Artists Sarah E. Swist and Kevin R. Mercer collaborate on the mixed-media project Bubblegum & Whiskey, featuring fragments from their lives and skills they’ve picked up throughout moves through different rural American communities. The slices of life collected in Bubblegum & Whiskey are always fresh and eye-catching. An interview with the artists follows.
Check out Bubblegum & Whiskey in the current issue of Newfound.
Laura Eppinger: First of all, I am enchanted and impressed by the range of materials and objects you incorporate. Woodwork! Embroidery! Metal! Paint! How do you decide what materials to use? Which artist brings which expertise to a piece?
Sarah E. Swist and Kevin R. Mercer: We’re glad you enjoy the wide variety of materials! We definitely want to explore as many methods of creation as possible. Our formal art studies were technically in the areas of drawing and painting. We created this project knowing it would be based in mixed-media.
Swist and Mercer: For Bubblegum & Whiskey, we are happy to utilize any process that we think would be most beneficial for a particular piece. Sometimes, that means learning an entirely new skill. Other times, we pick up a technique that has a strong sense of history within our family. Sewing and woodworking are things that our parents and grandparents did for both practical reasons and for entertainment. We have moved several times and there hasn’t been continuity in resources. It encouraged us to branch out, take risks, and endure failures.
Kevin does quite a bit of woodworking but when space was limited he dove into modeling and digital fabrication. Sarah often makes large oil paintings but when ventilation was an issue she started embroidery instead. We teach each other new skills while meshing together our own areas of expertise. We never say “no” when the opportunity to try something new arises.
Bubblegum & Whiskey functions best when we make use of things we find or already have on-hand. It’s about the spirit of making good things happen with leftovers, in less-than-ideal spaces, or with skills we taught ourselves. This kind of attitude is what makes the small, rural communities that we live in continue to thrive.
In addition to professional artists, we like to look at drawings, notes, journals, quilts, tools, and photographs from relatives. – Swist and Mercer
Eppinger: “Bubblegum & Whiskey” is a great name for this exhibit. It’s an unlikely pairing at first, but is also appealing. Something sweet, something dangerous and potent. … Am I missing anything?
Swist and Mercer: We feel like the name Bubblegum & Whiskey totally encapsulates the highs and lows of daily life. We like to feel the uplifting nostalgia of childhood and dig-in to the monotonous underbelly of adulthood. As humans, we want to experience success and growth but we are tied to some of our daydreams from the past. It can be creatively challenging to commit to an entire body of work because life doesn’t always cooperate. Some things appear to be stagnant forever and other things change way too quickly.
Each piece we make has a light side and darker side so we may indulge in whatever is happening at the moment. For example, the pieces titled “Heirloom” are portraits of vintage fabric scraps Sarah’s grandmother saved. They come from dresses made in the ’30s and ’40s that clothed many women in the family. The small sizes, unique patterns and odd shapes make them unusual to work with. When her grandmother had to move out of her home, it felt so unceremonious and gloomy. What do people get rid of and what do they keep? These pieces have no monetary value but they were saved for generations. The paintings we made are portraits of some of the individual scraps that survived more than 60 years of storage.
Eppinger: “Manager’s Special” is bright and eye-catching. It brought Andy Warhol to mind—would you consider Pop Art an influence? If not, who is a bigger influence or inspiration?
Swist and Mercer: We love Pop Art! We’re also interested in old signage and the graphic design often seen in generic items or “off-brand” substitutes. When you shop at a dollar store or pick-up bargain brand groceries, the packaging seems new and eye-catching but it is also budget friendly. It is easy to go to a chain store and glance down an aisle and recognize logos or brands before reading the label.
Kevin worked at a small, independent grocer for several years a long time ago. It was the only grocery store for about 30 miles. It had five aisles. He often labeled produce, stacked cans, and carried out bags for regular customers. After six years, he had seen every aspect of meat grinding and slicing in the deli where the same folks often came for the same order. Taking that slimy slab of meat and cutting it out of felt and wrapping it up in cheap plastic is a really playful homage to those years and that town.
The aesthetics of Bubblegum & Whiskey are influenced by well-known artists like Tom Sachs, Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, and Pip and Pop. We love still-life painting, art with a sense of humor, and getting sucked into Instagram rabbit holes of art. In addition to professional artists, we like to look at drawings, notes, journals, quilts, tools, and photographs from relatives.
Eppinger: “Birthday Tank” takes an object of war and inserts it into a scene from childhood. Of course, children’s toys do this all the time! How did you arrive at this juxtaposition? I feel like there is a minefield of commentary just lurking under the surface.
Swist and Mercer: There are a lot of small towns across the country that have patriotic memorials, statues, artillery and armaments in community parks. Main Street is decorated with flags, folks have banquets and get-togethers at the V.F.W. and local heroes make the paper. There are parades and picnics in the summer, birthday parties in the gazebo and kids in swimsuits ride their bikes to the county pool. These places still exist. It’s really endearing to feel the spirit of a small town.
At the same time, it’s hard to know if people are holding on too tightly or if time has already passed these places by. Sarah’s parents live in a rural town of 800. This year, a grain factory two towns over is shutting down. What happens to the people employed there and their families, or the local businesses where they shop? At the same time, a huge parcel of land on the way to this agricultural plant was sold and the new owner removed all the mature trees to make room for more crops.
Truthfully, we hope that Bubblegum & Whiskey will always be a work in progress. The continual progression, improvement, and evolution of the work is a parallel to the persistent work ethic and optimism found in the small communities we love. – Swist and Mercer
Eppinger: At the time Vol 8 Issue 2 of Newfound went live, Bubblegum & Whiskey was considered a work in progress and still evolving. Is this true today? What new additions have been made? What’s next?
Swist and Mercer: Bubblegum & Whiskey will be in a show at James May Gallery in Algoma, Wisconsin this spring. Recently we have begun to add 3-D modeling and digital collage to the Bubblegum & Whiskey canon, which is a fun and contemporary method of visualizing vintage fabric patterns and retro color schemes. We hope to get this work posted on our website soon.
When we moved to Nebraska last summer, we drove all around the state and went way out in the countryside. It took us a few weeks to get familiar with the area and absorb our new surroundings. We have lived in small rural towns across the Midwest in the past, but we have intentions of staying in this specific place long-term. That gives us a different perspective and allows us the time to explore this place at a slower pace. It’s exciting to think about how the project will change when we become really attached to our surroundings. We aren’t just passing through—Nebraska is home.
Truthfully, we hope that Bubblegum & Whiskey will always be a work in progress. The continual progression, improvement, and evolution of the work is a parallel to the persistent work ethic and optimism found in the small communities we love.
Eppinger: What’s on the horizon for you as a team, and individually as artists?
Swist and Mercer: In 2018, Bubblegum & Whiskey will participate in “Treat America Project” with Treat Gallery out of New York. We will serve as representatives of Nebraska and take pictures to post on Instagram for one week this summer. We join a great group of artists from every state in the country and at the end of the year, there will be a physical exhibition of photographic prints. Proceeds from sales of hardcopy prints during the opening reception in 2019 will go to charities in each state selected by the artists. Folks can follow @TreatAmericaProject and @TreatGallery to see the what will be shared from across the country.
We hope that Bubblegum & Whiskey will continue to be fresh and adventurous. We love sharing this work and enjoy the opportunity to do something different outside of our individual work. Thank you so much for asking such great questions and for inviting us to talk about our ideas and processes.
Sarah E. Swist received her BFA from Western Illinois University and her MFA from Penn State University. As a graduate student, she served as a drawing instructor for the School of Visual Arts and as a digital fabrication assistant in the School of Architecture. She was the recipient of the Fund for Excellence in Graduate Recruitment Award as well as a Creative Achievement Award. In recent years, she worked at the Carnegie Science Center and taught at Penn State Altoona. Swist has lived and shown work across the country. She is currently working and making art at Hastings College in Nebraska as Assistant Professor of Painting.
Kevin R. Mercer received his BFA from Western Illinois University and his MFA from Penn State University. At WIU, Mercer received the University Gallery Purchase Award and at PSU he was the recipient of the prestigious Gerald Davis Painting Prize. As a graduate student, he served as a design instructor and as a wood/metals shop technician. Mercer previously worked with the Carnegie Museum of Art and as Assistant Professor of Art & Gallery Manager at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. He has shown in cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Brooklyn, Portland, and Pittsburgh. Currently, he lives and works in Nebraska where he serves as Instructor of Art & Gallery Director at Hastings College.
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.[medium_cross_link url="https://medium.com/@lola_epp/the-highs-and-lows-of-daily-life-artist-interview-with-sarah-e-swist-and-kevin-r-mercer-36545e9b6aaf"]