You Should Know… Sarah Burford

Sarah Burford
Sarah Burford (Photo by David Stuck)

Used wrapping paper, expired calendars and old newspapers. Where some see recycling or trash, Sarah Burford sees potential. By day, she works as a media arts specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts. But in her free time, she crafts collages.

Burford, 34, grew up in Millburn, N.J., and has lived in Washington for the past five years. She’s a member of Hill Havurah.

What drew you to the arts?

I was always really interested in the arts growing up. I always loved to draw and paint. I took a lot of art classes as a kid and through high school was just really excited about the ways that the arts provided an opportunity for creative expression, as well as bringing communities together.

Also, my first art history class opened up a world of the arts as studio practice, but also within academic study. And I found art history was a really exciting way to understand and think about how we function as human beings and understand the culture and society that we live in. And so I ended up studying art history in college and getting a master’s degree in art history, as well.

So how did you get into collage?

I have a 2-year-old daughter and I’m working out of my house. I was thinking a lot about what kind of work made the most sense for me to be doing at this stage in my life, if that makes sense. Like, I don’t really have the time to be working on huge canvases that might take weeks.

But for me, doing smaller format works, working with found materials, newspaper images and magazine images that are in my house, are all things that were easy and accessible for me to pick up when I could.

What do you like about making collage art?

One thing I really love about it is that it’s something where you can find all those materials wherever you are. And here’s a real creativity in thinking about how to cut away from images or take things apart and then put them together in unconventional ways.

What are some themes or takeaways from your art?

A theme that I think is coming across is interrogating what it means, or at least what it’s meant for me, to become a mother and what that role for women often looks like in society. And particularly just what that looks like now. And I definitely felt like I went through a really big transformation of identity when I became a parent. So I think a lot of my works are interrogating notions about female identity.

So how do you see yourself as a Jew and how do you express that part of your identity?

Judaism was not always a defining feature in my life. But I would say as I have gotten older, it’s become increasingly a large piece of my identity. Being Jewish to me has a lot to do with a real respect for and interest in understanding my own cultural heritage. You know, where I and my family have come from, as well as community.

Being part of the Hill Havurah community here in D.C. has been really impactful in that sense for me here. And another thing that’s very important to me about being Jewish is a commitment to tikkun olam and to social justice and thinking and acting in ways that we hope are moving towards that goal of bettering our communities and advancing justice.

I heard you have an interesting story regarding your Latvian ancestry. Could you share it?

My great-grandmother in the 1930s, she had two sisters in Latvia that she was desperately trying to get visas, to get them out as the threat of Nazi Germany became more and more apparent. And, unfortunately, she was not successful.

And in the end, after World War II, she never knew what had happened to those two sisters. And it was a really big question and just an unknown thing in my family history for a long time.

They had personal significance for a lot of different reasons. One of them was that my mom and I are both named after those two sisters. It was a way to honor their memory. And then, when I was in college, my mom ended up doing research about them, and she came across this incredibly well-researched website. And from there, we ended up finding out those relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

It was a real turning point in some ways, just to get closure in a sense. And I ended up naming my daughter after my great-grandmother as a way to symbolically reunite those sisters.

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