TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Paducah Loses Pioneer Artist: Sarah Roush

Sarah Roush, Paducah Pioneer of the Arts

As I sat down this morning for my usual perusal of emails with coffee, waking up to the world and all of its demands, my eye caught a sad announcement on IList Paducah.  Sarah Roush had lost her battle with cancer...........   I had heard last week that she was not doing well and that hospice had been called in.  All my good intentions of visiting her "soon" vanished as I read the article.  I missed my chance to say good-bye.  Life, so fleeting, once again slapped me with the reminder of the great passing, of death, of a closed chapter.  Sarah, I'm sorry I was not there to tell you how much you meant to me.  This is my good-bye to you.  

I moved to Paducah in 2005 from Chicago.  There are two streets downtown that have cobble stones, housing some fun boutiques, restaurants, shops, a museum and a theater.  One of the buildings has a cafe at the street level with apartments on top and an outdoor seating area at the back.  The front was covered with handmade ceramic tiles.  Peeking through the windows, I could see that there were all kinds of interesting clay accents throughout the space.  Doors were covered with arches embedded with 3-D tiles, parts of the walls had protruding sculptures.  Very cool!  The space was for rent.  After 20 years of working in retail spaces in Chicago, I toyed with the idea of opening a shop in Paducah.  This space could be a gallery/cafe.  My then husband, Mohammed, was a chef...  ah, the ideas ran through my head.  Although my main love is textiles, I had worked with clay for three years and still miss it.  I called the number and found out that the owner was very sick.  Several months passed until I finally met Sarah.  She was the owner and the artist who had created all of the tiles and clay work that adorned that building.  Another building on Broadway, Paducah's main street, was also covered with Sarah's tiles.  I was enchanted.  Paducah's School of Art is appropriately housed in that building.

Rachel Biel standing in front of one of Sarah Roush's walls, 
April 2009

 Sarah and her architect partner, George Fletcher, were among the first to envision Paducah as a haven for artists.  Both left indelible marks on the city through their careful restoration of buildings in key locations.  Sarah came to Paducah in 1987 and was instrumental in bringing other local artists together through group shows and events.  Even as her health deteriorated, she was a fervent advocate for artists who fell outside of the City's revitalization and promotional efforts with LowerTown and the Artist's Relocation Program.  Facing financial difficulties incurred by her health problems, Sarah lost several of her buildings, selling them in order to pay for hospital bills.  Her life, struggles and death, are all a testament to me of how upside down our system is, especially in view of how poorly artists are rated in our society.  

Sarah and Monica Bilak
The pictures to the left are from a party at my house in April of 2009.  Sarah was witty, fun, and embraced life with a passion not often found.  She loved flowers and gardening, but lived downtown in the third story of one of her buildings.  So, George built her a rooftop garden.  He lugged all the lumber up himself, creating a large covered deck filled with pots where Sarah could grow her tropical delights.  She built a mosaic on one of the walls, using clay and shards of broken plates and other objects.  Marbles and mirrors caught reflections of light. 

Sarah Roush, 2009
Inside, there was a living area.  Nice, but chaotic, filled with textiles and wonderful objects.  Sarah was not only a friend, she was also a customer.  She was one of the few people in Paducah who felt the shared my passion for tribal textiles.  She bought several pieces from me over the years, surrounding herself with inspiration from faraway places.

Most of that top floor was taken up by her studio.  The sight of it is overwhelming.  A huge space filled with creatures of clay, one part blocked off for works on paper.  On and on and on...  I often wondered what the weight of all this clay was doing to the building's structure.  Many of the pieces were fragile and pieces had chipped off.  Dust hid the vibrant colors on some of the ones that had been in place for a long time.  This was a garden of soul, an entry into the muse of an artist who just wouldn't stop, at least not without a big, long fight.

Sarah's art is unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Her work in clay used molds from dolls, religious icons, and animals to create new creatures.

 "Angels" by Sarah Roush

Runny glazes in brilliant colors fused the pieces together, often in violent collision.  Verging on grotesque, her clay work is also humorous and playful.

"Puppy" by Sarah Roush
"Columbus" by Sarah Roush

The "discovery" of the New World: a baby riding on a snail carrying a gun.  We also shared a similar interest in politics and social change.  Sarah kept up on what was going on locally and in the world.  She translated her anger at injustice into her art.  But, when cancer became a focal point in her life, her art left the outside world to focus on what was going on inside of her.  She began to narrate her life, her body, and her disease through watercolors and then computer collages.

"Torso" by Sarah Roush

The watercolors bring in some of the chaotic techniques used in the clay: the runny colors, the use of common imagery coming into a new form, but they are softer, beautiful.  Rubber stamps fill the spaces, creating texture within the colors.  Almost all of the images are of human forms, although the messages within them still harken to commentary.

"Teacup" by Sarah Roush

Her most recent work, digital imagery, explores these human shapes even more intimately.  Now it is truly autobiographical as she uses x-rays of her body as the key design element in the story.  Sometimes you have to look for them, to know that they are there.  At other times, the x-rays are obvious, stark, morbid if you don't know the story behind them.

"Boo" by Sarah Roush

In "Boo", Sarah's humor is again evident.  Does the ghostly image of skeleton and skull scare you?  Death can be scary.  But, so can life with constant pain.

A big change in the new works is scale.  The clay and watercolor pieces are large, demanding of wall or podium space.  They boldly say, "Look at me.  I am here.  You cannot pass me by."  The collages are small, ornate pieces, jeweled by their frames.  They invite scrutiny.  Treasures that can be held and studied.

"Inhabitants" by Sarah Roush

Sarah really loved her new direction.  To me, they sing of the "Day of the Dead", the embracing of our mortality, of our connection to the past and to the future.  Sarah chose to die.  She told her people that she was finally ready to stop the chemo.  All of this work helped her to face what lies ahead, to come to peace within herself.  How many of us have that courage?  I hope that when my time comes, I will have a piece of Sarah inside myself that will help me into the next phase of life.  (Yes, I do believe in an afterlife.)

If Sarah is now a ghost, I hope that she will haunt me and fuse with my muse.  Sarah, if you can hear this, know that I am honored to have been your friend.  I am filled with regret for not having been there, for not having shared more of your burdens.  But, I am also filled with joy for having known your spirit.  Thank you!

Sarah Roush, you remain with us.

Links on Sarah:


Donations can be sent to The Paducah School of Art, In Memory of Sarah Roush, 409 Broadway, Paducah, KY 42001.


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