Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Sara Kollig

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating eight local woman artists who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

Meet Sara Kollig

Sara Kollig
Sara Kollig (provided)

Sara Kollig is a local surrealist and impressionist painter and a community-engagement artist. Her paintings tap into the subconscious mind, inspired by dreams, imagination, and landscapes. Sara’s work explores questions about our collective, human relationship with nature and poses alternative visions for the future of the planet. She finds creative inspiration in rivers, waterfalls, fossils and bones.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Great Parks: Where do you get inspiration for your art?

Sara Kollig: I would say my biggest three inspirations are nature, my own subconscious, through dreams, and through automatic drawing – drawing and creating with my body rather than my mind. And then also the people around me.

GP: Can you say more about how nature, dreams and the subconscious come together in your paintings?

SK: The reason I love using my subconscious for my work is because it allows me to access a part of myself that is obviously not what I feel on the surface every day. And I find it’s those subconscious things that feel the most true to me. But it’s those things that also feel the most true to other people. In some sense, when I dip into the subconscious, I feel like I’m dipping into a common pool, a common dream space, almost, that kind of links people. And that can link to nature. I mean, I see humans as part of nature, obviously. So, when I look at a plant, when I look at the veins in the leaves, I see they look like veins in our lungs. When I look at rocks, I see giant sleeping people. It can look like flesh almost. And I think a lot of people resonate with that on a level that maybe they don’t understand on the surface. But when they see it visually, it makes sense, you know? I kind of relate that to life force. I like painting the life force in people as well as the life force in nature.

GP: What do you mean? 

SK: You choose what you put your energy and your lifeforce toward. For me, I choose to put that toward making art. For plants, they use their lifeforce to grow and propagate.

GP: That’s fascinating. Do you consider yourself a surrealist?

SK: Yeah, I think I would. A surrealist and an impressionist.

GP: Let’s focus in on nature as it relates to your artistic process. Are there places you like to go? Things you do? What is your process like?

SK: My relationship with nature is something that I treasure and there’s been times in my life where I feel closer to it. Places like rivers and waterfalls draw me in a lot. I feel really connected to rivers and waterfalls. I feel like I don’t have to go very far to find beautiful things or to appreciate what’s already here. I don’t have to go all the way to the ocean.

GP: We have a lot of great parks in Cincinnati!

SK: Yes, definitely! Especially in the summer by the river, when it’s so lush. I like finding mussels. I love collecting fossils and rocks and shells and bones and things like that. Fossils, especially, because of how ancient they are. There’s some really cool fossils in the riverbeds here. I love walking and finding them. It’s like little ancient things. I also like using animal bones. I’ve made a couple of things where I find the animal bone and then cover it in beads. I try to put the beads in a pattern that is reminiscent of decay or growth, kind of like there’s a wound or something being eaten away. I’ve had paintings before where I’ll use needle and thread and I’ll sew some bones onto the painting.

GP: So, what is it about the moving water that inspires you? I see a lot of water in your paintings.

SK: To me, I guess it’s very similar to that lifeforce that I was talking about that animates everything. Water can mean so many different things. It can mean washing away the past. Water reminds me that nothing is permanent. And that you don’t have to keep holding onto things in the past. Water just washes through and cleanses everything, cleans everything. It brings life. It can be gentle or powerful. I was at a waterfall, Cumberland falls. And it’s crazy how there can be a part of the river that’s rushing so fast and then suddenly it just gets so slow and gentle. And then it can go fast again.

GP: Yes. There’s so much symbolism. It’s very rich. What are some other symbols, imagery or motifs that you keep returning to in your work? 

SK: I pay attention to the symbols that appear in my life the most. The symbolism of the three materials of blood, oil, and water is something that I return to kind of often. That kind of goes back to the lifeforce thing again. Blood is the life force that flows through us. Water is the life force that flows through a lot of nature. And oil is, I mean, it’s our economy and basically our society is built around oil in a lot of ways. But physically, it is the compressed lifeforce of all that has come before us. That’s the only reason oil is there is because all these plants and animals died and got buried under the ground and compressed and that’s just the old energy of the earth.

GP: I do not often think of oil in that way. That’s wild.

SK: Yeah, that’s why it’s interesting, because we’re literally using up all the previous life force that was on this planet. The amount we have is limited because there’s only so much history that this planet has. I mean, that’s what coal is. It’s the plant material broken down. It’s locked in there. It’s like the energy of the sun has been locked into these substances like oil and coal and stuff and buried underground.

"Snow Trip," a surrealist painting by Sara Kollig.
“Snow Trip” by Sara Kollig (provided)

GP: You know a lot about nature. What did you study in school?

SK: I studied product design. And I also studied environmental studies.

GP: Do any themes around conservation or preservation factor into your artwork or into your artistic practice?

SK: I would say no, not conservation or preservation like that. Because to me, conservation and preservation implies that we should leave nature alone. Like, we’re meant to be separate from nature and leave it alone somehow. But to me, I feel like we’re meant to be a part of nature. And we’re meant to be the stewards of nature, the ones cultivating it. And we can have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. So, you know, maybe some people do relate to the idea of conservation and preservation. Even “sustainability” isn’t enough for me right now because sustainability implies just staying at a constant. So, I’m at a point where I want my practice to be regenerative in some ways.

GP: And what is it about that word that speaks to you more than these other words?

SK: It’s something that’s harder to relate to art than it is to relate to something like agriculture, you know? But for example, painting is one part of my practice, but I would say the more communal part of my practice is sewing. And with my sewing, I use only secondhand materials. And so, to me, that’s regenerative, because I’m giving things life that would have otherwise gone to the landfill. Creating abundance out of what would have been nothing. Which is what nature does, you know? It creates abundance out of nothing. Environmental sustainability, to me, is important. It’s something held in the back of my mind. But I also see that we really, really need to regenerate the bonds between people. That is what I believe in. You can focus on material things and the environment. But if people are suffering, and there’s no bond between them, it’s going to be a lot harder to get there. I love creating spaces where people can come together and learn. And I think that has to do with repairing the bonds between us or forming better bonds between us. So, I see “regeneration” as the regeneration of community as well.

GP: I want to talk more about the community-centered work, the regenerative community building work that you are involved in.

SK: I have worked with Community Happens Here, which is a community center in Pleasant Ridge. They renovated this whole building. They’re making it into a co-working and community event space. And they had a bunch of leftover decking and stuff and an area in the back that needed to be beautified. So, me and my friend and fellow student Elaine worked together and made a play scape and a stage in the back. We made it a point to try and use all secondhand materials, as much as we could, to make something from nothing. I would say we used about 80% upcycled materials. But, different people from the community also came out and just brought stuff. It’s nice when you have that community space, and you can just put it out there that you need this. And then a lot of times, it’ll come back around.

We wanted to have some element of community buy in and engagement with this. So, we created a small activity. So, the stage was one part. And then the second part was this kinetic sculpture that’s hanging from a tree. We took secondhand clothes that were going to a landfill, and we cut them into fabric strips. We chose colors that would go well together to make a composition and hung them from a tree with a pulley. So, it really looks pretty grand and fantastic when you look up at it. But we had a community activity where we got these fabric strips, and twice a week Community Happens Here has a sidewalk hospitality day, where they set up on the sidewalk with tea and activities and snow cones and stuff like that. Anyone walking down the street in the neighborhood can join. So, the whole point of that space is to heal those community bonds and get people who are neighbors to talk. So, in that space, we had an activity where kids could come and braid the fabric, and then those braids went into the whole kinetic sculpture. So, we just wanted something small, some element to feel like the community is contributing to this project.

The second project was a mending workshop. We got a grant from our school to get a bunch of secondhand sewing supplies. This culminated into a two-day workshop for high schoolers. We combined sustainability literacy education with imaginative sewing skills, like upcycling skills where you’re starting with old things and making them new or making them special. So, we combined that sustainability literacy, even just teaching them some different terms like “sustainability” and “regenerative,” things that they had never heard before in school. Introducing them to this problem and letting them know the seriousness and expansiveness of it. Yes, there’s this big issue with the fashion industry. The fashion industry is very exploitative. And then rather than saying “I can’t buy clothes now,” we say, “Look, [the solution] is right here.” Not only does it allow people to not have to participate in that system so much, but it can allow them to express their individuality. Sewing your own clothes allows you to express yourself and your personality on your own terms. It’s a way of being more autonomous, less dependent on fashion systems, capitalism, all that stuff, because as soon as you make your own clothes, you’re taking this global supply chain of exploitation and environmental destruction and poof, it’s gone. It’s just you. I think it’s pretty cool and powerful. And that’s why I love fashion as an entryway. I think a similar message or idea is what needs to happen in a lot of our systems. Like agriculture. I’m not that great at growing plants so I can’t really teach people how to do local agriculture. I feel like that’s a job for someone else. But what I know how to do is local sewing. And I think it’s a great entryway because it has so much joy around it because that’s the other thing about talking about sustainability and climate change and things like that. It’s so depressing. So, I think it’s really important to find those methods that bring joy and connection.

Sara Kollig is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 31 and April 1, 2023 at Fernbank Park.

Megan Hague
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest