State of Mind: Alaina Sullivan

“Palate and palette,” Alaina Sullivan notes on her Instagram page, and it seems like a tidy summary of how the NY-based artist and designer has inspired us from afar, both in her artwork, in visual designs for publications like Bon Appetit (where she was a Senior Designer), and in the creatively no-fuss recipes and meals she shares on Instagram, pairing unexpected combinations of ingredients, texture, and color like…well, like the artist she is.


We visited with Alaina in her studio for a conversation on presence, (im)perfection, and how an unforeseen accident last year forced her to see the world (and her role in it) anew. 


Photos by Emily Hlavac Green




THE PAINTER'S JUMPSUIT, Light Silk Linen, Desert



THE 1930s BANDANA, Lichen


Perfection is really the road to imperfection. What has been your relationship to imperfection; to the acceptance of it in everyday life?

Imperfection is something I've warmed up to. Aesthetically, I've always loved imperfect things -- things with cracks, stains, wrinkles, smudges -- signs of life, being used and loved. (As a kid, I used to scuff my bright white sneakers in the dirt because I hated them looking so new!) But for a long time in my work and life, I leaned toward perfectionism, as some artists do. It is a habit that has served me well in many ways, but I also know it unravels my health and spirit. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. What is ever perfect?


…Yes, you can set yourself up to have a degree of control over your experience, but so much of life is out of your control. What I've come to know is that things don't need to be perfect, they just need to move. Change is life, nothing is static. Feelings shift, conditions shift. Even a "perfect" moment quickly shifts into something perhaps less "perfect." If you spend too much time dwelling on making “perfect” work, you probably aren't making new work! 


You have to foil your persistence, your reach for perfection, with playfulness. I tell myself over and over: "Let go." Let go of control, let go of expectations, loosen that firm grip and let yourself be open to surprise. It's intimidating, but once you can embrace it, it's an immensely liberating and attractive way to live, and the best way to grow.


What has working in as a multidisciplinary artist taught you about letting go of needing to be one "thing"?

Gosh, I have such a hard time answering the question "What do you do?" in one, succinct sentence, but I wouldn't have it otherwise. Usually I just say "I'm an artist," because it's so deliciously vague. I like a bit of mystery...


Embracing fluidity is so attractive to me and my body of work. I tend to my creativity through many channels, and each feeds the other. A shift between them is important for feeling balanced. Whenever I'm feeling creatively blocked in one direction, I shift to another ... sometimes a step away, a change in perspective gives so much clarity.


Creatively I'm fueled by curiosity and wonder -- I love to be a student, to step outside the familiar. Engaging my senses is important, as is embracing mistakes and humanhood with playful joy (see: imperfection, above). I think that this approach threads itself through everything I do. I often ask myself how I should navigate and tend the scope of my creative projects. It can be daunting, and leave me feeling scattered sometimes. It's important to carve out time for each, to take one at a time, to seek out ways to greet them with intention. You must have courage, be open, and push through moments of self-doubt. My mantra is patience, always. 


I like to think of my multidisciplinary approach to work as a constellation that shape-shifts. It's complex and beautiful and I'm simply connecting the dots, telling a story, continually reinventing. People aren't "one thing"! As an artist, that's refreshing. I think being an "artist" is a broad, and ultimately embracing way of labeling yourself. An artist is not defined by her tool, she is defined by a way of looking. She leans into whichever medium beckons at that moment -- it could be painting, photography, design, ceramics, digital art, cooking, music... The vehicle may change (and I think that it should). That's how things you didn't know about yourself surface -- skills you tend, visions or values you hold. The artist is simply driven by the act of pouring something out into the world in a way that is hers.



THE BOY TANK, Silk Noil, Tea









There is no “right” way to be yourself; rarely, if ever is there permanence. But there is process. How have you come to know yourself differently in the past year?

Last year I got hit on the head, literally and figuratively.


It was a skiing accident, the kind of fall that knocks you out and shakes your brain up like a snow globe so you can't remember the names of the months backwards. (Of course I was wearing a helmet, unfortunately I absorbed all the impact through my eye). Neurologists call it a TBI (traumatic brain injury), which is quite a few notches on the belt above an everyday bump on the head. And the recovery time is TBD -- it's different for everyone. There were a lot of unknowns.


So I found myself at home, putting a hard stop to most parts of the days I knew and the ways I navigated them.


Damn, it was hard. Recovery is such an energy-intensive process for the brain. Mostly all you can do as a body is rest, and wait. Wait until the ringing in your left ear turns down. Until the vertigo you get every time you stand up passes. Until the blank spots in your memory return. The process of healing was very personal and often lonely. Only I am with and in my body all the time, and no one else could really understand what it was like to feel so broken…


I couldn’t do the job that I had been doing for 6 years. I couldn't go on computers. Or phones. I couldn't read books for a while. I couldn't jog or do yoga. Sometimes I’d forget a word. Sometimes I forgot whole moments. I felt hollow. I felt lost. I felt loved. I felt patient. I felt impatient. I felt waves of strength. I didn’t know when. But I wouldn’t be the same on the other side. Rest was all that mattered.


Being suddenly unplugged from the job you know and the Internet and email and screens, and even reading books and the news, is wild to think about in this age. At first it feels vacant. A quiet so big it’s smothering. Your thumbs itch for the default sport they know: scrolling. We crave the "connectivity" we feel by sharing things on social media, with the fabricated notion that there's an audience waiting for us to share "engaging content" about our lives so they can "like" it. But the world in your pocket is not real. What's real is where your feet are. In this huge space outside of the digital collective, I started making things without the influence or expectation of anyone else. How rare that is these days. Why did it take a head injury to know what that’s like again?


I gave into it. I had to. Patience became my mantra. Letting my brain stitch it's wires back together became my priority. My body was driving, I was out of control.


In the months afterward, I found the silver lining. I began making art again. I began cooking again. Outlets that physically became accessible and intuitive as I gained strength, and which also happen to be two of my favorite ways to spend my time. I find importance in that irony; that I was physically too sensitive to engage with digital, modern things, but the primal, sensory urges to quietly create and care for myself were never snuffed.


I walked a lot. I walked without my headphones in, without my phone on me at all. Complete disconnect from the digital maw. How awakening and liberating that was! My senses were handicapped, but instead of feeling cloudy, I was noticing things around me -- the real things. Beautiful things, ugly things. I learned the face of every tree in the park near my house. Smiled at strangers on the sidewalk. Conversations at the market became cornerstones of my day. I watched the change of seasons. I felt alive, and awake. Things got really simple, distilled down to being.


In this age of digital clutter, with inputs from all directions, what is deep thought? What is a long period of silence really like? Cut off your digital limbs and you’ll find out. I can tell you, it’s the best way to get to know yourself. One thing I've learned about the human condition over the last year: we are tremendously resilient. 


How we show up (figuratively speaking) anywhere is how we show up everywhere. Do you have a personal philosophy for living that extends across your approach cooking, your work, getting dressed etc?

First, Simplify. How do you strip something down to its essence and rid the noise? And then, when you pare it down to the functional, how do you create Balance with color, texture, flavor? And finally, when do you throw in something atypical or unexpected? This is how I approach my food, my art, my closet -- with simplicity and delight. 


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