Sycamore Q&A: Sarah K. Benning, Fiber Artist | Menorca, Spain
Everything we do at Sycamore Street Press is with the goal of living a simple, beautiful & creative life, and in helping others do the same. There are so many people who have inspired us on this path, and we’d love to learn more from them! So we decided to start an interview series on the topic. Today we’ll hear from Sarah K. Benning, an American fiber artist currently living in Menorca, Spain.
Tell us a little about how you got starting doing botanical fiber art.
My stitched plant series (can it still be called a single series when it is actually now 98% of what I make?) started about 2 years ago when I was living and working from a small apartment in Albany, NY. If you’ve never been to Albany, it’s freezing cold and dark for what feels like 10 months out of the year. Definitely not super conditions for a thriving plant family, but those conditions didn’t stop me from amassing a large collection of potted houseplants and cacti. Unfortunately, only a few of them feebly held on until spring. Their stitched counterparts became a lasting memorials to the lost greenery and served as a kind of wish-list for future plants.
Now, living and working from a sunny apartment in Menorca, Spain, the abundance of greenery, foliage and cacti alike, has only fed my passion for plants. Botanical subject matter continues to be a source of inspiration and a major character in my compositions.
Can you describe a “typical” day in your life?
I usually wake up with the sun. I absolutely hate alarm clocks and I avoid them at all costs. In the years leading up to full-time self-employment, I worked lots of odd jobs that usually started very early in the morning. Letting myself sleep in is a small luxury that I try to allow myself regularly. I start coffee right away and usually make daily, weekly, monthly, and long term To-Do lists while I wait for it to brew. My lists are often far longer than is realistic, but I find getting my goals onto paper helps me visualise and plan, even if I’m not able to cross everything off as quickly as I’d like.
My favourite days are when I am caught up on emails, don’t have any web stuff to deal with and can just sew and draw all day. Those days are rare. Because I am a one-woman-show (though I sometimes get help from my incredibly supportive partner), I am responsible for not only the design and production of my stitched pieces, but also every other aspect of my business like website maintenance, social media, order fulfillment, customer service, and financial planning. I try to break up the less enjoyable tasks into manageable chunks and chip away at them a little bit every day.
Otherwise, my days are fairly flexible and unstructured, though usually very long. I work very intuitively, often working on and off on several projects at once and typically spend about 10 hours in the studio everyday. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts and probably watch more Netflix than I should while I stitch.
My evenings are spent with my partner watching movies and exploring Mahón.
How do you make sure you have time with your family/loved ones?
I am not sure I have fully achieved the elusive work/life balance, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I figure it out someday! While I am here in Spain, I am very far from my family who are all back in the US, though I just got back from a mini vacation with my mom. She travelled a solid 24 hours to visit me on this little island, confirming my belief that moms are actually just super heroes.
Most of the time, I only manage a semblance of balance with the help of my soon-to-be husband. He makes sure I eat properly and reminds me to take breaks when I need them, even in the most stressful and busy times. We have a standing date day every week dedicated to exploring Menorca and spending time together. It’s not always easy. I always seem to have a tiny voice in the back of my head reminding me of all the things that need my attention in the studio, but he definitely helps keep me sane and prevents me from completely exhausting myself and burning out.
How do you carve out time for yourself?
It can be tricky, but luckily for me, I feel the most calm and relaxed when I am embroidering. I first started stitching purely as a hobby. There is a meditative quality to the repetitive nature of stitching and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to turn it into my livelihood.
What are the top things you do to maintain your sanity and your health?
For me, building a support network of friends, family, and fellow makers has been essential for keeping it all together. Even if these relationships are maintained mostly through the internet these days, it’s amazing to have people to bounce ideas off of or vent after a frustrating day in the studio.
I also work a few hours every week as an English-speaking TA in a local elementary school. Basically, I’ve had an ongoing cold for the last 6 months, but man my immune system is going to be invincible by the end of this year!
Do you have any tips for simplifying?
I’m still trying to figure it out. As the demand for my work has grown, the pressures and stresses of running my own business have grown too. I love what I do and am so grateful for the support and interest in my work I have received (and will hopefully continue to receive), but sometimes I just have to draw a line and declare down time even if there are emails to be answered, orders to be shipped, and deadlines approaching. Some days I am better at the separation than others and allowing myself a break from the studio or a break from customer service leads to much more productive time when I come back to work.
What’s your favorite way to bring a little beauty into your home?
My life and studio are a bit nomadic at the moment and all of my furniture and artwork are packed away in storage while I am in Spain. I crammed my wardrobe and studio into a suitcase 6 months ago and have another few months before I head home. I am super tired of the 4 outfits I have here and it’s been a challenge making a temporary furnished rental feel like home. Immediately after signing our lease and before we bought necessities like towels and sheets, we found a local plant shop and the greenery definitely helps. I have big plans for our next more-permanent living space though and I always set aside a percentage of all of my sales to spend on other artists’ work. My wish-list is getting pretty long, so I hope we find a place with a lot of wall space in the coming years!
What are you looking for in products that you choose to spend money on?
I am at a transitional point in my life, just past my broke-art-school-student days and not quite into my adult ‘I can spend $38 on a tea towel’ phase. I try to be very careful with my money (I have worked incredibly hard for it!!!) and try to only buy necessities that balance function and form. I definitely value craftsmanship and am happy and willing to spend a little more for quality, especially when I know where and who it is coming from. We live in such a golden age for both makers and consumers. The internet has allowed so many artists/artisans/designers to reach the public, and as a consumer I want to conscientiously support these independent makers.
What does living a “simple yet beautiful” life mean to you? To me, living a ‘simple yet beautiful’ life means living with integrity, setting goals and working to achieve them, and appreciating the successes and learning from the failures along the way.