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Q&A Sarah Raskey Masterpiece with Nadja Atwal

Interviewed by Nadja Atwal/Photos by Erik Marthaler
She’s back! A visionary artist, a licensed clinical professional psychotherapist, certified art therapist and a former graduate art therapy/psychology professor at both the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and DePaul University, MSM sits with Sarah Raskey for our latest cover story. You can find her art at her own Sarah Raskey Fine Art Gallery in West Loop, Chicago where she exhibits her work exclusively. Sarah is also the co-founder/owner of Open Avenue Therapy, a Chicago-based private psychotherapy practice since 2008. She has exhibited nationally and internationally since 2000 and had created a prolific volume of work in both residential and commercial settings. Some of her notable works: She has several pieces at the Kimpton Hotel Allegro in Chicago which includes an 8’ x 6’ three-dimensional self portrait adorned with vintage jewelry, as well as 90’ of custom carpeting. Within the last years she has also created an illuminated 16’ x11’ custom art wall for MB Steak restaurant located in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas.

What made you decide to make art your profession and how did you get started?

I have created since as far back as I can remember and art making could easily be considered my first love. Creating felt like this whole secret world I was connected to that held endless possibilities for me to explore and it came as natural to me as breathing. 

In high school I began to take college level courses and I attended university with an art scholarship. I double majored in both art and psychology as I was completely fascinated by art as it related to body, mind and spirit which led to getting my masters in art therapy. 

I deeply believed then as I do now, that art held the capacity for profound healing and could be looked at even as a planetary resource. After I graduated from college I began to exhibit and sell my work out of the love of being able to share my work and connect with others, while simultaneously working as a full time art therapist at a mental health facility. My commitment to the potentiality of art manifested into my pioneering that facilities first art therapy program servicing at risk youth living with mental illness as well as becoming a graduate professor at the art institute of Chicago.

I guess what I am getting at is that art has always been so integrated into the landscape of my personal life, that art being a large part of my professional or career path was never really a decision as much as it was just never a question. 

Ironically during a time period when I was physically debilitated by health issues, it was art once again that I turned to and leaned into more than ever to cope and to heal. Working as a full time art therapist at my private practice during that time period proved to be exceptionally energetically challenging after having undergone several surgeries. So I began again to use my art intensely as a tool to work through parts of my emotional and physical reality, when words were not enough. That moment in time was a pivotal catalyst that shifted my focus to more of the commercial art realm. 

There was something so fragile about my health and my gift that I made a promise to my art that once I was finally on the mend, I would give my creative life much more of my time and attention. It was a way to honor my artistic journey while I continued to heal and remained deeply moved to share work differently and more robustly however I could.

Some artists don’t support the commercializing of art. Others – like Dali – did it successfully and felt it was simply a way to make their art accessible to more people? Where do you stand on that topic?

Entering more fully into an art market was never about anything other than my raw, pure, authentic, love of creating. For years I have been deeply driven to connect with others and cultivate meaningful dialogue about art by the sharing of my self expression. I actually see it as an extension of my work as an art therapist. 

My creation of highly customized personal work for clients has undoubtedly been another way to encourage people to engage, reflect and flourish in the art realm as it pertains to their own story. It is similar in nature to that of a tattoo artist by creating something for someone else that holds deep meaning for them that they can look at every day. Perhaps I also subconsciously have always perceived the visual arts to be a bit of an unsung hero. My hero. And one I wanted to spend as much time with as possible.

So it has always been a top priority of mine to raise as much awareness and accessibility to the potentiality of the visual arts as possible. This means accepting the gravity of being able to reach as many hearts and minds as possible all over our planet. 

In my opinion, so long as does not disenfranchise the integrity of the work of an artist, the commercialization of art can be a healthy vehicle for allowing a broader audience to be an active part of the conversation of arts value – not just from a marketplace perspective but the value that art brings to the table in the way of self care and unity.

How did the Chicago art scene react to you given that you are a woman and on top stunningly beautiful?

If I am being fully transparent, I struggle to answer this. Whether in Chicago or any place else for that matter, I have always been self conscious that my being a woman in general could interfere with how my art was received and valued. That my appearance could be entirely problematic. That no matter what I have done or do, that my life’s work runs the risk of being misinterpreted or misconstrued or discredited all together based on an/my outward presentation.

To say that acknowledging and sharing this notion stings a bit, would be an understatement – my art is my lifeblood and means the world to me because it is the most accurate vessel and portrayal of who I am at my core. I have dedicated so much of my life to my work, to fathom that my artistic currency and virtue is destined to be shortchanged in any way due to my gender or appearance cuts deep. But my optimistic hope however is that my arts message does not get lost in the perception of the messenger whatever that may be. It is a truthful and disheartening aspect of being a female artist, which is to wonder if our outer packaging in its very essence convolutes the purity of the work. 

Like many women artists that have gone before, I am aware of the gender gap in the art industry but I am also aware that wherever there is important advocacy work to be done that courage and resiliency is the best medicine to endure the long haul. 

I’d like to think that women’s voices are getting louder by the day and that in time my work speaking for itself will be some small part of the antidote.

There are so many artists with great talent who are struggling. What choices did you make to make your passion also a commercial success?

The most important choice I have made as an artist was to allow for my love and conviction of the work to be greater than that of my fear.

Making art is an intimately human experience filled with all of the perils that accompany any worthwhile act. Making art can feel dangerous because of how revealing it is, even if only to ourselves. It precipitates self doubt, it stirs the deep often uncharted waters of where the work currently is and where we think it should be. And it usually requires working in the face of utter uncertainty in some aspects.

Sharing the work we create is an extremely personal and vulnerable act. There are a lot of ex-artists out there because creating art, especially as a business venture, involves a fair amount of risk taking and some unavoidable rejection. It can all take a toll.

What has in my opinion been a saving grace besides the execution of strong work is also to remember to return to why you are creating in the first place. In other words I suggest finding lots of reasons not to quit, or at least one unshakable one and to consistently commit to forward movement even in the moments of overwhelm. After all, dedicating your time and your career to art is taking your future literally into your own hands.

As with most any arena of commercial success, passion alone is not enough. You have to be willing to do all of the things that do not come so naturally to you as well. Embracing structure and discipline is far from the fun part when it comes to living a creative life and at times it requires an insane amount of time and energy to make it all work. Having an understanding of the business side as well is extremely important. I have taken courses. Scheduled regular meetings with mentors and others I could learn from. I tried to be thoughtful about partnerships and honest with myself about my own shortcomings. It also comes down to the ability to wear many different hats (sometimes within the same day) while still maintaining a decent amount of self care so you can KEEP GOING.

If I’m being even more upfront and transparent there are also no shortages of barriers to entrance and obstacles to when it comes to fully entering into into the art world. Some of the barriers are self created and some of them come from external factors but knowing which is which and learning how to navigate both is crucial.

So much regarding commercial success are just things as they relate to good business practice in general. Have a professional website, commit to regularly sharing your work through exhibitions and events, utilize social media. More than anything, be prepared put in the hours. 

As an art therapist you must come across people with a broad spectrum of issues. What do you encounter most and where can are therapy help or be most effective?

Some of the issues people have come into my office looking to address and treat through art have included: drug, alcohol, and sex addiction, abuse and past trauma, thoughts of suicide or homicide, terminal illness, serve mental illness and disorders, loss, separation, sexuality, couples issues, exploration of spirituality and self work, and creative blocks just to name a few.

What has struck me most about art therapy is that regardless of each individuals set of circumstances, art has proved to be a primordially profound and effective ally, teacher and healer. I have watched art keep people here on the planet long after they thought they would ever want to be here.

I believe what I encounter the most is a sheer reflection of the human condition at large. There is a universal desire to be fully seen and heard, a need to connect, and a need to dive deep within our inner world to build whatever it is that we long for in our outer world. To work through parts of our past and look to the future; while we express something that we are not yet but we are becoming.

Art is also most effective whenever words are not enough. It allows us humans access to and use of an extraordinary skill set and innate resource to communicate, heal and transform our lives through the use of personal imagery.

Our personal imagery speaks directly to us by holding up a mirror to show our truths in a way that is almost other worldly. The continuation to explore ourselves through self expression only further uncovers and utilizes this buried instinctual visual language. 

A language that is so deep rooted within our soul, it actually holds the capacity to aid in our very survival. There is great great power in that.

You did a breathtaking job with your installation at the renovated Loews Hotel in Miami. How did you enter that commercial art sector? how do you approach a project like that and how did you land the assignment?

Thank you! I have always gravitated towards allowing part of the scope of my work to be collaborative. I enjoy teaming up with others and the synergy that comes from sharing ideas and intentions with one another to bring totally new concepts to life. I especially appreciate the unexpected places and unusual direction that the dynamic of co-creation has taken my art.

Over the years I have worked with developers, designers, art consultants, architects, home and business owners, musicians, other creatives, various organizations, and so many other individuals in diverse fields for the shared goal of creating something unique together. The Loews project in particular came about through working with a design firm, Simeone Deary, as well as Jon Tisch of Loews Hotels.

I believe that my entering into this type of commercial sector such as hospitality stems from over a decade spent specializing in the commission of site and/or client specific art. Taking great care and consideration in facilitating work that moved and meant something personal to the recipient over aesthetics alone and beyond pure functionality. There are endless possibilities when it comes to custom art, purpose and imagination – so co-creation is such a cool shared headspace to be in with someone. To collectively “dreamscape” and construct all possibilities together.

From the digital rendering and concept stage to the actual physical installation of a work, I set out to bring fresh perspective and one of a kind applications to each project or piece. I typically spend time getting acquainted with the overall goal of all those involved and then formulate a handful of concepts to bring back to those who I am working with.  After that it is time to select a direction, make adjustments and integrate any additional features or new parameters.

I began by meeting with SD to discuss the overall renovation in general and brainstorm. I then put together a number of potential art installation options for them to choose from to further go over together and finesse based on my insights and their feedback. This navigation and dialogue developed into working directly with Jon for even furthered collaboration and feedback.

I actually designed and fully completed the Loews sculpture wall, not once but twice. Once here in Chicago in the google building where I had an exact replica of the 36ft curved wall built and then created it in sections. The second time was after I had it shipped it to Miami for its permanent installation. I rebuilt it piece by piece but this time on scaffolding and several feet higher.

Art Basel has become a worldwide known event. What do you like best about it?

Art Basel Miami brings well deserved attention to the visual arts during that event. There are so many mainstream platforms that cover much of what is current in the world of music and the performing arts; such as major televised award shows and festivals etc. Which in part is why when you ask most people who some of their favorite bands or actors are, they can easily name a few. All too often when you ask anyone who their favorite visual artist is…..they list off one of the same 10 dead men. Generally speaking the amount of people paying attention to living visual artists such as painters or sculptors is a low number in comparison to the number of people who are paying attention to the performing arts.

Art Basel Miami allows for a great deal of exposure and accessibility, and seemingly much more so or differently than other art events. It elevates and pushes the visual arts to a broader audience. It is exciting to be a part of that week or even just to tune in. I enjoy how each year it puts new and emerging aristis on the radar, especially at the satellite shows. Wynwood Walls also becomes a whole different elevated animal during Basel and the energy and excitement that week is palpable! Art Basel Miami is not to be missed. It helps share and celebrate so many artists and demonstrates how animated the art scene can be.

You’ve also now entered the world of fashion with your art. Tell us more about it…

I have always been very experimental as a person and especially as an artist. It is as if I see a blank canvas in front of me at just about every moment. 

Fashion appeals to me in a way that allows me to create much differently than how I approach my fine art.  It reemphasizes the importance of sheer imagination and free expression without some of the headiness of my past work.

The scope of how I see my art translated into fashion runs the full gamut or spectrum of more functional practical everyday wearable to much more over the top editorial or installation based pieces. I am currently simultaneously working on everything from more straightforward fashion pieces (scarves, jackets, wraps etc.) to more large scale sculptural projects and applications as it eventually applies to photography as well. 

The day to day wearables interested me in the way of continuing to engage a broader audience. I enjoy the extension of “art as life- life as art” day to day fashion brings to the table making the series more accessible.

The large scale “art-couture” sculptural and more far out body of fashion work,  gives me a creative space that is unencumbered by some the responsibilities of my current body of work. It comes from a place of being deeply curious in the free-wheeling and bizarre realm of over the top art meets fashion. It is such a departure from my more expected outcomes and methodologies within my traditional art making and is very organic. 

What I love most about the art couture fashion realm is my desire to keep it somewhat wild and free- rooted in a firm belief that some parts of ourself should always be wild and free. I want to allow this part of the fashion series to explore an even furthered unpredictable fanciful possibilities with a touch of surrealism. I see it as rare opportunity for people to become integrated into the art rather that simply wearing it.

Sarah Raskey MA LCPC ATR

Artist/Psychotherapist/Art Therapist

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