Q&A with Artist Sarah Otts

The story behind Sarah Otts’ new book for children

Sarah Otts // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Sarah Otts’ home studio sits tucked around the side of her home, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood off Springhill Avenue. The morning we meet, the pink studio doors stand propped open and a few children’s toys lay scattered across the driveway, as an apron-clad Otts and her studio assistant, Jacqueline, load an armchair into an SUV. The furniture is bound for the new Sarah Otts Gallery at Holiday Place in Spring Hill — but more on that in a moment.

To step inside the studio is to be enveloped in Otts’ distinctive aesthetic. Works-in-progress and finished pieces, both large and small, adorn the walls in a cheerful riot of color. It’s a happy, light-filled space.

With the furniture on its way to the gallery, Otts settles at her desk to discuss her debut children’s book, titled “To Be A Line.” After more than 20 years working as a painter, the Mobile native has delved into the world of literature with a classic “embrace your true self” story, reimagined from the artist’s unique point of view. In her book, lines and shapes spring to life as distinct characters. Otts expertly breathes life into the abstract forms through both her thoughtful prose and her delightful illustrations, which spill across the pages in her characteristic bold and colorful style.

What inspired this book?
I took inspiration from several different places. Being a mother, of course, was one of them. I have this instilled need to teach my children to be themselves. I think it’s because I always felt like a slightly peculiar person when I was growing up. I needed someone in my ear to say, “It’s OK to be you. It’s OK to be different.” There were periods of time when I really doubted myself and different phases of life when I really needed a reminder that you’re “you” by design, and great things happen when you learn to trust it.

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My art itself was also an inspiration. I grew as an artist when I learned how to paint without any inhibitions or worry about what other people think. Creating art literally wrote that story of the line. It was a very organic story to tell.

What was the final push that made you say, “I’m doing it, I’m writing the book?”
I was sitting at my desk drawing in my sketchbook, and I felt a need to create this linear, inky drawing, which is that winding linework that I show in my book and in a lot of my art. Then I felt this sense of narrative. A line can be truly anything you want it to be, but you have to trust that it can grow in that way. In that sense, it reminded me of a person who’s growing up.

It was as simple as that in the beginning, and then I kept writing down these little ideas about what it would be like to be a line. I read them to my children, and they got it. They sat there and listened to my story and gave me feedback and asked me questions, and it made me feel like it was a story that children could connect to.

“To Be A Line” is a real art book for children. The illustrations are so rich. Did you find that your process of creating art for children, within the confines of a book page, differed at all from your process for the rest of your work?
People regularly associate the colors I use with children (not that they are exclusive to children). My work is so notably colorful that a lot of people ask me for paintings for their children’s rooms.

As I developed the storyline for the book, I wanted the line to stay simple and black, but I wanted to incorporate color so the book would have vivid imagery for children. And so the shapes came into the storyline, and that gave me an opportunity to work with color. I found that as I created the illustrations, I used cut paper in the same way that I paint, and I really enjoyed it. I found that I was able to achieve the same look through a different medium.

You’ve talked about how motherhood influenced your art and vice versa. Can you talk a little bit about how those two aspects of your life play off each other?
When I became a mom to my first child, who is now 7, there was this major shift in me and in my art, and I found this new appreciation for being real. I found I had the courage to be who I was designed to be, and that was reflected in the art I was creating.

At the same time, I started writing. I wanted to record everything so my children could one day see that I was learning to be myself. I write a blog, and I keep a lot of writing and sketchbooks. As I paint, these epiphanies come about, and I make a point to record them so they don’t just get lost. The book came about in the same way, but I’ve been writing like this for seven years.

In your blog, you talk about finding your purpose. Can you talk about what you feel your purpose is and how your work fits into that purpose?
As I grew in my art and my career, I started to ask myself: Why do I do this? There’s got to be a bigger purpose. There’s got to be a reason I have this gift. I feel so compelled to share with people, and I feel so compelled to write. It just slowly came around that it feels like God is trying to encourage me to share the message: Be a bright spot. And that’s my tagline. It just means: “Be true. Be real. Be kind. Own who you are and who you were designed to be.”

What’s next for you?
The opening of the store, Sarah Otts Gallery, paralleled with the book in such a weird way. I felt, about six months ago, on the verge of bringing all the things I enjoy into one picture.

After I wrote the book, I thought about all these different ways to back up the book’s message. For example, I’m creating a journal for children to help them find confidence in their own ability to create and draw and be themselves. I hope that when people come to my store and they see my book and my art and these products, they feel a sense of inspiration, encouragement and brightness.

“To Be A Line” is available at sarahotts.com and Sarah Otts Gallery, 4513 Old Shell Road, Mobile.

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