“Making art is my life’s purpose and my oxygen. I am always thinking about it and everything feeds my art making. It is centering, restorative and puts life into its proper perspective.”
Sharon Sayegh is an artist who also works part-time consulting for a cardiology practice. She lives in a forest setting with her husband and their dog, Joy. Sharon grew up in Margate City, a small town outside of Atlantic City, where she was born in 1956. Her father, born in Damascus, Syria, came to North America when he was 27 with her mother and with her then 2-year-old brother. She grew up with the dramatic stories her father recounted of his childhood, similar to those of Antoine Galland’s 1001 Nights. Sharon's parents’ adventures had a profound impact on her, though she cannot even begin to say how deeply she internalized them. Her father left his loving family of 13 brothers and sisters in Syria when he was 14 years old, walking at night through the desert to Palestine, where he became a founding member of Kibbutz Hatzerim. Her mother, originally from Atlantic City, traveled throughout Europe and landed on Kibbutz Hatzerim (the developer of drip irrigation), where she met Sharon’s father. Sharon grew up in a household, unlike anyone she knew, in the Jersey resort town of Margate, with its manicured lawns and lovely homes. Her father came from a land far off both in distance and in time. She quotes her brother who said aptly in her father’s eulogy that “he lived 400 years, from the Middle Ages in Damascus to the 20th Century shores of Atlantic City.” In the United States, her father eventually became a landscape architect, and also had a beautiful gift shop on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Sharon worked there during the summers and also helped her father in the gardens, he was committed to making the world more beautiful. Her mother was a writer and a teacher, she earned her PhD in romance languages while Sharon was growing up. She painted, was a ceramicist, but most of all had dreams of becoming a journalist. Her parents were both very creative and therefore, Sharon grew up with an appreciation for arts of all kinds. Her brother was passionate about comedy, music and performance, and her sister was a photographer. Sharon's childhood home was lively, with all the creative arts welcomed into it. Their house was filled with the paintings of the now notable primitive artist Malcah Zeldis, a very close lifelong friend of her parents, and loves naif art to this day because of Malcah. Her parents cultivated in her, reverence and deep appreciation for artists.
Physically, Sharon was born with a displaced hip that landed her in a brace at 6 weeks of age, she continued to wear it only as a night brace until the 6th grade, which had a profound impact on her emotionally. She is the youngest of three, and both her siblings became attorneys, Sharon however was very shy, so in this house of extremely articulate and verbally expressive people, she tended towards the quiet side, finding it difficult to sometimes even get a word in. She put her emotions and thoughts into making artwork and building things. Sharon recalls many trips riding her bike to the town dump and digging through the treasures people threw away, bringing all kinds of ‘findings’ home, along with toads, frogs, and all kinds of sick animals in need. In the summer, she spent time on the beach hunting for shells, sand crabs and starfish. They had many pets such as dogs, cats, pheasants, African owls, Jacobins, fish, finches, and chickens. In high school, she attended Andover Summer Session, where she fell in love with printmaking. She attended Hinkley School of Crafts in Maine, where she studied jewelry making. She also enjoyed many after school hours riding horses with her best friend, where they would ride double and bareback along the busy parkway, taking the horse swimming in the nearby lake. In high school, she spent many weekends honing her pretty good pool skills at the local bar with her girlfriends, delighted in challenging the unsuspecting young men to games and frequently beating them, much to their surprise.
“I always strive to be a better person and a better artist. They are one and the same.”
Sharon spent many hours pouring over fine art books, and recalls her mother taking her and her sister for art lessons, where they sat painting in gouache, still-life arrangements set up for them in a light-filled sunroom. She was always enchanted by the art making process, spending many hours drawing and painting on her own throughout her childhood. This was the place where she found the most peace and a sense of who she truly was. She held many jobs, from making floats for the Miss America Pageant to private investigator, and also worked as a casino cocktail waitress. At one point, she went back to school to get the equivalent of a BS degree in order to become a physical therapist. Due to a back injury, she abandoned that plan and became certified to teach fine arts. Later, she married and raised two wonderful children with all her spare time going towards making art.
With a mixture of surrealism and 19th century religious iconography, Sharon invites you on an emotional journey. At first, the pictures make you slightly uneasy, as if caught in an uncomfortable dreamworld, yet unable to look away. The combination of women staring intensely into your eyes and the animals, often looking as if fleeing some invisible danger, intrigues you. Then suddenly, the beauty of it all touches you and becomes clear. We are looking at the complexities of the human mind, magical dreams that have been sublimely translated into oils on a canvas.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?
A. I use symbols and metaphors in my narrative paintings. There are many layers of meanings I am aware of as I work. I love icon paintings, particularly the spirituality attained in them. They appear to me like little jewels. Sometimes, I am successful in bringing that sort of spirituality into my work, though not by retelling the biblical stories. I have brought spirituality into my artwork by borrowing halos, referencing Giotto, and other renaissance masters, all while working from my imagination. I turn inward to create and I love these paintings. However, I am trying to develop my artwork and techniques departing from my more primitive painting style. I have been teaching myself to use traditional painting styles, employing stumbling and the glazing techniques of the masters. I am always expanding and pushing the boundaries of my artwork. I think that defines me more than anything else.
Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career?
A. In 2018, I had a piece juried into a show in Zhou B Art Center in Chicago, Ill. Many of the artists I greatly admire were in this show, so for me, it was a great achievement. I met many artists there and I continue to learn from them in that I am inspired to push my artistic boundaries to the next level. The curators took all the artists with a guest out to dinner after the reception. They had a professional photographer taking photos and videos of everyone, it was so professionally done and tons of fun.
Prior to that, I worked on a series called Brave Hearts: Warriors for Peace. I’ve painted many well known and lesser known political figures, I had to contact them for permission in order to exhibit the paintings. It was exciting to make contact with these people who welcomed my series, as it resulted in meeting one of my subjects from Bangladesh. He came to speak at Rutgers University and then had my series written about in a Bangladeshi newspaper.
Q.What role does the Artist/ Painter have in society?
A. Art has great potential and can connect with people from all walks of life. I think in part the artist’s role is to hold a mirror up to society. Art reflects the times it is made in, and can come to represent an era in our culture like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. However, every artist must decide for themself what role they want their art to play and then pursue that.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. I think one of the best childhood memories was when my parents took us to Paris. I remember every morning my sister and I going down to the corner pastry shop and in the best French we could manage, asking to purchase the best croissant and hot chocolate I have ever had.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. At one point I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. However, I always knew I was an artist, and in my heart wanted to be an artist.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. My mother made ceramics when we were very little. I remember my mother giving me clay and a balloon, I made a piggy bank and painted it. I was probably five years old. We had a kiln, fired it and I still have it in my den today with a few very old dollars in it. This was not the first art I made but I just have a memory of it. I have memories of sitting at our kitchen table with my sister and my mother putting out art supplies for us.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I cannot recall any particular moment. I have always seen myself as an artist, as far back as I can remember. I was always seriously interested in art.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. I try to turn inward when coming up with concepts for my paintings, and find myself expressing my relationship with the natural world in almost all of my work. There are other underlying narratives but this is a constant in much of my work. I think we are getting far away from the natural world in our daily lives, as well as from one another due to our obsession with technology. I would like to focus on our connection with plants, animals and one another in my artwork. I am also very interested in beauty, I want to create beauty.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. I think being shy and withdrawn much of my life was hard for me. It made me feel isolated and I lacked social skills because of it for a long time, and also had lots of fears as a child.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. I sacrificed having a steady and livable income in order to pursue art. I sacrificed what I believe was expected of me, and the respect of some people who thought I was wasting my time because I had not achieved success as they measured it.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. I am inspired by the work of many living artists such as Andre Remnev, Steven Assael, Margaret Bowland, Steve Chmilar, Andrea Kowch, Alex Gross, Brad Kunkle, Adam Miller, Janet Fish, Vincent Desiderio and so many others. I am always finding new artists that inspire me, as well as inspiration in the art giants of the past.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. I never feel lonely when I am working on my art. I have other artist friends who are as obsessed as I am, and I talk to them about art often. Painting is not a lonely job for me, it restores me and is totally engaging. I do not feel lonely when I am so fully engaged with what I am doing. I also often listen to audiobooks, music or podcasts when I work.
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. I love latin dancing. My husband and I took it up 6 years ago and have been dancing about 5 nights a week ever since. What I love most is going to the local pub on the weekends with my husband where they have a band playing and dancing through the night. It is very liberating and relaxing. I also love to read and travel.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. My philosophy in art is to always push myself beyond what I’ve done before. Never stop creating, never stop learning, never stop growing. Art is life and I want to grow as a person as well as in my art, they are one and the same. In my own work, I break apart my art into parts- technique, content, concept, color, form, method, paint handling, etc. I work on further developing one or two of these in the next project by evaluating weaknesses in the work on my easel at any moment. This is how, in practicality, I go about pushing my boundaries.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. Success for me means developing and growing artistically. I want to grow my artwork and push the boundaries of my work, I apply this to each painting.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. I have learned that it is the most sensitive people who feel they have nothing to offer when in fact the world is in great need of what they possess. The world is a complicated place and rather than trying to fix the larger systems, I believe in doing small things to make it better. I think it is the small things in life that matter and you can make a difference and effect change by improving yourself, your environment and those you come into contact with on a daily basis.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working”. While not given directly to me, I think this is excellent advice. I wake up and get to work in my studio every day, I do not wait for inspiration to hit me. This is extremely useful advice.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Work hard at what you love to do and read a lot. Hard work is more important than talent. If you have talent, but do not develop it with the discipline of hard work, then you are not giving yourself the opportunity to be the best at what you do. Take rejection as an opportunity to get even better at your craft. Stay with it and accept that there are ebbs and flows in the art making process as in life.