Ellen Mueller

Interview with Sarah Cullen

by Ellen Mueller on December 11, 2023, no comments

pencil in a box in the wilderness

Image Credit: Sarah Cullen, “The City as Writtne by the City” – one of the devices a top Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain, Banff Alberta

As part of the release of the hardcover/e-book release of my book, Walking as Artistic Practice (softcover comes out in April!), I’m going to be publishing some brief interviews with the various artists, authors, researchers, creatives, collectives, and platforms whose art practice, written material, or other works I cite and mention.

My 17th interview in this series is with Sarah Cullen who is a visual artist based in Toronto.  She is most known for her walking work The City as Written by the City as well as her widening participation project, MOTHRA: Artist-Parent Project, for which she is the founder and director.

EM: First, thank you for chatting with me about your work, The City as Written by the City (2004-), which I cite in chapter two (Analyzing Works) in the subsection on “Maps and Mapping.” How would you describe this piece for people who might not be familiar with it?

SC: This work was conceived before I headed off to spend a year in Florence during my final year of my undergraduate degree. I was interested in walking as a method to make work. I decided that Florence would be my studio. Galileo’s presence in Florence and his work with pendulums was also a point of reference. So, what I made was a handheld box. One side has a door, the top has a handle, and inside the box hangs a pencil which is weighted like a pendulum. As I move carrying the box the pencil is activated and leaves marks on the paper that is placed at the bottom of the box. The pencil is a “dragging” pendulum in that when it swings the tip doesn’t leave the paper. The pencil drags about. The resulting drawing I call a map. It is not a map that can be read, but making the drawings is an act of mapping, or tracing, my movements. I have since walked many places with these drawing devices and have mapped many walks – urban, rural, flat, mountainous etc… Sometimes the device accompanies me on everyday errands, sometimes I am walking because of the device. It’s an ongoing work. The drawings are a bit like diary entries. Each one is unique. I have also held many workshops internationally where participants make their own version of my pendulum drawing device. These workshops are ongoing.

an abstract black and white drawing

Credit: Sarah Cullen, “The City as Written by the City” – A drawing made in Florence

EM: What are some of your most recent thoughts on walking as artistic practice?

SC: For a little while this method, walking as artistic practice, seemed to be everywhere.  When everyone seems to be doing it, as an artist, this can put you off continuing in that trajectory. I took a departure from walking as artistic practice for a while, but in the last few years my interest in it has bubbled up again.  After art school I ended up doing a MA Geography, so I am interested in all ways that landscape and place can be interpreted – walking being one method.  I was very recently at the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies.  My visit rekindled many memories, primarily my time there on the Walking and Art residency in 2007.  I’ve realized that my desire to continue this work has not gone away.

a person sitting in a snowy mountainous landscape

Credit: Sarah Cullen, “The City as Written by the City” – in the snowy Rockies taking a break – drawing device next to Cullen on the left

EM: Can you tell us about any upcoming or recent projects you are excited about?

SC: I’m working on a project about women walkers taking Dorothy Wordsworth as my inspiration. She did a heck of a lot of walking – for pleasure, inspiration, necessity, and to collect the post! I am most fascinated with her walks to and from the post office and the handmade bag she used to put the mail in. So…walking, letter writing, and stitching are some “slow” practices that I am working with for this project. That’s all I’ll say for now. Wish me luck!