Smile Politely

Realist painter Sara Jahn on painting with magic

realist painting of gold letter balloons spelling "OK" in a black frame
Sara Jahn, A Cause for Celebration; photo by Serenity Stanton Orengo

I first encountered Sara Jahn’s paintings at this year’s Crystal Lake Arts Fair. I was immediately drawn to her dark and moody paintings of skulls with pops of red set against a black backdrop in her tent. After following her on Instagram, where she frequently posts updated progress on her artwork, I was officially a fan, and delighted to see the debut of A Cause for Celebration at West Side Arts. I recently corresponded with Jahn to discuss the role of social media in her art-marking, her medium of choice, and what she’s working on now (hint: it’s not a painting!).

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity

Three paintings by Sara Jahn of skulls with red accents and black backgrounds hang against a black wall
Paintings by Sara Jahn; photo by Serenity Stanton Orengo

Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What ties you to Champaign-Urbana?

Sara Jahn: I’ve lived in the area almost my entire life — I grew up just outside of Mahomet, then went to the University of Illinois where I met my husband. We both have family close by, so we decided to stay in Champaign to raise our two kids. We love the community and the international feel of the city, the freshness of the University and the small-town feel of our neighborhood and the surrounding rural areas. I’ve heard of a running joke that there’s a mysterious Champaign “vortex” that keeps you here, and I’m not sure that’s entirely untrue!

SP: Tell me about the progression of your art-making. How did you get started? What has changed along the way?

Jahn: There was no question that I would have a creative career, but it took me a while to find my niche. I went to the U of I without much of a plan. I was lucky to have a wide variety of art classes there, and I took everything from photography and video to graphic design and fashion. I discovered the Italian Baroque and Dutch Golden Age masters, and there was no other option for me afterwards. The history, religiosity, and symbolism of those specific time periods really speak to me, so I decided to pursue realist oil painting. Unfortunately, the modern art school zeitgeist makes very little room for that kind of work (that’s a whole conversation for another day), so I had to strike out on my own after college and teach myself realist techniques. Luckily for me, there’s been a resurgence in realism in the past twenty or so years, and classes once exclusive to elite art schools are available anywhere you have an internet connection. I read a lot of books and made a lot of bad paintings to ascend the learning curve, and there’s still a ways to go.

I never really explored other mediums, because I felt I didn’t have to – oil painting has a rich history and a material advantage that other mediums don’t. If you use oil, there’s a backlog of thousands of artists that have done it before you and added to the mountain of techniques available to achieve the finish you want. It’s a flexible, forgiving medium, and to me, it feels like painting with magic.

A white hand draws a skull on paper
Sara Jahn

SP: I really enjoy your videos and updates on Instagram that show your progress with individual pieces. In particular, your recent painting of the skull with the colorful fabric as the backdrop. How does the experience of filming works-in-progress impact your process?

Jahn: Honestly, I hate it. It feels performative, and it draws me away from the contemplative aspect of art-making, when time falls away and I’m enveloped in the process. When I have to remember to stop and record myself every once in a while, it pulls me out of the haze and it feels mechanical instead of organic. I feel like I can’t make mistakes, because then it’s on camera and everyone will see the ugly first stages, which is the consequence of being a perfectionist. However, it’s one of those things that I have to do to reach an audience outside of Champaign. We’re both blessed and cursed with the scope of the internet, where on one hand you can reach people across the world with the phone in your pocket, but you’re also competing against millions of others for five seconds of attention, where the shiniest new things gets boosted the most.

Painting of a skull sitting on white fabric with a bright Hawaiian floral background
Sara Jahn

SP: Two of your more recent paintings both have surprising juxtapositions: the skull has the colorful and bright fabric behind it; and then A Cause for Celebration has the balloons just reading “OK” (I think is my favorite by you!) What about these types of contrasts appeals to you/ what draws you to these types of juxtapositions?

Jahn: I like to juxtapose opposites in my work to draw out meaning. I look back to the subtle symbolism that the Dutch painters utilized in the 17th and 18th centuries, like insects hidden among fruit representing death and decay, or wilting flowers to symbolize the passage of time. Many of the objects I paint have developed intrinsic meaning over the centuries in a Western art context, so I use these meanings to create contrast and provoke thought, and put them with modern objects to shift the still life genre to my personal taste. Current events and environmentalism also come into play, though less frequently.

Sometimes it just happens subconsciously, because it’s something that I think about so often that it’s become part and parcel of how I think about art as a whole. In A Cause for Celebration, I thought of the balloons first, because the concept was funny to me, and then realized halfway through that I could be saying one of two things – that it’s ironic in a sarcastic way, because why in the world would you buy balloons that just say “ok,” or that maybe it’s good to celebrate being “ok” because it’s better than being not okay. It’s up to the viewer to decide.

The skull with the colorful fabric was started just after the wildfires in Lahaina. I have family in Hawaii (on a different island), but the ties are still there, so I was thinking about the ultimate juxtaposition of life and death. It was both a painting exercise in trying to render the skull and fabric believably, and an ode the island and my ancestry.

Painting of a green army ammunition metal holder
Sara Jahn

SP: What are you currently working on?

Jahn: I haven’t been working on much in the past few weeks. I go through periods like this where I blame something else (kids, my schedule, other projects) and don’t work for a while. But part of the art-making process is taking time to rest and recharge. I have a few plans in mind, which include making a body of work for a local solo show, and working on a joint show with Darin Doty (which we’ve been talking about for months, but I promise we’ll do it soon).

Painting of a concrete brick on a stand covered with purple fabric
Sara Jahn

SP: What have been the most rewarding and most challenging projects you’ve completed to date?

Jahn: I painted sixteen saints on four three-by-six-foot panels for a chapel in Mundelein, Illinois — it took me at least eight months to finish and it was the largest thing I’ve ever done. I think I went through all five stages of grief multiple times while working on those paintings. I’d love to do more large-scale religious work, but it’s definitely an exercise in patience and persistence!

SP: I’ve followed your art account for a while now, but recently discovered you are a writer as well! What genres do you write in? What are you working on now?

Jahn: I write all across the board, from fantasy to romance to whodunits, but horror is my favorite genre. There’s something human and honest about horror. It’s a universal instinct that everyone can relate to, because but there’s always something out there that makes you pause before stepping into the dark. I’m working on a collection of short horror stories right now that I’m hoping to self-publish on Amazon. The timeline for putting it out during “spooky season” isn’t there, but maybe we can all have a spooky Christmas instead! Other than that, I have a finished speculative fiction novel, set in Champaign, that I’ve been sitting on for nearly two years. I haven’t decided what to do with it besides edit (again), but I’m exploring my options.

SP: Do you have an all-time favorite book (an impossible question for most, I know!)?

Jahn: I have so many favorite books, all for different reasons, but I’ll try to name a few! My favorite classic is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I always return to Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, because the characters are fantastic and the atmosphere is just right. My favorite recent read is The Deep by Nick Cutter, which is the only horror book in the past year that gave me the creeps besides The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker, which was fabulously gross and miles better than the movie. But an ultimate favorite? Maybe The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Beautifully written, and I love that he wrote it as a critique of a popular imperialist children’s novel. The themes of war and morality, terror at the heart of a crumbling social hierarchy, all performed through the actions of frightened children —perfection. Do I think it would happen in real life? No, but it’s a great exploration of the things that can go wrong when fear becomes a god.

More Articles