Published September 19, 2023
Art School for the Wild: An Interview with Sarah Grass, Artist and Founder of The Pack
Sarah Grass is a Chilean-American visual artist living and working in Queens, NY. She uses visual metaphor to render complexities of the psyche in drawing. Through disarming symbolism, such as a phallic-shaped female dachshund, Grass depicts personal/collective anxieties related to trauma and grief work, displaced identity in diaspora lineage, masculine/feminine polarity, non-binary states of being, and the weakened feminine principle under patriarchal rule. Grass holds a BFA in Fine Arts and MFA in Art Practice from The School of Visual Arts and has taught at the School of Visual Arts and Montclair State University.
In addition to her studio practice, Sarah Grass is Founder of The Pack, a new alternative art school. As she describes it, The Pack is “art school for the wild.” Now in its third year, the school offers both short and long-term virtual courses, one-off intuitive art reading sessions, and ongoing drop-in sessions. Having served over 50 participants in 10 states, five countries, and counting, The Pack is carving out a new (digital) space for artists seeking a different kind of creative dialogue.
When Sarah’s new nine-month program called the Artist Rebirth Cycle (ARC) popped up on my Instagram feed last summer, I decided to reach out. I knew it was exactly what I needed to reconnect with my own making practice. Along with seven other participants, I became one of eight members of the first ARC cohort. Sarah and I sat down to reflect on the inaugural year of the ARC, her visions for alternative art education, and creating a life that seamlessly blends art and teaching.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
We’re having this conversation about a year after I first approached you about joining The Pack. And so much has happened in the past year, including the first Artist Rebirth Cycle and our culminating group show, Labor \ Delivery at Bob’s Gallery in July 2023. Can you introduce The Pack and share a bit about how it began?
SG: It’s been a wonderful year! I’m so glad you reached out, and look how far we’ve come! The Pack is an art school I designed for artists’ internal creative processing, which eventually results in physical artworks. Human attention is a hot commodity, and the only way to practice creativity is to focus the power of that attention with intention. In The Pack, we aim at the living, breathing target of deep creative presence. I introduce elements of psychology, philosophy, art history, Dharma Buddhism, biology, and spirituality. Our courses operate in languages of the mind, body, and all things interconnected. We’re a social club for introverted processes.
The Pack began in March 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown in New York City. As the outer world was shutting down, our inner realms were being activated— from domestic spaces to the intimate feelings of our collective grief. With all college courses moving to Zoom, I started teaching out of my studio. The energy of my classes blended with my intimate drawing space and vice versa. We seemed to exist in a porous realm between classroom, studio, bedroom, kitchen table, living room etc. This intersection of private and public is in many ways what art is. I started to envision an art school in which this was the goal, rather than a band-aid solution in a pandemic. What would an art school born from the internal sphere look like? As it formed in my mind, I decided I’d really like to teach there, so I started building it in the physical realm. I sent out an email inviting former students to work with me, and voila! So this beautiful community was born from a traumatic event and the basic human drive for connection and creative repair.
What types of courses do you currently offer?
SG: The Pack is a form of atelier school, not in the sense of learning realistic technical skills from a master, but in the sense of building a practice alongside one artist out of their personal studio and its aura of ideas. Right now we offer four different options for four different commitment levels: The Artist Rebirth Cycle is the longest, a nine-month gestation period in which artists birth or rebirth a creative practice. This culminates in a new body of work and a group exhibition; The Pack Classic is a 10- to 12-week course in which artists develop and share projects already cooking in their studio. It offers the opportunity to socialize one’s personal practice with an internally focused community. I also offer Intuitive Art Readings which are a combination of studio visit, critique, creative coaching, and intuitive guidance using the language of tarot. I call this the “Lone Wolf” option, for folks who are not in a place to commit long-term and want something more customized than an open session. Open Sessions are one-night-only donation-based events, scattered throughout the year. These group sessions are themed, offering artists an opportunity to discuss their work in a context they might not have previously considered. I post about Open Sessions on The Pack’s Instagram account: @thepack.art, and via e-blast, which you can sign up for here.
Who is your typical student? And who do you think would benefit from this kind of approach and environment?
SG: We attract a wide variety of students, from the professional with an MFA to those struggling to label themselves “artist”. The result is a beautiful co-mingling of folks who are probing similar questions and seeking similar personal development beyond labels and degrees of experience. The Pack is for anyone looking to take root in a nourishing, sustainable studio practice. No matter how far you get in an art career, there’s a need to retreat and stabilize at times— to ground oneself by deconstructing the limiting or aggrandizing stories that occupy our minds. On one given day it could be, “I'm a genius, I'm amazing.” And then the next, “I was rejected, and therefore, I suck.” There has to be equanimity between these two poles in order to maintain creative flow. The Pack is a space of celebrating failure as much as success. We get real and ditch any posturing that leaves us internally exhausted.
We've had over 50 participants so far, from the Netherlands to Argentina to Mexico to Canada, and across the US. The beauty of Zoom is that it reaches far and wide. As long as you're in a compatible time zone, you are welcome, and I look forward to offering more times in the future.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
SG: Short answer: core values, self-actualization, spiritual liberation, ritual/habit, and community responsibility. Now the longer answer: As an educator, life-long learner, and artist, I feel closely aligned to Fred Korthagen's core reflections model of education, which focuses on inner and outer alignment. A long-term art practice must align inner and outer experience if it is to endure the pressures of our extractive— as opposed to creative—society. We need work that feeds us back! Korthagen’s model is especially useful for artists looking to hone their own inner guidance, rather than yield to external or professional models of success.
I am also deeply connected to bell hooks’ idea of education as a practice of freedom. I share her stance that in order for education to liberate, teachers must walk the walk, practicing deep self-examination and holding vulnerable positions alongside their students.
In addition, I view art as a spiritual practice, along the lines of meditation. Both can be ways of observing reality and psychic projections. In my art practice, I blend the surreality of the unconscious with observation. The observed thing becomes a lightning rod for consciousness. Repeated subjects or motifs in art can function like mantras in meditation, yielding an expanded sense of wholeness by focusing on the specific. The Dharma teachings have become central to my life and work in recent years. Whether in my own art practice or teaching, my biggest motivation is observing and liberating consciousness: individual and collective.
Do you see The Pack as a replacement for traditional art school or as an extension or parallel endeavor?
SG: More parallel endeavor. Traditional education is a wonderful experience despite the exorbitant cost and sometimes unnecessarily harsh learning conditions. The Pack is a response, and alternative to that.
Working with students aged 14 to 75, I realized that a big part of art education is simply encouraging expression— encouraging students past internal blocks that are more often related to social conditioning than intellect or skill. Process is more important than progress. Presence is a mode of way-finding.
Many people land in the arts because they possess the gift of high sensitivity and talent. Oftentimes, they’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, or depression. If the main goal of a school is to produce a portfolio, the healing aspect of processing one’s experience through art-making can be lost. In general, art schools are designed to align with the art market and its most prominent conversations of the moment. This may or may not be where an artist is at, which easily leads to feelings of fear, failure, or a lack of belonging that led them to connect through art in the first place.
Because of higher education’s direct relationship to the market, and price-point, it's harder to put self-actualization at the center. With The Pack, I'm deliberately placing that conversation front and center. I'm not teaching technical skills like drawing, painting, or sculpture, though I can certainly give qualified feedback. Instead, the centerpiece of The Pack is mirroring. To the best of my ability, I reflect each participant— and they reflect each other—as their practices develop. This method helps clarify the origin and intent of the work—and, if it's not coming out at all, we strategize ways to get in there and bypass restrictive conditioning.
How did you choose “The Pack” as a name?
SG: The Pack relates to a group of dogs, and if you know my work, the connection might seem obvious. However, there is a story. I was burning out in my studio mid-pandemic lockdown. Like the dog, I am inherently a pack animal, and feelings of listlessness and dread were interfering with my usual activities. In isolation, I began questioning what I have to offer society: “What is it that I’m doing, exactly, by drawing dogs?” Confused by why it wasn't satisfying anymore, I left the question up to my subconscious and made a drawing. What emerged were two egg-shaped wolves interconnected like a Venn diagram. They were a couple— an ideal set of parents, perhaps— symbolizing a need to connect with others. I called them “Sympoeisis Starter Pack”. “Sympoeisis”, meaning “making-with” or “becoming-with”.
A wolf mother will adopt any species and nurture it like her own. I consider her an aspirational figure— the one who guided me to build my own pack, taking in all types of creative souls and nurturing them as my artist kin. My drawings, after all, are a mode of connecting with myself and others.
You’ve mentioned that the Artist Rebirth Cycle in particular is geared towards people who might not consider themselves artists or who are experiencing a moment of transition in their practice. Why did you frame the coursework in that way?
SG: One of the things that leads artists to their work is the pain of the unseen. This can be unseen parts of our individual selves, or underrepresented parts of society: both beauty and viciousness. I think artists are skilled at bringing attention to unseen issues because we’re uniquely poised to approach them with curiosity, no need for resolution. Without the pressure to fix things, artists can observe and transform living, breathing experience into deep, connective social tissue. We mirror ourselves, each other, and the world. Whether you call yourself an artist or not, everyone needs a space to feel seen, heard and nurtured in their creative, experiential essence. This is why The Pack is open to all who seek it, regardless of artistic experience.
I ran a session of the Pack Classic from January through March 2022, and as with every course, I evaluated what worked well and what didn't. My main thought at the time was that it had to be longer. Reflecting on my own art school experiences, the most valuable takeaway was the social bonding. In order to get that level of intimacy and camaraderie, there needs to be a length of time. The Artist Rebirth Cycle (at that point, not yet named) would be a longer format course to offer what The Pack Classic was lacking in duration.
Whether you call yourself an artist or not, everyone needs a space to feel seen, heard and nurtured in their creative, experiential essence. This is why The Pack is open to all who seek it, regardless of artistic experience.
Another source of inspiration for the ARC was my Uncle Ricardo, who unexpectedly passed away that spring. He was a creative, nurturing soul without a sufficient outlet. Although he wasn’t an artist with a capital “A”, he was a material wiz, working in construction, fabrication, and even the NYC souvenir business. He was my greatest sculpture teacher, in a way, because he had a technical genius that complemented my wild visions.
Before he came to New York, he was an extremely young emigrant sent from then politically unstable Chile to Israel. There he spent free time carving sculpture out of wood, stone and even avocado pits before being forced to serve in the army. His creativity was suppressed in survival mode, but it never died, even as he struggled to make his way in New York City, which can be the worst place for a creative soul, as much as it can be the best.
As a member of the next generation, I’ve been more fortunate in my pursuit of a creative life. Born and raised in New York, I’m a second generation child of the American empire. I have two art degrees and have spent the last 20 years honing my art practice in one of the biggest art cities of the world. This turn of fate isn’t lost on me, and I want to give back. Art is an antidote to all the feelings of separateness that human beings face. Creation is the antidote to self destruction, which takes too many loved ones away from us too soon.
I want The Pack to attract artists like my uncle as much as artists like me. I want the Artist Rebirth Cycle to be a second or even fifth chance on-ramp to the artist’s way of life.
The next ARC cycle starts up soon; where can people learn more and sign up?
SG: Our next session begins September 26th! Anyone interested in learning more can head over to The Pack’s website, follow us on Instagram at @thepack.art, or email me at email@example.com.
Learn more about Sarah’s practice and view available works on Testudo here.