Sara Risley – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

COLOR TREE, photography based digital image printed on acrylic painting on watercolor paper, 28x36, 2013

COLOR TREE, photography based digital image printed on acrylic painting on watercolor paper, 28×36, 2013

Briefly describe the work that you do.

I work abstractly.  Most of my work is photography based and digitally altered but I also paint.  My photography based digital images start with their source.  I photograph anything with lots of color and depth and some shape or line.  I use camera movement and lens zoom to blend the colors and create shape.  On the computer, I employ Photoshop as whimsy dictates.  My choices are deliberate, but the results are serendipitous. My paintings are very vivid in color and there is movement and energy in the brush strokes.  Like my photographic work, shape, line, and color are important.  Also like my photographic work, I use layering to create mystery and depth so that the completed images keep the viewer finding more the longer they peruse.  Lately I have been using my paintings as my photographic source material. I am working on a project that truly combines them both.  I lightly paint on watercolor paper.  I photograph that piece and digitally create an image that I print onto the painting.  I then photograph that combined piece to create something else.  

At what point in your life did you decide to become an artist?

I was always creative.  My mother had me make name cards for special meals or her bridge tallies when she hosted her bridge club.  In 1967, my mother took me to The Art Institute of Chicago to see a major retrospective exhibit of the work of Andrew Wyeth.  I was in awe.  I had no idea how he could paint like that!  I could feel the warm breeze blowing through the window in one painting WIND FROM THE SEA.  I knew the crunch of frozen grass as the boy ran down the hill in WINTER.  We bought a catalog and I spent hours and hours looking over it.  I knew I wanted to be an artist.  I started oil painting lessons with a friend of my mother’s.  From then on, some type of art was always part of my life.

2SWEET ENIGMA, photography based digital image, 18X36, 2014

SWEET ENIGMA, photography based digital image, 18X36, 2014

Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.

I was raised in Elgin, Illinois, close enough to Chicago for the occasional cultural excursion, but far enough out to lead an idyllic small (ish) town life. Our family was rowdy and athletic and full of the love of fun, but we worked to earn that time. My parents, raised during the Depression, had always worked hard and expected that from us.  Because of that strong work ethic I had small jobs as early as 10 years old (babysitting) and all through high school and college.  The only thing I wanted to major in was art, but I lacked a strong basic background for the studio arts program and entered the photography and filmmaking program where drawing was not needed.  I loved taking pictures and wanted to work on my photographic art upon graduation.  I did a few art shows but felt the pull of my heritage.  I had to get a job and pay the bills for myself.  I was lucky to have spent most of my career working as a portrait photographer for a company that mostly admired and supported creativity.  When I retired at 56 years old, I got to live my dream of being an independent full-time artist.  I do wonder, at times, what my art would be like if I had concentrated on it as my life’s work, but looking back in regret is not a positive or productive thing to do, so I revel in the opportunity I have in the latter part of my life to be a working artist.  I try to bring the color and energy and life I lived as a child, and try to live today, to my photographic images and my paintings.

What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?

I want there to be an order in the chaos of my compositions.  I can’t explain what makes one of my images or paintings work and others not work, but I do know when it is right or finished.

I want to feel immersed in color and I want my viewer to feel that as well.  I am contemplating an installation, which would fully allow the viewer to be inside one of my images.  

1DISCOVERY, photography based digital image, 24x24 , 2013

DISCOVERY, photography based digital image, 24×24 , 2013

We once heard Chuck Close say he did not believe in being inspired, rather in working hard everyday. What motivates you in your studio practice?

I guess I agree with that statement.  I just paint, once or twice or more a day.  Some days suck and I leave the studio.  Others, I stay forever. I can only get better if I do it constantly so I try to. It is a rare evening when I am not sitting with my laptop working on a photographic image.  I may keep the results.  I may hit delete, but I do the work.  When I found out my mother had been diagnosed with cancer, my creative work stopped.  I had a hard time even thinking about creating when someone so dear was dying.  After her death seven months later, I still wasn’t working.  My reiki master asked why I wasn’t working and insisted I needed to be.  As a creative person, he told me, it is imperative for your well-being.  He suggested I just sit down and do it-even if what I created was bad.  Just do it.  I did and was after a few weeks, back on track.  That was some of the best advice I was ever given.

What artists living or non-living influence your work?

Andrew Wyeth, obviously has influenced my life.  Though I do not and could not paint as he does, he is why I am an artist.  In college, I fell forever in love with modern art and most especially the abstract impressionists. I was surprised at how some of my photographic work recalls some of Gerhard Richter’s watercolors-especially since I had not been introduced to him until recently. Locally, painter Pamela Anderson encouraged me to get involved with the Milwaukee art scene.  Occasionally, a Beki Borman Lloyd horizon line will appear on my canvas or my screen or I hear Melissa Dorn Richards speak in my subconscious. And I am constantly inspired by the work ethic and incredible art of Daniel Fleming.

When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in? 

I volunteer at Literacy Services of Wisconsin tutoring adults trying to get their GEDs.  I also have volunteered for and followed drum and bugle corps for the past decade.  The movement and color are a constant inspiration-and source-for my photographic art.  I absolutely LOVE the movies and I read, mostly fiction, constantly. And I have a kick ass party in December called Sararizmas!


10-Sara RisleyOnce Sara Risley wrangled the camera away from her avid amateur photographer dad at the age of ten, she rarely relinquished her hold on it. Her fascination with light and color led her to study photography at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  Her experiments in long shutter speed photography and subject movement became too expensive with film and, having grown up with Depression era parents, she felt the strong responsibility to pay her own way.  She left the fine art world for a creative job in portrait photography.  During her 27-year portrait career, she constantly looked for the odd angle, dramatic lighting, or unique setting to create a more dynamic portrait.    With the advent of digital photography, the exploration she had begun post-college was renewed.  She currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and shows her work locally and has been part of juried shows in Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and Florida.

In the Studio

In the Studio

All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission. 

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