Artist Sarah C. Blanchette brings her childhood basement to life at 934 Gallery

The digital world collides with IRL in ‘Basement Babe,’ opening Friday at the Milo-Grogan art space

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"Basement Babe" by Sarah C. Blanchette at 934 Gallery

Growing up in Metro Detroit, artist Sarah C. Blanchette could always find respite in the basement, where she would retreat with frequency to create art in solitude — a practice that continues to this day.

“For my whole life, the basement has been where I’ve done my art-making,” Blanchette said in an interview earlier this week at 934 Gallery, where the artist’s new show, “Basement Babe,” will kick off with an opening reception from 7 to 10 p.m. on Friday, June 4. “When I was a kid, my parents gave me a spot in the basement of our house in Eastpointe, Michigan, and I had a big desk where I could draw and put things up on the walls, and I would spend all of my time down there. … It’s that secret playground where you’re out of sight, but you’re in a safe space, unless you think your basement is haunted.”

For the installation at 934, Blanchette pulled in elements from two of her childhood homes, covering the walls of the gallery with tapestries that mirror the wood paneling from one basement and the floor with fabric modeled on the turquoise tiles from another. As in childhood, the artist then decorated these "walls" with other works she created, in this case a series of self-portraits imprinted on fabric, each of which was cut apart and then stitched back together.

Most of these reassembled photographs explore the trauma Blanchette said she experienced in various internet chat rooms as a teenager, as well as questions of identity that can arise when one creates a sort of digital self that exists outside of reality.

“It did shape how I see myself, because you’re creating this persona online, and this person can be whoever you want it to be, and can always stay that young, even as you’re getting older and your body is changing,” the artist said. “So then grounding your identity in that online persona while you have this in-real-life one, this IRL one, that’s transforming, there can be this rip, this fracture. … Every image you see in this show has been cut up and sewn together because I’m trying to mend the actual fractures I feel about myself.”

The digital realm blurs with real life in other ways, too, with Blanchette recreating a digital “swipe” effect with fabric and thread for a pair of portraits. “These things that happen to us online, they happen in a digital space, but they have real-life consequences,” said Blanchette, who started sewing at age 7 under the direction of her grandmother, a craft she rightly described as being “rooted in feminist history.” “So instead of being on your phone and being able to swipe it away, I’m bringing it into this space where you have to deal with it. So in that way there’s definitely some confrontation, some aggression in the work.”

As one might imagine, Blanchette said that spending the better part of the last four years cutting apart images of herself and then reassembling them anew has been a therapeutic process, one further amplified by taking these pieces born of conflict (most of the works are titled with sexist and misogynistic comments directed either at the artist or her friends, such as “I’m Close Enough to Touch You”) and staging them in a recreated basement setting that has always been a place of comfort and safety.

Moving forward, Blanchette envisions her work taking on new dimensions, while still incorporating threads pulled from her earliest basement explorations. Most recently, she has started working with photos inherited from her partner’s late grandfather, a Detroit-based photographer, historian and jazz drummer, stitching these family relics into her pieces, symbolic of the ways the two families have become one.

“So I am moving outside of myself a little bit,” Blanchette said. “I know my work will take different forms as I get older, and I want it to, but I hope there’s always this personal thread. Literally.”