“How much of creation is a seance?” A Conversation with Sabra Embury – curated by Mary-Kim Arnold

Sabra Embury’s meticulously composed collages speak in a language of dreams. At times narrative and serene, at others, raucous and unsettling, they follow their own internal logic, the placement of people and things in domestic and celestial situations seeming both unexpected and inevitable. I spoke to Sabra about how she approaches building these worldscapes, how they are and are not like writing, and the stack of books she’s reading now. 

Sabra’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her son.  

Mary-Kim Arnold: To start, I’d love to just get a little background information on this collage project. When did you start this? What inspired it? 

Sabra Embury: This particular collage project began with a mysterious stack of magazines I found on a sidewalk in Park Slope, Brooklyn. All from the 1960s—stuffed with ads for cherry red muscle cars, corned beef hash in a can, menthol cigarettes set in front of waterfalls; most of it’s pretty goofy. It may have been a mix of rage and boredom that drove me to cut up the pages and rearrange them. 

I also felt compelled to make the existing compositions more relevant to the current world. Flipping through the pages, I became obsessed with the idea of truth, with progress. Of how so much has changed. I knew the pages had something new to say. A story. Perhaps warning. Ultimately I’ve realized these collages are formed between the desire to create and the desire to destroy.

I ended up wasting some pretty good material before I figured out what glue to use and what would work best as a canvas. The first thing I cut out was an image of hands, then I became obsessed with hands in general, then eyes and faces. The first few collages I made were bouquets composed of hands holding cigarettes and eyes. I’d say the first decent collage didn’t happen until I was at least 6-months in and really submitted to the process–when I stopped deliberately trying to make weird and beautiful things happen, and just let go. 

Before that, I’d experimented with collage my entire life with scrapbooks and murals. I was also obsessed with paper dolls as a child. In the tiny snack shops in Korea my mother used to buy me cardboard sheets of paper dolls that I would carefully cut out at home. They’d have purses and pets and pajamas sets. As an only child who was constantly moving because my father was in the military, these paper dolls didn’t take up much space. They kept me company. Paper dolls and neighborhood pets. When I invested time and care into either, they offered great comfort for my perpetual state of loneliness. 

MKA: Do you think of your collages as narrative? Can you talk about how you compose?

SE: I usually start with a muse, or protagonist and build a world around them. I ask myself questions like, “what are we getting into today?” and if they find themselves navigating a sticky situation, “how are we gonna deal with this?” Empathy connects us and then comes an inevitable emotional investment through the bond. 

If you think about it–humans and animals alike often become attached to inanimate objects: lighters, pens, stuffed animals, jewelry, watches. In composing a collage a similar thing happens in that when you invest a certain amount of concentrated focus and time into an object or task, you feel compelled to nurture it and in that connection a story sometimes naturally forms.

MKA: You tend to not include text in these collages. Was this a conscious decision to work only with image, or is it more about the materials themselves?

SE: I guess when finding your voice a lot of decisions have to be made whether conscious or unconscious. That’s technique, right? I mean ideally after you’ve investigated a couple dozen prototypes you sort of eviscerate the elements and study them. We do all of this while avoiding being too heavy-handed. 

With collage it’s pretty easy to get away with whatever, like okay: I’m going to put a rhinoceros head on this guy in a business suit and put him in a volcano and make it rain antique clocks. You can do that. It will probably look cool. The possibilities are endless! I prefer to focus on texture and symmetry. Create a nice “eye feel” while giving space for the right amount of ambiguity to allow the viewer to connect to the piece in any way they please. Otherwise what’s the point of sharing? 

In my mind it’s similar to the idea of what it must’ve been like for Faulkner when he was in the zone of rendering a mind-blowing paragraph, like when he was really riffing with ghosts and you know his eyes were rolling into the back of his head and his fingers were channeling a spell. Time becomes concentrated in that zone. The actual planet we live on phases out. And then eight hours later you emerge from this coma a withered bag of blurry-eyed meat. I mean–on a good day.

MKA: “A withered bag of blurry-eyed meat!” I love it. As a writer, you’ve published fiction and nonfiction. Do you find these practices related to each other?

SE: Assembling a collage feels similar to assembling a story. Both can hold a decent amount of depth in succinctness. Both can be overworked, verbose. The visuals and textures of it all can range from “behold the audacity of nature’s bountiful beauty!” — to giant killer rabbits spying on you through your bedroom window. 

Joy Williams once said, “The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it.” This also holds true when making a collage. How much of creation is a seance? Is it a coincidence that the word “medium” both represents a mode or tool of artistic expression and/or an individual held to be the channel of communication between the earthly world and the world of spirits? We work with mediums. We are the mediums. It’s all a go-between.

MKA: So, I have to ask: How did the pandemic affect the way you worked? Were you able to work?

SE: Oh wow, the pandemic. In the act of creating something, channeling emotions is a huge part of it, aside from rearranging personal experiences and making something new out of it. That’s why it can be both therapeutic and draining, requiring a concentrated focus of attention into physically manifesting something that hadn’t existed before. I mean if you submit to it, a piece of art or writing can represent every aspect of your being and whatever led you to becoming however you are: your obsessions, your fears, every version of love you’ve culled and channeled back. 

It was exhausting trying to keep focused on positive feelings when death was happening everywhere. Even if I wasn’t dealing with my own anxiety I was dealing with everybody else’s. Not only my immediate family and friends but also in my Brooklyn neighborhood at the time where even a walk to the nearest bodega for eggs felt really bleak and apocalyptic. Looking back everything I created in 2020 had portals and emotional support animals. The pieces from that time hold more chaos than the cheeky absurdity of my earlier collages. Although on some good days, they held glimpses of hope.

MKA: What sort of observations have you made about American life in the 1960s by spending all this time with these magazines?

SE: The cars were way cooler back then. Aside from that it seems not a lot has changed. That the idea of progress in America holds a lot of conservative ideas of consumerist utopia:  That owning certain stuff will make us feel like we belong. We still worship movie stars and find status in owning giant refrigerators that can hold a bunch of hamburger patties and ice cream, although these days the ice cream is made from coconuts and hamburgers are made from pea protein. Good for the cows! The obliviousness that comes with privilege is really obvious in magazines from the 60s. The overall homogeneity of the way everyone looked back then is hilarious. Everybody had the same hair.

MKA: What are you working on now (writing, art, or otherwise) and what’s on your TBR pile? 

SE: I’ll keep working on these collages until the Life Magazines run out, which they will eventually. 

At some point during the pandemic I had, like a lot of people did, incredibly vivid dreams. I wrote them down every morning, capturing as much detail as I could. Maybe it’s some innate storytelling instinct thing but my dreams held narrative, too, but they played out like strange, surreal movies. I’d like to paint them one day when I can find the time and space to do it. It would feel like I was time traveling back to a lost dimension. The thought of being able to make something like that really excites me. 

Currently on my nightstand are Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time, The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, The Hawkline Monster by Brautigan, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, THE EMPLOYEES by Olga Ravn, and PEW by Catherina Lacey. There’s also a first edition hardcover of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat I keep there. I’ve been re-reading a lot of books lately.