In Her New York Studio, Artist Sarah Lee Paints at Night to Find the Dark, Rich Shades for Her Alluring Scenes of Nature

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Artist Sarah Lee only paints at night, when the streets of New York City, where she keeps her studio, feel both peaceful and perilous. Working in those wee hours, Lee makes paintings of mysterious nocturnal forests that seem to glow from the inside out. While figments of Lee’s imagination, these forests hint at the artist’s preoccupation with nature, as a respite and a danger. Entering her Red Hook studio, one notices that her walls are cluttered with imagery—a reproduction of Millais’s Ophelia and photography of the Northern Lights are pinned to the walls. 

While Lee’s paintings have often occupied shades of deep blue, a new solo exhibition of her works at Albertz Benda, “Two Skies,” engages across monochromatic registers of greens too, with hints of chartreuse. The images are of peaceful and unoccupied, offering moments of respite in our oversaturated world.

We recently caught up with the artist in her studio to hear about the music she listens to and the artists that inspire her.

Tell us about your studio. Where is it, how did you find it, what kind of space is it, etc.?
I moved to New York City in 2018 and worked in a 250-square-foot studio in the East Village for five years. When I was looking to move to a larger space, I was fortunate to find my current studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, through Gertie’s Live/Work listings. Red Hook has a unique vibe. It’s close to New York City, but it also has a distinct community feel, like a small village. My studio is on the top floor of an old three-story building near the pier and the industrial zone. It was formerly the office of a theater play and musical production company. The ground floor, with its dusty ambiance and mysterious glass wall, once served as a wedding venue. I was drawn to the quirky history of the building and fell in love with the space the moment I saw it. My favorite part of the studio is the abundance of windows. The shifting light throughout the day allows me to playing with shades and luminosity, and this often gives me new ideas in my work.

Photography: Matthew Herrmann. Courtesy of Sarah Lee.

Photography: Matthew Herrmann. Courtesy of Sarah Lee.

How many hours do you typically spend in the studio, what time of day do you feel most productive, and what activities fill the majority of that time?
I spend most of my day in my studio, from around 2 p.m. to midnight these days. My work hours depend on how close I am to my show month. Sometimes I have to sleep over on the studio couch, while other times I only spend 4–5 hours per day in my studio. But even when I’m not painting, I like being in the studio. It’s a place where I feel comfortable and motivated. For me, inspiration doesn’t always strike me out of the blue. It usually finds me when I’m in my studio, mentally prepared to paint. I also tend to be more productive at night than during the day. There’s something magical about painting in the dark. The darkness helps me lose track of time and immerse myself into work.

What is the first thing you do when you walk into your studio (after turning on the lights)?
I start my day by organizing my brushes, oils, and pre-mixing the day’s colors. This pre-mixing process can take about an hour, but it’s essential for me to get into the right mindset and think about the mood and atmosphere I want for my paintings. I usually work on 2–3 paintings at a time. I group colors into separate containers and label them with descriptive names like “trees/shadow” or “sky” so I can easily go back and forth between paintings.

What are you working on right now? Please send us a few smartphone shots of a work in progress—or photos of different works in various states of completion—in a way that you think will provide insight into your process.
I’m in the final stages of preparing for my upcoming solo show at Albertz Benda in New York. I’ve dedicated the past six months to this project, and I’m nearing completion. The month leading up to the work collection is always chaotic. I’m checking for dust that may have gotten caught in the varnishing process and making sure the edges are clean.

What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why?
I’ve experimented with various art mediums, but oil painting always draws me back. I love how it blends softly, and its slow drying time gives me plenty of time to work on my painting. Oil has become my primary medium, and I use the classic combination of linseed oil and Gamsol.

Photography: Matthew Herrmann. Courtesy of Sarah Lee.

Photography: Matthew Herrmann. Courtesy of Sarah Lee.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Is there anything you like to listen to/watch/read/look at etc. while in the studio for inspiration or as ambient culture?
I don’t like to work in complete silence. I alternate between listening to music and watching Netflix documentaries, especially ones about nature and crime. While painting, I don’t always concentrate on what I’m watching or listening to, so I tend to miss bits and pieces. I’ll often replay them to catch what I missed.

How do you know when an artwork you are working on is clicking? How do you know when an artwork you are working on is a dud?
I usually let it sit for a couple of days. I tend to always feel a thrill when the image in my head begins to take shape as I paint. However, my feelings can change dramatically after a day or two. Some works that initially excite me can lose their luster, while others continually draw me back in. That’s how I know if a piece really has something special and I keep painting. It’s like dating: you have to see how you feel about someone once the initial spark fades.

Photography: Matthew Herrmann. Courtesy of Sarah Lee.

Photography: Matthew Herrmann. Courtesy of Sarah Lee.

Is there anything in your studio that a visitor might find surprising?
The vivid red wall in my studio. It was painted by the film production company that used the space before me, and their company logo is still on the wall. I thought having a colored wall in the studio would be interesting, so I never changed it. A few of my guests have been taken by surprise by it.

What is the fanciest item in your studio? The most humble?
It isn’t an item, but I think my private bathroom is the fanciest feature in my studio. I feel very lucky to have found this space with a bathroom, because many artist studios in New York have shared bathrooms. The humblest item in my studio is a tiny birdhouse. A while ago, I found a baby bird on the street, seemingly fallen from its nest. I couldn’t find where it came from, so I brought the bird to my studio. I also bought a birdhouse and some bird food, and I tried to take care of it. However, the bird seemed to long for its mother, and it wouldn’t eat or drink. I eventually returned it to where I found it. Ever since, I’ve kept the empty birdhouse on my studio window.

What do you like to do right after that?
It’s often past midnight when I get home. After a long day in my studio, I enjoy taking a hot bath with some bath salt. It’s part of my healing routine.

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