Sarah BarnhartThe erotic mixed media artist on
collaging with vintage porn
19 December 2018
Sarah Barnhart is a mixed media artist integrating eroticism into colourful collages. In addition to a full-time gig at a bookstore, the Virginia-based twenty-five-year-old layers cutouts of women from aged Playboys over hand-drawn illustrations. Her artwork is not only eye-catching but challenges the stigma surrounding porn and the female body.
How would you describe yourself as a creator?
Sarah: I would describe myself as an erotic mixed media artist if I really had to define myself.
What drew you to mixed media over other art forms?
Sarah: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been very confident in my drawing skills, and I could never get past my perfectionism long enough to sit down and really focus on drawing and improving my skills. I still felt compelled to create stuff, but I stayed away from drawing for a long time. One day, I ran across a bunch of porn magazines and I started making collages. Collaging was kind of like a gateway drug back into art but it got stale very fast for me because I didn’t feel like I was putting enough ‘me’ into it. So, I just started experimenting. I love geometric shapes and bright colours, so it felt natural to go into repetitive patterns and I don’t really know after that. It really just felt right.
What was the motive to integrate eroticism into your collages?
Sarah: About three years ago, I was compelled to buy all these old Playboys for like $20 off some guy in the parking lot at my job. I had no idea what I was going to do with five boxes of Playboys so I just started cutting them up. I made something, posted it online and it got taken down almost immediately even though the piece was super tame. The stigma around sex, nudity, and the dual nature of private and public life is that sex is the most disgusting thing, but it’s also something that the majority of people enjoy. So, I kept putting nipples, vaginas, and maybe a little bit of penis into my art to see what I could get away with. I’m going, to be honest – it’s not very much.
I think it’s important that we stop hiding sex and pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it’s rude to talk about because it’s just another part of life like taking a poop or something. If we keep hiding it, people will continue to be uneducated about their own bodies, the bodies of others, and how to treat them with respect. We can’t have that anymore.
What comes first: the background illustration, the text, or the erotic image?
Sarah: Usually, the background comes first. I tend to pick up ideas and take pictures of things that I find aesthetically pleasing throughout the day. Sometimes, it’ll just start with a colour scheme. I find it much easier to match a picture to a background than the other way around. Text, if there is any, pretty much always comes last. When the image is done, the text usually finds me without much effort.
Are there any other artists you’re inspired by at the moment?
Sarah: Oh wow, hard question. The answer is yes, definitely too many to name. I take a lot of inspiration from artists like Kusama, Kandinksy, LeWitt, and Klint. I also take a lot of inspiration from Instagram, which is a great place to find new artists. I think my most visited Instagram art pages are:
Where do you source the images from for a collage? Are there any specific criteria for the images you use?
Sarah: I get all of the images I use from old porno magazines. There are no specific criteria that I use but I do gravitate towards certain colours and time frames. I tend to only buy magazines from 1975-1998 because I do kind of like them to be a little low quality and not HD. Sometimes they have these Vaseline filters on them like season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race and those are probably my favourite. My favourite porn years are 1977 and 1993. I almost never fail when I buy magazines from those years.
Can you describe your process of creating mixed media art?
Sarah: It’s a little bit different every time. But generally, I start by sketching a background. Once that’s finished, I will go over it in marker. I used to specifically use acrylic paint markers but I’ve been branching out into Prismacolor markers and watercolours just to experiment. After that, I go back and add all the line work and details to the background. That’s my favourite part because then I can really start to see everything come together. Once the background is completely finished, I generally spend one to three hours looking through all my porno mags, trying to find the perfect thing to paste on top.
I sit there ripping out pages from various magazines and trying to envision them on the background. Usually, I cut them all out and kind of “try them on.” I keep everything I don’t end up using that time in a binder for possible later use. Then I take the big leap of glueing it down which can be scary and/or exciting. Then I add whatever additional line work to the sourced picture. That’s usually where it stops. Sometimes I do let the piece sit around for a day or two; make sure it is completely finished, but generally, I’m not that patient.
How do your collages address the idea of female beauty and challenging standards?
Sarah: This is a complicated question, so I’m going to answer it as briefly as I can. The mainstream view in today’s society seems to be that porn is objectively immoral. By taking the porn that the vocal majority finds abhorrent and disgusting, and making it into something beautiful and non-threatening, I’m opening up the conversation about the other qualities that erotic imagery has to offer. When people are consuming porn, they use it as a means to an end. The question I’m asking is, “What if there is something beautiful here that you’re just glossing over so you can get that nut?” I could write a whole essay about this maybe but I’ll keep it at that.
Have you encountered censorship due to the nature of your collages?.
Sarah: Yes, absolutely! Way more than I ever thought I would. The Instagram police never fail to notice an exposed nipple or a shadow of a labia or any of that. So, each time I put up a piece, even if it is pretty tame, I still find my self gripping my seat just in case they decide to cancel me for good. I know its mostly just an algorithm but it does make me nervous. I am definitely one to just repost something over and over if it gets taken down. It’s my little “fuck you” to following the rules.