Louisville artist Sarah Schaaf is a graduate of Transylvania University with a BA in Studio Art. Schaaf practices in multiple mediums with a focus in oil and watercolor paintings. She combines her passions for art and history through pieces centered on the individuals and conflict of the First World War.
Schaaf’s work has been featured in galleries in the Central Kentucky area, and was awarded the Dean’s Purchase Award and Nina Lampton Prize at Transylvania University.
As an artist and student of history, my work focuses on connecting the past and present through relevant similarities in the socio-political world. Specifically, my work has been focused on bringing humanity to the individuals involved in the First World War. My interest in the First World War began with a discovery within my own family history. My Great- Grand Uncle, George Washington Gibson Jr, who fought and died on the battlefield of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918, like so many soldiers of the war, was almost completely forgotten- even by his own family. With over 16,000,000 men, women, and children having perished as a result of the war, most families were affected in some way. The legacy of the First World War is riddled with thousands of other forgotten individuals. History often washes away the faces of the men and women who fight and die in wars, leaving only the images of the “heroes” and memories of glorious deeds. In reality, those who fought and most often died were inconspicuous individuals. They may not have been heroes in the war, but they were beloved by their families and friends, and sacrificed everything for the cause in which they fought.
As no two stories or experiences are the same, I feel that I cannot restrict how I tell them to a single media. While I consider myself a painter foremost, the medium is not always the best way to represent a certain experience. Through my pieces I aim to create a balance of violence and peace- as is the legacy of the war. While we often wish to focus on remembrance and honoring the fallen, it is impossible to disregard the suffering, anxiety and loss that anyone and everyone during that time had to deal with. In my paintings, I draw influence from William Turner’s pieces, using heavy brush strokes and allowing the paint to drip and bleed in unpredictable patterns, amplifying a sense of turbulence and uncertainty. Juxtaposed against this violent treatment of the landscapes, I layer vibrant reds and violets to mimic the delicate petals of poppies which blanketed the battlefields in France and Belgium. This fragile flower, often associated with peacefulness and tranquility as well as being a symbol of remembrance, stands against destruction, and emphasizes the resilience of nature and persistence of time against the conflicts and suffering of humanity.
In bringing a sense of individuality and realness to the war, many of my pieces include the faces of those who served and real artifacts of the war. In many ways, we view historical figures as we do artifacts- museum pieces, stuck behind glass. “The Unknown” is an installation piece in which I collected authentic helmets of a German, French and British/ American soldier and painted the inside- much in the same style as my larger paintings. The helmets are placed on a vetrine with a mirror underneath, allowing the viewer to see the painting on the underside. Until the viewer is close and can look into the mirror, the piece appears to simply be these relics of the war. They hide the world in which they existed and the people who wore them.
A century after one of the most lethal and destructive conflicts in human history, may have all but forgotten the human sacrifice that accompanied it. Through my pieces I implore the audience to dwell on the idea of remembrance and its fleeting nature in our nation’s memory.