” she says. “For the way I do work, which is digital, if someone likes one of my pieces and they want to buy it, they can choose the format. They can choose whether they want it to be a canvas print or a wallpaper or a banner or a puzzle. When someone buys it, if they give me access to their social media and I can learn a little about them, I find a figure that represents them to me and I insert it into the image so that anyone who buys my work gets their own personal version.”
          Walden knows that she is within the minority when it comes to artists allowing others to alter their works, but she sees her decision as an extension of what’s at the heart of her love of time travel — the ability to have a conversation and connect with someone who would otherwise be a stranger. It’s also likely a result of Walden’s artistic background, as she’s entirely self-taught.
          “I taught myself through courses, and the computer skills that I have are also completely self-taught,” she explains. “I don’t look like everybody else because I technically don’t know what I’m doing. I just have instincts, and I’m a slave to the instinct as to whether something looks right or not.”
          Walden’s fascination with time travel itself dates back far further than her interest in art, and she pinpoints the exact moment as when she and her father watched the 1980 Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve film Somewhere in Time. In the film, Reeve’s character travels backwards in time to pursue a romantic relationship with Seymour’s character, and Walden credits her romanticization of time travel to the film’s sweeping storyline.
          “It was so beautiful, and I loved the costumes and the story,” she recalls. “But the whole theory that by surrounding yourself in an environment that looked like the era that you wanted to travel to with no signs of the modern age, that you could flip through time. It was absolutely formative. If you ever come to my house, you’ll see there are a couple of rooms in my house where that’s the prevailing aesthetic. I want to convince myself that I can flip through time.”
          As for actually living in another era, Walden’s fascination stops short. “I think I’m too big of a feminist to live in the past,” she says with a laugh. “I would have been burned at the stake.”
          Always working to evolve her craft, Walden has her sights set on eventually learning to sculpt, throw pottery, and construct physical assemblage. Until then, she’s happy to continue centuries-long conversations with present-day art lovers, professional training be damned.
          “People respond to that either positively or negatively,” she says. “Someone might look at my work and go, ‘Oh, that looks like a mess academically,’ or someone might look at it and say, ‘Emotionally, I love this, and it resonates with me.’ That’s the best I can hope for.”