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Sarah Rowan Dahl on the Thrill of Painting Live & Being a Freedom Fighter

Sarah Rowan Dahl is an American performance painter, photographer and philanthropist who lives in Australia with her musician husband and two daughters. Sarah has been inspiring audiences for the past decade with her energetic creative buzz and colourful canvases and has done over 350 events worldwide. She has painted live in Australian Parliament House and the Sydney Opera House to just name a few. Sarah’s philanthropy work is also a source of great inspiration, especially her support for The A21 Campaign which is focused on ending human trafficking. She is a perfect representation of the spirit of Boonji - not only does Sarah support other creatives, she uses her creativity as a force for good in the world.

Were you very creative as a kid, could you tell us about your childhood?

As a child I enjoyed art, poetry, music, sport, you name it. I didn’t pursue art outside of school much, but rather focused on sports. Basketball became my main passion and led to a scholarship to play ball for my university. I grew up in California, Singapore and South Carolina which formed a love for travel and culture over the years as well. I didn't take art seriously until I reached university and majored in Studio Art.

You say that ‘painting is not what you do, it is who you are’. When did you have that moment of realization that painting is your true calling in life?

The moment I realised art was my life’s calling was during a layover at the age of 19 in Brazil. I had been in the country for three weeks teaching children how to play basketball and sharing my faith in Jesus. My trip was coming to a close and I wanted to share joy with more Brazilians. I noticed a group of young teen girls and brought a sketchpad over to them and sat down. My Portuguese was embarrassingly basic after three weeks, so I drew stick figures and used my hands to have a conversation with them. Their eyes lit up and filled with joy, even tears as I “spoke” through the most simple stick figures and shapes you can imagine. My heart leapt with the realisation that art could override culture and language barriers. It was in this simple though profound exchange that I knew why I was on the planet.

Could you share with us how you became a performance painter and what’s it like to paint live in front of an audience.

Art schools teach theory and history. They teach methods and madness. However, I don’t know if they teach how to make a living from your art. I don’t recall a class on “how to grow a clientele and keep them”, or “Art Business 101”. When my classmates and I graduated we threw our caps in the art, hugged and cried at the huge accomplishment and woke up the next morning thinking, “crap, what do I do now, where do I begin?!” I became a waitress. My classmates did the same, or got married and put away their brushes for motherhood. After six months of waitressing I decided I would rather starve to death than work for $3.30 per hour plus tips. I had never really seen live art at that point in time, but I knew from my experience on the basketball court how much I enjoyed entertaining the crowd. From trick passes to backflips after a win, I loved the art of making people smile and laugh. Public speaking was also a bizarre delight of mine. The reason I say bizarre is that most artists I know would rather use a microphone as part of a sculpture piece than to stand before an audience with their voice enhanced.

In 2004, I approached the only place I felt safe to “have a go” with painting in front of people, and that was church. I was in the choir, so it didn’t seem so scary standing in front of friends and family on that same stage. Though I must admit, I jumped in the deep end with no flotation device having never even tried painting quickly in my studio (aka bedroom) and there I was in front of over 4,000 people. I knew nothing about live art. I had three large canvases due to the size of the crowd and 20 minutes. It wasn’t an amazing painting. It didn’t make the news. But I “had a go”. And the joy I felt was contagious and the feedback was remarkable. It’s been onwards and upwards ever since.

You have done many live performances around the world. Is there an event that is particularly memorable to you, which was especially electric?

Oh wow, where do I begin?! Over 350 events, from the Australian Parliament House, to the Sydney Opera House, Paris, London, Vietnam, to just pick one is very difficult. So let me share with you my most challenging and stretching performance. It began at a 45 min performance with a canvas so large it required a truck to deliver it, and a huge paintbrush as I ran back and forth across the canvas to create a landscape in time. This perked the interest and enjoyment of a high level politician. Her “people” called me a few days later asking if I could paint 10 paintings in 30 minutes during a classic pianist concert a few months down the track. I have learned to say yes to terrifying challenges and just figure it out as I go. The music was “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. It was written to honour the life of an artist friend, Victor Hartmann whose works I was asked to recreate each painting with a modern interpretation within the time of each movement.

For instance, the first movement is about a little gnome with crooked legs running through the forest to escape a dark presence and was 2 minute 41 seconds in length. I was asked to draw inspiration from the original painting and modernise it with the short breath of time on stage in front of a prestigious classical music supporting audience. This project made me laugh, cry, scream, smile, it pulled every emotion into the creative process. Needless to say with less than 3 minutes to complete the painting my hands were flying. I decided to paint the Travelocity gnome as it is the most recognised in pop culture, which was quite entertaining to explain to the elderly board room discussion prior to the event. Listening to the score almost daily helped me memorise each note so as the music crescendoed, so also would my hands on the canvas. One of the movements was about an argument between a rich and poor Jew. I stared down the pianist and we battled through the movement, as I beat and punched the canvas with gold paint in one hand and black in the other to symbolise the economic standing

within the storyline.

To prepare I mentally painted each piece daily and NEVER practiced with paint on the canvas as I wanted each piece to have the raw organic beauty of being created LIVE and the audience knew from an interview between the pianist Phillip Shovk and I that they were seeing the works created for the first time in concert. In case you are interested in seeing how this unfolded, here is a LINK to the performance. Please keep in mind that the audio is taken from Phillip’s professional recording thus the timing is slightly off. I say this purely out of vanity because there are moments when I look out of time and sync with the music, however in the live context I was spot on (lol).

Could you talk us through the process of coming up with ideas and then executing them either live painting or in your studio.

Daydreaming is the most vital aspect of my artwork. Yes. Daydreaming. Even my children have noticed this and there have been times when I have entered my daughters’ room to ask her a question and she silences my first words with, “ssshhhhhhhh!!!!! I’m daydreaming.” I quietly close the door with a grin on my face and wait for a better time. For instance, when a client asks me to paint LIVE at an event or for a commission and mentions some aspects they want incorporated into a work, I close my eyes and let my mind wander. It could be described as a bubble graph. One idea leads to another which leads to another. Sometimes I will run these ideas by a friend to see what moments make them smile and nod and connect the most. Or sometimes they will mention what the project makes them think about and I will run with their idea rather than my own. I hold these ideas like a handful of potato chips. Lightly, not squeezing them tightly only to be crushed and make a mess. That way, when the painting begins and whether it takes me 15 minutes or 15 hours, I am flexible to change it at any moment if a tastier potato chip idea pops in my head.

You also perform with your husband, who’s a talented musician able to transition between classical and contemporary music. Is it fun to collaborate on projects and would you say you inspire each other to be even better artists?

Performing with my husband has been the highlight of my career. We definitely inspire and push each other to be better artists and enjoy talking about ideas on how to improve and make things more interesting, stunning and coherent in our performances. It has its challenges of course as I am very flamboyant and love the crowd, whereas he is quiet and doesn’t enjoy the spotlight. He would prefer to collaborate with more musicians and we are keeping that in mind for the future as well.

How do you feel your work has evolved over the years and where do you see it heading in the future?

My work is constantly morphing and changing, though I have developed a signature style and palette in some ways. At times this feels like a beautiful strength and other times a frustrating rut. In the future I see myself trying to reduce the amount of supplies I use and perform on recycled objects and even furniture instead of canvas, being more present of the earth we are destroying and trying to find ways to be a more eco-friendly artist.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an artist?

There are so many challenges we face as artists. In the world of LIVE and studio art it is becoming more and more difficult to wow an audience. With the increase in technology and with the mind-blowing stunts humans are pulling all over YouTube, it can be intimidating trying to impress an audience. I think that is why my business is growing. As I observe this shift in people, my heart as an artist has not been to gain their approval and applause. My heart is to engage with them on a personal level and have them leave the event feeling inspired in their own lives, from their relationship, to their soul to their work and in their future. I don’t look solely at my bank account at the end of the week to see whether it has been successful. I look at how many people I had conversations with that smiled, laughed, cried and were encouraged because our paths crossed.

As a mother of two young girls, I am challenged and stretched with my time management to a huge degree and often have to self-evaluate on how I use the hours in my day. Because I enjoy my work so much it doesn't feel like a job, and it is easy for me to neglect parenting (in all honesty) and each year I really focus on improving as a mother because I don't want them to resent me during their teenage years.

The spirit of Boonji is to support and protect the creative. Is it important for you to support other creatives and what role do you see yourself playing?

Supporting each other as creatives is vital. Life is not a competition. Our work is not a comparison club. Our acceptance or rejection into Juried Art shows does not give or remove our value (I even have a document file in my computer where I record all my rejections from art shows because I celebrate the fact that I took a risk). I love encouraging other artists. I have Skyped and coached and emailed more artists than I can count. As my time is becoming more and more precious I am realising I should probably start charging a consulting fee and write a book.

Your support for The A21 Campaign, which is focused on ending human trafficking, is very inspiring. Do you have other causes which are close to your heart and also can you tell us us why it’s important for you to give back?

Knowing that every 30 seconds someone has their freedom stripped, beaten and raped from them and they are sold into slavery makes my fist clench around my weapon of choice (paintbrush) and drives me to paint even when I am tired or sick. People can look at the daunting statistics of over 27 million slaves on the planet and distance themselves emotionally and physically, when they have every tool in their hand to make a difference in the world. I encourage people in every field to find a need that makes your eyes fill with tears. That’s the one you should support. It is the most satisfying part of my work.

In March 2017, I had the honour of speaking on human trafficking and performing live half a dozen times to over 1K students in Ho Chi Min City. The next day I found myself in a small room with canvases and 16 young girls at risk of being trafficked, leading them in a painting session. Words cannot begin to describe that moment and I look forward to helping more organisations in the future. I have supported dozens of causes, from cancer to schools, to individuals…each charity event leads me closer to my goal of raising over a million dollars through my art to help others. It’s a big goal I know…but I’m just over 50K into the journey and picking up momentum each year. You may feel like you have nothing to give. Start with what you can give. For instance, for every “Like” on my Facebook Fan Page I give $1 to the A21 Campaign.

What is your idea of happiness?

Happiness is a messy concept. According to TED speaker Daniel Kahneman, happiness is determined through well-being and life satisfaction. Well-being usually comes from spending time with the people we love and life satisfaction correlates to our accomplishments. Personally, I try not to include my faith in many answers because I know so many people have been hurt by assholes who call themselves Christians yet don’t embody the love of God at all. But because He is the root of my joy and happiness it is the most honest answer I can give. Psalm 144:15 says, “Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” I also think that happiness is a temporary emotion whereas joy is an attitude of the heart. This may sound strange but I believe Joy is a person, found in Jesus and as I connect my heart with His, despite crappy seasons of life, joy doesn’t leave me. I am learning the art and necessity of laughter in the midst of every trial and it has strengthened my life in more ways than I can articulate.

What would you like to say to your 16 old self?

Loosen up!! Listen to more genres of music. Make friends with a wider variety of people. Love people deeply no matter how different they are from you and don’t be afraid of their opinions of the world or you. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Laugh more. Ask questions. Tell your parents how grateful you are for them and make the most of every meal you have the joy of sharing with family. Go out to the movies with your friends instead of spending all your weekends practicing basketball or studying. Don’t be so afraid of math, it doesn’t bite. Don’t just hear people, really listen. Be present. Take a business course when you get to university! And for goodness sake invest your allowance in stock with gold and Apple!! lol

What are you currently working on?

OK, if you have made it through reading this interview to question #13, first off wow!! Thank you! I hope you are inspired in your creative journey and if you have any questions for me or have a chapter for my book that would like me to dedicate to your question please let me know. I am currently embarking on the craziest physically and artistically stretching idea of my life. I have been training with the circus…yes…that is not a typo. Aerial silks have become the highlight of my week as I train to become the world’s first speed painter who performs in an aerial silk with my canvas suspended in the air beside me. To be honest, I don’t know how long the training process will take as I have rheumatoid arthritis and currently off the silks for a few months nursing a nerve damage injury after crushing my foot in the silk whilst training fully exhausted. Learning the limitations of my body has been humbling after being a scholarship athlete, and I will do my best to have my first performance in 2018, so be sure to follow me on social media and enjoy the bizarre journey with me!

Check out Sarah's Website. Like her Facebook Page and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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