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“To work as the spirit moves me” — an interview with Sarah Van Keuren


[Jennifer sits down with artist and teacher Sarah Van Keuren to talk alternative photography processes, the fascination of chemistry, and Van Keuren’s plans for the future. — the Artblog editors]

Sarah Van Keuren has been teaching non-silver and alternative photography processes at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1980.  She retires at the end of this spring semester. Her influential work over the past 34 years includes helping to establish a non-silver printing room at UArts, and mentoring students. Some of her students have even become professors of this 19th-century process, which hovers somewhere between printmaking and photography. An exhibition celebrating her work, called I Began with Painting: Sarah Van Keuren, is now on view at the Sol Mednick Gallery through April 25.

Nearly 50 years of work on display

Sarah Van Keuren, “Amid Ferns,” cyanotype, 2010.

This survey exhibition spans 49 years, and includes a painting Van Keuren made as an undergraduate studying art history at Swarthmore College. The current work displayed here reveals the artist’s virtuoso technique and her interest in combining the figure, landscape, flat abstraction, and suggestions of recessed spaces.

The majority of Van Keuren’s images are printed with the rich, four-color, layered photographic process of gum bichromate or cyanotype–some of the non-silver image-making techniques in which Van Keuren is considered a leading expert. Her Non-Silver Manual: Cyanotype, Vandyke Brown, Palladium & Gum Bichromate with Instructions for Making Light-resists Including Pinhole Photography is a fascinating read for anyone, and an essential reference for artists working in these media.

Come summer, she will have more time to spend at her home just outside of Philadelphia, which offers artistic reward and respite. “When I retire, I look forward to a closer connection to that sylvan refuge,” she says. “I use the back area as my studio and I look forward to even more of an intimate connection with what is outside.” A self-portrait in the Mednick Gallery, printed on Indian paper, shows Van Keuren “amid the ferns,” she says. “It’s myself in the garden and, in a way, it epitomizes my longing to be one with nature.”

Sarah Van Keuren, “On the Line,” gum bichromate and cyanotype, 2011.

A natural love for the physical world

Van Keuren speaks expertly and movingly about her life, her current interests and projects, and, of course, the technique of non-silver printing.  She tells rich stories about the sap of the acacia tree, and about the Bedouin tribes that collect this gum arabic sap in big, burlap bags. This history is important to her, as gum arabic is the suspension for bichromate, a light-sensitive chromium salt that hardens the gum arabic and any other pigment that might be added into the mix.

In the course of Van Keuren’s career, gum arabic has gone from three dollars per gallon to over 40 dollars per gallon. “If things get too bad,” she says, “I can at least make casein.” Casein is a colloid that also holds light-reactive chemicals in suspension; it can be made with common ammonia and cottage cheese. Van Keuren learned about casein printing though the influence of Philadelphia artist Donald Camp. A deep knowledge of chemistry and the physical properties of the world is a general way of being for Van Keuren, and is critical for her art-making. “Part of my interest in the physical world is to know the chemicals I care about, and to know the whole world of acid and base,” she says. “I took chemistry in high school, but it would be more interesting if I took it again now.”

Growing up, Van Keuren’s familiarity with the physical world was supported and encouraged. Her grandfather, an early practitioner of obstetrics and gynecology, set up a microscope for the family and placed hair specimens under the lens for close inspection. Other early fascinations included looking through the family’s collection of World Book encyclopedias. Here, Van Keuren discovered sections that outlined in detail the process of color printmaking. “You saw an image of the four separations of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, and then you’d see the final image put together,” she explains. “Then there was a picture of Abraham Lincoln, and if you stared at a dot in the middle of that image and then looked at a blank wall, you’d see the same image in full color; it was magic.”

© Nancy Hellebrand
Sarah Van Keuren, “Dirty City,” gum bichromate and cyanotype, 2010.

Magic seems to manifests itself now in the lush properties of Van Keuren’s prints–for out of all of the layers of colloid, chemicals, and pigment emerge figures, buildings, sunlight. Describing her current work and imagery, she says, “I care about interacting with the materials and the physical world. Maybe it comes from an agricultural impulse: to cultivate the land and to shape it, to make patterns, to grow; to grow artistically. I have the impulse to draw and to create atmosphere, mood, or ambiance, and it’s been my push to fuse the photographic and the hand-drawn.”

The works on view in the Mednick Gallery make clear Van Keuren’s love of nature as both refuge and expressive subject matter. “I just love 19th-century literature and poetry, and I’m probably a 19th-century Romantic who lives in the cold, industrialized world,” she says. Discussing the environmental impact of her art process, she says, “Ultimately, I feel as if we are sort of headed to hell in a handbasket in our consumer and polluting ways, and I feel guilt about my own hand in introducing toxic chemicals into the environment; I do try to foster responsibility. We still teach platinum printing at UArts, and I always tell the students that it takes two thousand pounds of stone to extract one ounce of platinum and palladium.”

Environmental politics and peace processes have long been a touchstone for Van Keuren. “I was pretty active in my 20s in a branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915 by early suffragettes,” she remembers. “But I found I didn’t have the temperament for all the meetings, and found I had to work on my own.”

Sarah Van Keuren, “Ledge,” paper, pencil, casein, cyanotype, 2014.

Considering her own legacy

Van Keuren received an MFA in photography from the University of Delaware in 1988. Prior to this, she had enrolled in printmaking classes at UArts. As a student there in the mid-to-late 1970s, she was introduced to the work and teaching of Lois Johnson and Jerome Kaplan, both of whom she cites as influences. Early lithographic portraits and prints from her student days at UArts are included in the Mednick Gallery show. In describing these early prints, Van Keuren notes that they prefigured her love of cyanotype: “I loved the physical involvement of drawing on the plate, and Lois Johnson also offered many alternatives to printmaking,” she says.

After speaking about her own teachers and influences, I ask Van Keuren where she sees herself in the artistic legacies of print and photography in Philadelphia. She begins to answer by describing how her great grandfather printed money at Independence Hall, and then says, “I would be happy to be part of a tradition of non-silver or alternative processes in the Philadelphia area. I’ve had many, many students over the years.”

But later, she notes, “I am not particularly focused on my own legacy. I just know how people come and go. I’m not very ambitious; I just want to do things as the spirit moves me.” Near the end of our time together, Sarah Van Keuren mentions at least one of the things she may be moved to do once spring semester ends:  “I inherited a microscope from a cousin, and I think when I retire, I am going to set it up and begin looking at things again.”


I Began with Painting: Sarah Van Keuren is on view through April 25 at the Sol Mednick Gallery, located on the 15th floor of the Terra Building at University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.

More about Sarah Van Keuren can be found on her website, and a full interview with the artist conducted and recorded by the Senior Artists Initiative can be found here.