Centuries ago, the distinction between artist and architect was not as pronounced as it is today. Envisioning space and rendering fine lines were skills critical to both, but through the years, the disciplines splintered off in different directions. For Swannanoa artist and would-be architect Sally Sweetland, the two pursuits remain closely related. “Art and architecture have always been kind of inseparable for me,” she says. “In my work, I think I’m constantly trying to resolve their apparent separateness.”
As a child, Sweetland and her friends designed tree houses and homes for dolls, but she spent hours drawing and painting, too. Confident in her skills as an artist, she decided to pursue architecture in graduate school, enrolling in the rigorous program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There she practiced designing “everything from the corner of a room to whole cities,” she says, but the part she loved best was the drawing. “When looking at buildings, you can tell which ones were designed by hand and those designed on a computer,” she says. “You can see the hand of the designer in the lines.” Although Sweetland never pursued a full-fledged career as an architect, her formal training influences her artwork, which ranges from large-scale oils to intimate watercolor still lifes and portraits.
Watercolor looks “deceptively simple,” says Sweetland, “like it was done quickly, almost like a gesture drawing.” But her finished work is the result of multiple sketches and a series of decisions about what’s left in and what’s kept out. More than any other medium she’s worked in, watercolor requires focus. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to explore. While Sweetland long pursued still lifes and portraits as a way to build skills, her latest work depicts whimsical, Chagall-esque nature spirits. “The playful work is closer to my true self,” she says. On the other hand, her oil paintings (some over five feet tall) tend toward patterns and abstract forms. “I never know quite where I’m going with them when I start, and that’s what keeps me coming back,” she says.
While architecture engages the head, it’s the heart that influences her work now. “I find that when I work from the heart,” she says, “that’s what people really respond to.”
Sweetland's work will be on display at FILO in Asheville throughout May and June. sallysweetland.com