By Marie Anello
The first comic you see on Sarah Leitten’s website features the artist’s grinning self-portrait embracing two comically round cats. The trio are surrounded by cheerful pink ribbons above a backdrop of a rainy city skyline. “When things get real bad and it feels like there is no one out there,” it reads, as Leitten parades on the backs of these cats, leg in a cast from a 2013 stress fracture, “I know I can always count on my babies for help.”
This comic, like much of Leitten’s work, is equal parts colorful exuberance, morbid surrealism, and emotional vulnerability. “I have always used my artwork and comics as therapy and as a way to express humor,” Leitten says of her subject matter. Her comics, mostly autobiographical, can range from sarcastic quips about a broken leg to prayers for the enduring health of humanity; from grotesque yet sensual outpourings of love to quiet contemplation about the prospect of moving away from her beloved Chicago.
“I like to call Chicago ‘My Emerald City,’ I really love this city, and I’m proud to call it my home. I’ve met so many incredible people in Chicago who have inspired me in so many ways. There is a large, supportive community of cartoonists who have given me opportunities to share my comics and grow as an artist.”
Chicago features prominently in Leitten’s comics and art, especially those concerning her job as a florist at Flora Chicago, which she co-runs with business partner Kate Prince. In addition to floristry she and Prince teach floral arrangement classes, and recently they were honored for their winning design at the Garfield Park Conservatory’s FLEUROTICA 2018, a charity fashion show in which all the competing garments are made from plants, flowers and natural materials.
Leitten is no stranger to this kind of artistic crossover. A former sculpture major at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Leitten continues to make macabre and fascinating “Mud Monsters”, sculpting them out of natural materials like dirt, dried flowers, and leaves. When asked about how she chooses projects to work on, and if she has a preferred medium, Leitten says, “I feel that all my individual projects are a part of one large project and are connected to each other. I see my floral designs as living sculptures, and my music, collages, and comics as ways to tell stories. I don’t see my creations having a hierarchy over each other.”
As for what’s occupying her right now, Leitten says, “I love drawing comics and I want to continue making them. I am currently working on a comic about aliens, and an ongoing comic project about my experiences as a florist.” She also mentions her non-comics projects with equal enthusiasm: “I’m almost finished with my crazy quilt, and I’m working on some new jelly and jam recipes.”
This holistic approach is perhaps what makes Sarah Leitten so magnetic as an artist, she cannot be defined by just one medium or style. Her life and work are intimately entwined on multiple axes, and the separation one might draw between “day job” and “artistic pursuit” and “hobby” does not exist.
The cross-pollination of interests can be clearly seen in her illustration style, which in many ways evokes a two-dimensional impression of her three-dimensional mud monsters. In them, facial features are exaggerated, bodies are contorted, and Leitten seems to relish in the frenetic, ugly, or obscene.
“As a teenager I was really into the Sandman comics,” she recalls, “but it wasn’t until I graduated from college that I started reading more comics and drawing them myself. Knowing my limitation as an artist has also shaped my style. I know I can’t and have no interest in drawing realistically.”
In truth, the idea of attempting to translate the massive and vibrant outpourings of emotion in Leitten’s comics through realism seems utterly confining. In autobiographical comics her feelings radiate outward in animated cacophony, while her grisly horror comics and illustrations engender a sense of dread. The influence of the surrealist masterwork Sandman is obvious, but Leitten also cites many fantastic and eclectic artists that inspire her: the fast-paced newspaper strips of B. Kilban & Dori Seda; the haunting art of Margot Ferrick; Paul Nudd and The Hairy Who’s riotous works of color and abstraction; Wai Wai Pang with her arresting simplicity; not to mention industry giants like the Hernandez Brothers and Jillian Tamaki, and of course the incomparable Lynda Barry.
While discussing her artistic development, Leitten explains, “When I was in college studying sculpture I had a lot of space to create, and when I moved to Chicago ten years ago I found that what I created was determined by my space. I was limited to the confines of small apartments and challenged by my resources. I gravitated toward drawing which lead to drawing comics.”
This economy of space is reflected in many of her comics, which utilize as much of the page as possible and are bursting with detail and decorative embellishments. Even the gutters between panels can be stylized and encroach on each other in dreamy smoke trails or violent jagged spikes.
Throughout her years of comics work, as well as illustrations, posters, collages, wood burnings, sculptures, photography, and music, Leitten continues to revisit certain central themes and motifs. Old women, obsessive love, flowers and decay are prominent (just look at her short comic “Breakfast” featured in Lumpen Magazine to see the intersection of all four) as are turtles and cats (both of which she owns in real life). Leitten has commented in past interviews on a preoccupation with bread and gluten in her work due to her celiac disease. One need only see the way she lovingly renders a pretzel roll sandwich to understand how she feels.
Flowers and nature are a constant presence, both in relation to her floristry and, it seems, an extension of her personality. What becomes immediately apparent in even a brief conversation is that Leitten’s love of her community, her work, and the world around her suffuses her artistic presence. She best sums up her creative philosophy herself:
“I don’t think my comics have a greater value than my homemade jam. They were each made with love, passion, and are meant to be shared. Whether I’m making and canning jam, sewing a quilt, drawing a comic, playing my accordion, or designing a flower arrangement, I see my creations as a way to share, give, and be connected to the world.”
Sarah Leitten’s comics can be found on her website, and her floristry services are available through Flora Chicago. If you are a Chicago resident, you can see Sarah work currently on display at Weston’s Coffee on Milwaukee Ave. The art show features original comic pages, watercolor drawings and collages.