Sara Jean Odam Colors Outside The Lines

Sara Jean Odam holding her piece Voki as a mermaid.

Spiegelworld speaks to artist Sara Jean Odam about her creative process when working with Spiegelworld.

How would you describe your art style?

Intense color is a big marker of my paintings, along with direct drawing within the painting and a lot of emphasis on line and gesture. The tactility of paint and mixing colors is what made me love painting in the first place, and I think that comes through in the images I make. I make paintings mostly in oil and acrylic, but I equally love to draw and experiment with all sorts of materials. I thrive working directly from life. The act of seeing is crucial to me. It quiets my overthinking brain and allows me to focus on observation. I’m always searching for life in whatever I’m observing, whether it’s an eyelid, a furry hat, or a spindly leaf. I aim to capture what something feels like, more than what it looks like, but I’m always relying on observation and imagining possibilities embedded in what I see. Within the world of Spiegelworld, I’ve found endless inspiration from various characters, all the costumes, the make up, the humor and the over-the-top nature of it all.

When did you start in this medium of making art?

The first time I mixed oil paint on a palette in a painting class when I was 18, I was giddy like a kid in a candy store. I loved everything about it, smelling the paint, feeling the colors vibrate and radiate as I mixed them – it’s still what gets me going when I work in the studio. Before that, I had a sense I could draw since second grade, when I made a drawing of Garfield. I got a lot of attention for it, which made me realize I might have some talent. As a shy kid, it was a form of social currency and it was powerful and transformative. I always made art after that, though I was afraid of what it meant to be an artist. I didn’t think I was creative enough. Over time, I learned how to identify, appreciate and value my particular form of creativity. I love painting so much. I love knowing that I’ll never not have things to search for and find within the world of painting. It’s endless.

Where do you find the most inspiration when creating a new art piece?

It really depends. Inspiration can be from something simple like wind blowing through trees or an aggressively-bejeweled, ridiculous costume. But it has to feel somehow right or enticing to me. My last group of paintings were all portraits of performers which culminated in a solo show in Las Vegas at Available Space Art Projects. When I moved to Vegas from New York in 2020, I was completely inspired by the desert light and all the colors the light illuminated. It felt like my sense of the landscape and space opened up exponentially, providing much needed oxygen and relief from the oppressive grays and noise of the New York City skies. As a result, my palette brightened up considerably and color kinda exploded all over my paintings. Since moving here, I’ve felt lucky as a painter that I’ve made good friends with many performer types, pretty much all of whom work in the Spiegelworld orbit. Performers by nature need to be seen, they need an audience. As a painter relying on observation, I need stuff and people to look at! It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship. So I asked a couple friends if I could paint their portraits, either as themselves or in a character. Of course they all wanted to be characters! From painting that first performer portrait, my brain was on fire. I was completely lit up painting the nooks and crannies of costumes, wigs, makeup, and facial expressions and capturing a feel of different fabric textures, like sequins or satin. I loved engaging with the story of each character, and what the character reflects about the performer.

What is your favorite art piece you have created?

One favorite is called “Self-portrait as Good Grief | For You Amelia” wherein I had a makeup artist – Letty Lopez – transform me into a character I created partially inspired by a costume Machine Dazzle made for Taylor Mac. I created the character to help me process some sad stuff in my life, in which I wanted to invite humor to sit next to grief and see what happens. I sat in the make-up chair for like 4 hours and then Letty left and I stared at myself in the mirror and painted for eight hours straight. It felt like a one-person performance just for the painting. This painting remains significant to me for so many reasons, but mostly because it was a vulnerable, new experience that began with an idea that felt scary, but I went for it and it really made a lasting impact on me. It got a big response from viewers as well, which felt great. The painting now lives with friends in Brooklyn which makes me very happy.

How long have you been making art with Spiegelworld?

Since the early days of “Absinthe” in 2011. I made a lot of the altered thrift store paintings that adorn the Absinthe Spiegeltent as well as the giant, frenzied portrait of Gaz painted across multiple thrift store paintings screwed together. I’m really proud of that one. I’ve done so many projects big and small for Spiegelworld over the last 15 years, something for every show except the upcoming “Discoshow”.  It’s been a wild ride with many twists and turns and I’m grateful for all the opportunities and experiences I’ve had because of it.

What was the inspiration behind your piece at Superfrico AC (Voki as the Mermaid)?

It was inspired by a short film called “Crackle” my friend Anaïs Thomassian (creator of Penny Pibbets and Wanda Widdles) made, in which Voki Kalfayan (creator of the Gazillionaire) played an imaginary merman character. At that time, I was looking at a lot of Alice Neel’s work, and was inspired by this one hilarious painting she made of a reclining male nude who was really hairy. Voki is also very hairy. Anaïs asked if I might make a painting that could serve as a film poster for her short film, and I thought I could make a portrait of Voki as the Merman and I could play with being a female painter making a painting of a semi-nude male figure. He modeled for it many times, actually squeezing into that mermaid tail. I was after an “Anti-Gazillionaire” vibe—vulnerable, in-between worlds, soft, feminine, a little lost. That was the first painting I made in the portrait series on canvas, instead of paper, and it felt like a jump to the bigger, more substantial pieces in my show of performer portraits.

I love that it later found its place at Superfrico, fitting perfectly with the restaurant’s nautical theme.

What advice do you have for young artists who want to pursue art professionally?

My heroes are all old women who are/were still kicking ass at 60+. I want to be painting until I die. For me, there’s no retirement from making art. If you feel inspired to create, cherish it. Follow your heart, embrace failure, and make mistakes. There’s no clear path or right way—it’s unique to each person’s skill set. Trust yourself, experiment, and keep learning. Embrace the spirit of play and don’t be afraid of failure; it’s how we learn and grow as artists.