I’ve met Sara about a year ago, when she hosted the first aperitivo of the Creative People in Florence at her studio. She struck me as an amazing, kind woman, with intense blue eyes, friendly to every one around her, trying to create a welcoming environment for other artists to interact with each other. I remember admiring the jewelry made of paintings, as I called them, thinking I have never seen such things before. I have asked her to participate on The human behind the artist because she fit perfectly with the idea of the project and she is a powerful artist with so many things to express.
Sara Amrhein is an American artist currently living and working in Florence Italy. Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles she has been practicing and studying art her entire life. She discovered Florence to be the perfect city for her to develop her work and gather inspiration. The work of Sara Amrhein is an eclectic combination of influences from her travels as well as her two homes. The bright vibrant colors reflect the warmth and sunshine of Los Angeles, while the detail, intricate design and craftsmanship reflect the experience of living in Florence for many years and working alongside the many artists and artisans of the city, both historic and contemporary. The designs cross both cultural and artistic boarders and seeks to create a cohesive body of work though the practice of growing, exploring, and experimenting. Over the years Sara has gained extensive experience in the art world and has shown her work at various exhibitions in Florence, Italy and most recently in Bucharest, Romania at Autor 11, Contemporary jewelry fair as part of Romanian Design Week. She also sells her work on consignment to various boutiques and concept stores in Florence.
Sara attended the Fine Art program at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles California where she graduated with honors and received her BFA. Since then she has continued her practice through painting, sculpture and art jewelry design. Sara recently opened a studio atelier in the center of Florence where she can be found working every day. In addition, she is also the co – founder and organizer of the Creative People in Florence’ Artists group, which organizes meetings, collaborations, studio visits, and group shows for artists living and working in Florence Italy.
Me: Tell us a little about yourself.
Sara A.: I am originally from California, United States; I came to Florence almost fifteen years ago to study Art and History, met Luigi, my husband, and have been here ever since. That is the very short version of the story.
Me: What is the strongest memory you have from your childhood?
Sara A.: I used to paint rocks and sell them to my neighbors for 25 cents each. I was this blond, blue eyed little girl who asked them to buy rocks from me. I also remember making gingerbread houses around Christmas time with my mom. She would make hundreds of them for every student in all of our classes and also for all of our friends and family. We had assembly lines of gingerbread houses and our house was always filled with people and used to smell like gingerbread for weeks.
Me: Can you take me back to the first idea you had? When did it all start?
Sara A.: I think art has always been part of me. I originally started with painting, but making things was always part of my life and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make something with my hands. My mom was constantly doing it, between the gingerbread houses, she would make birthday cakes, but not the simple, regular birthday cakes, but the pieces of art ones and she used to do it for every child in the neighborhood; so I was a little kid, with a pastry shop in my house, and something was always being made around me. My mom also used to wrap gifts because she was a sales rep for a gift wrapping company and she used to make really amazing packages that you didn’t want to open because they were a gift itself, so there were always stickers, wrapping paper and ribbons available for me to play with. When I became a teenager I started making jewelry, beaded necklaces and anklets and later when I moved away to college in Santa Barbara, I started taking a few art classes. At that point I stayed focused on Art History. For me to practice art then was more of a personal thing than something I wanted to study. After I came to Florence for an Art History program I went back to the States and went to Art School and that was when I started to really focus on paintings. At that point I had a very clear idea that I will become a painter and that I am going to show my work in galleries around the world. That was how I imagined my life to be.
Me: How did painting became jewelry?
Sara A.: My paintings were always big, floral and colorful and there were always mixed media, collages and things being stuck on the paintings. My mother once asked me if I have ever thought of making jewelry, because she has always loved jewelry and had an amazing jewelry collection. From that moment on I started looking at my drawings in a different way and I tried to figure out how to translate a sketch into something you can wear on your body. That’s when I started to play with different materials and tried to understand which material would work to do what I was trying to express. I came to discover different types of clay, until finally I found Fimo or polymer clay, which is my favorite, and I remained faithful to it for six years now.
Me: Why Florence?
Sara A.: My first Europe trip was with two girlfriends I had. We did the whole backpack experience,I loved it and had an amazing time, maybe because it was the first time I left the United States. After that experience through Europe, I went back home to college, I had a few semesters to finish up and I saw an announcement for study abroad in Florence, Italy and since I already loved it here so much as a tourist, I applied for the program and ended up coming here to study.
Me: Many Europeans have this question on their lips. Why do Americans send their children on European trips so often?
Sara A.: I think Americans send their children on trips to Europe mostly to explore their roots. It’s pretty funny actually, because in the United States you are not considered an American and everyone asks you what your origins are. I grew up with a very strong idea that I was half Italian and half German, and that was kind of my identity. The place where I grew up, everyone knew us as the Italian family. My mom being Italian, all the traditions were there; we ate Italian food and did everything else involving the Italian culture. My mom was the first in her family to marry someone who was not Italian; she grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the Italian neighborhood and all of her family lived in the same building, so it was a very traditional, immigrant situation. Giving all this, my father was an outsider to the rest of her family and everyone was shocked that she chose someone who was not Italian, or not a doctor, which would have been an excuse. When they’ve met my dad was sixteen years old and they got married when he was twenty.
So, I think we grow up with the idea that you are American, but you have some ancestries from somewhere else and you are supposed to be very proud of that. We were always very proud of our Italian roots, that is why, maybe, at some point you go and try to explore them , but when we come here in Europe, we are suddenly just American and no longer Italian, or German, or anything else.
Me: Why did you settle here?
Sara A.: Well, I was at the point where I knew that I didn’t want to stay where I was, meaning in Santa Barbara, and I certainly didn’t want to move back home, in a small suburb from Los Angeles. I have always had this feeling of adventure, and have always wanted to see and experience different things, and here, in Florence, I felt so comfortable and at home. About a month after I came here I’ve met Luigi, we fell in love and that was just another reason for me to come back and stay. I come from a huge family; I am the youngest of four, two brothers and one sister, eleven nieces and nephews, so my family is big and loud and there is always something going on. My husband also comes from a big family; he is the youngest of five. I think one of reasons we are so good together is because we both come from big, crazy, loud Italian families and we are both the youngest in those families.
When my program here ended I had to go back home. Luigi came to visit me in the States and after I graduated my last semester in December, New Years day I flew back to Florence and we moved in together. We didn’t know at that point if it was going to work out or not for us, and although I tried to be very level headed about my decision, I was also young and very much in love. From there on everything fell into place; I found a good job right away and I was very happy here.
Me: Did you get engaged right away?
Sara A.: We got engaged pretty quickly, in about a year after we moved in. Once, when he was picking me up from the airport, he suggested or us to go get a Pizza. We went to Funiculi at Porta al Prato, we sat down and ordered. All of a sudden he pulls out a box, he puts it on the table and slides it towards me without saying a word. I opened the box, saw the engagement ring and started laughing. He actually didn’t ask me, so I didn’t answer either, but I’ve put the ring on my finger. The table next to us heard me speaking English and asked us what’s good to see around here and I remember replying: “I don’t know, but look what I’ve got!”.
Me: When did you two get married?
Sara A.: It took us five years to get married. I had to go back and forward a lot in order to stay here legally.
Me: How did your family see this situation? Where they supportive?
Sara A.: At first my mom was not happy at all to hear that I am not going to move back home. There was a little bit of resistance because of that and it took a while for my family to realize that this was the right place for me and that I was happy here.
Me: Did you plan a big wedding?
Sara A.: We didn’t plan a big wedding, but I am sure our families wanted a big wedding for us. We never made any plans for that to happen, but for example, when my parents came here for a visit, we went to look at some places and some churches where we were suppose to have our wedding. My family is very traditional and it is a custom that the bride’s parents pay for her wedding. We’ve looked at some places in the US too, but then it just got so complicated, having such big families and bringing them all together in the same place. This way, the big wedding never happened because we’ve decided to elope.
Me: Where did you elope?
Sara A.: We were in California visiting and we decided to get married in Las Vegas. We didn’t tell anyone, and planned ahead on the Internet, because there are websites where you can plan it all. We drove to Las Vegas, a car picked us up from our hotel, went to the City Hall to sign the marriage license, went to the Chapel to say our vows, they snapped four pictures of us with our own camera and took us back to the hotel, saying only “Congratulations! Ciao”.
Me: What were your families reactions?
Sara A.: At first no one figured it out, but after a while my sister did. We were all having dinner at my house and she noticed our wedding rings and then all of a sudden she screamed out the news. I remember this awkward silence falling upon the dinner table for a few seconds, then everyone realized what it was happening and started screaming out of joy and congratulating us. I am sure they were a little disappointed, my father has always wanted to walk me down the aisle, but in the end they all understood this was the best thing for us and they were very happy for us.
Me: Let’s go back to the artist in you. What inspires you?
Sara A.: Everything can inspire me. Weather it is color or fashion, earth or materials, or the people I meet. It depends on who am I with, where am I at, what I am looking at. I try to observe as much as I possibly can and use that to make a piece of jewelry out of it. Even the process of molding a piece of clay can inspire me, because it can become anything I want. Also all the things the Internet can offer, like Pintrest, which is an amazing source of inspiration for me.
Me: What is the story of your studio?
Sara A: Luigi and his brothers used to own a construction company and this was their wear house were everything was kept. They had the business for several years and things were going really well, but when the economy started to go down, one of his brothers decided to move back to Australia with his wife and child and his other brother went back to live in Calabria to be closer to his family. Back then we were living in very small studio apartment that wasn’t enough for us anymore, so because the business was no longer, we took over the lease contract on this place. It was full, packed up to the ceiling with everything you could possibly imagine, so we had to go through every piece we found here and cleaned the place up. And that is how this place became my studio. I’ve always wanted to have a studio, working space and this place was perfect for it; that was also the original intention when we took over the lease.
Me: Do you have any unusual habits before you start working?
Sara A.: I don’t know if they can be considered unusual, but I do have many habits before starting to work. First of all I can’t start doing anything if my house isn’t clean and neat first. Probably the most important thing for me is that my bed has to be made before starting to work or leave my house. I am a very organized person, so everything has to have its own place and be in order, even if my order can be someone else’s mess.
Me: What is the story of your first piece?
Sara A.: I am not sure if that was the first piece I’ve ever made, but I remember making a necklace for my mother when I was nineteen and that she still has it and wears it. Then when I started working with Fimo I used to do little broaches with small flowers on them. I would make the flowers and then attach the broach pin to it.
Me: Do you still have your paintings?
Sara A.: Yes, I still have a lot of my paintings. Most of them are back in California; my dad still keeps them in the garage.
Me: Do you still like them?
Sara A.: No, absolutely not. Maybe there’s one or two but, I actually have tried to convince my father to get rid of them so many times, but he just doesn’t want to give them up. For a long time he used to keep them in his office, at work.
Me: Did you ever want to give up being an artist?
Sara A.: Oh yes, all the time. I sometimes think I should just get a 9am -5pm job, relax and be happy. But would I really be happy? I really doubted. People look at this form of expressing ourselves from the outside and they think how wonderful it must be to be able to do the thing you love, but it’s also a very, very hard thing to do.
Me: So, is art worth it?
Sara A: Yes, absolutely, because I don’t know what else I would do. This is so much a part of me that I wouldn’t know how else to be. I don’t know what else it’s worth it if not art.
Me: Do you consider yourself a complete artist?
Sara A.: This has happened to me recently, in the last six, or seven months. I found myself feeling more comfortable about saying out loud that I am an artist. Before then, when people would ask me what I did for a living, I would avoid a direct answer and although I would always mention my art, I would first name a real job that I did in that moment, like being a nanny, or doing vacation rentals and then I would have said: “Oh and I am also an artist.”
Me: What projects are you involved in right now?
Sara A.: I will be spending two months in the United States from November 19th to January 15th with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago to participate in shows; The Indie holiday emporium in San Francisco and The One of a Kind Show in Chicago.
Me: Tell me about Creative People in Florence.
Sara A.: It all started from the idea to get artists to connect and share ideas that could become projects. Also, the original idea was to help each other build our portfolios as artists, because otherwise these things can cost hundreds and hundreds of euros. From there, everything fell into place; we had a few meetings with some members, we did a couple of photo shoots together and Anna Rose came in with the idea of doing the studio visits, going to different studios twice a month and giving artists the opportunity to talk about what they were doing. That was when things really took of. She is amazing with getting people involved in projects and organizing events. After that we came up with the idea of having Creative aperitivos once a month, to just have fun, meet each other and talk about our shared interests, which is still going on. Having a directory on the blog has also been a great help, because it’s allowing other artists to see what other artists are living in Florence, what each of them does and think about how to create projects together. This actually works really well because we hear and see people collaborating to create beautiful things all the time,and we are really happy about that.
Me: Dream project?
Sara A.: A dream project for me would be to work on a set of some sort, either a theater set or a big photo or movie production and I would have to work on the costume designs and being able to do something without worrying if the thing I am making is wearable or not; just create.
Me: Would you ever leave Florence?
Sara A.: I never say never. If an amazing opportunity would come my way and that would mean for me to move to another place, I would take it. Of course it would have to be an amazing opportunity, that would meet my interests, but also the interests of my family, which is my husband. I’ve always been a big risk taker and very adventurous, so you never know.
Me: Do you see little artists running around the studio in the near future?
Sara A: I go back and forward about that and sometimes I think I would love to have children, but I also think about how would I be able to take care of a child and still be doing what I am doing. I think when you have a child in your life, it’s really important to give them all of your attention and they become the priority in your life. So, I don’t know the answer to that question yet, and although both me and Luigi want to have children, we leave it to faith to decide for us.
I have given the opportunity to the artists I am interviewing to ask a question that they can’t answer for themselves, to another artist of my choosing, involved in this project. I have chosen Maria Louise Kobberholm Sveistrup’s questions the painter whom I have interviewed here, for Sara’s interview.
Maria Louise K. S. : What should the ultimate purpose of art be?
Sara A.: For me art is a language, a mean of communication just like any other spoken language and I think the ultimate purpose should be to share a part of yourself with the world, to communicate something to the people around you and as long as your art comes from a genuine place inside of you then that message is going to be communicated to whomever interacts with it, in whatever form it takes. What I am personally trying to say through my art is that there is still hope, happiness and positive energy out there and I try to guide people towards seeing those things.
Me: A word about you as an artist, a word about you as a human.
Sara A.: A word about me as an artist would have to be meticulous. I try to make things as perfect as possible, and although they are made by hand, so they can never be completely perfect, I try do do my absolute best. A word about me as a human would have to be compassionate, because I can get very emotionally involved with things, people and situations and sometimes that’s not in my advantage at all.