SOUTH BEND — As she headed down wooden stairs into the belly of her home, artist Sarah Dolezol said, “Don’t worry, nothing has been killed down here.”
The warning was welcome.
Inside the cinder block walls of the basement, trays of tiny white bones lied next to eclectic collections of old dolls, clocks and gears. Across the room, a semi-deconstructed mannequin stood guard over remnants of antique toys and machinery. It looked a bit like a Victorian apothecary gone rogue.
On the floor, tiny washers and gears sunk their edges into the carpet, where Dolezal sits cross-legged to piece together her creations.
“People call it creepy a lot, but I don’t think it’s creepy. When I’m making art, I think it’s pretty. Or I love the lines,” Dolezal said.
Though she seems wholly at home in the space now, it wasn’t always that way. For most of her adult life, Dolezal lived nomadically, working her way through coffee kitchens from the forests of Montana to the scenic byways of Utah.
A few years ago, she transitioned from living out of her car to setting up a stable household for her boyfriend and his two sons. Though she chose the change, it wasn’t easy.
“I knew I couldn’t maintain the nomadic, do-whatever-I-want lifestyle and be a good stepmom. So I went to college and got a degree in tech. … I really wanted to make sure it was something I knew how to do and could support us wherever we went,” she said.
The sudden rigidity of working a nine-to-five, keeping house and playing stepmom to two growing boys nearly broke her.
“Because everything was changing … my anxiety went through the roof,” she explained.
When her boyfriend noticed her unraveling, he suggested that she try to channel her energy into something creative.
“I’ve always thought of you as an artist,” he told her.
Until that point, Dolezal had never seen herself in that light. She doodled, yes. She lived creatively. But she had never put her mind and hands to work on what she would consider a piece of art.
A NEW BEGINNING
So she began. She threw herself into crafting a piece called “Nomad,” which became a representation of the person she’d been before sinking roots into the soil of her South Bend home.
“Nomad” is a steampunk, found-object-style portrait of a woman. Her hair is made of bike chains, and the background is stained with coffee. The woman is adorned in pieces that Dolezal once wore in her own dreadlocks — decorations removed during the three-month process of combing out that hair in preparation for employment after college.
Delozol describes “Nomad” in endearingly personal terms, like a long-lost friend.
“I took navigation tools, like sextons and compasses … and I’ve taken those apart and put those in her hair. So she’s made of all the things that are travel-y,” she said.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Since creating “Nomad” in 2014, Dolezal’s style has evolved to include another of her passions: anatomy.
“I love to see how things work. When you love to see how things work and you love anatomy, you get into dead things,” she said.
Which brings us back to the dimly lit basement studio.
The piles of tiny bones and animal fragments are all scavenged or received as gifts, like the little dead possum that Dolezal’s mother found and brought to her. As an artist, she loves highlighting the beauty of found, dead objects — she is staunchly against harming animals herself.
It is the bones that seem to fascinate Dolezal most.
“They’re like a puzzle,” she said. “When you start looking at how things fit together and how they work — like, when you get into a typewriter, all these tiny little levers and all these springs…” she trailed off, gesturing to the collection of organic and mechanical matter stacked around her. “There are pieces in typewriters that are kind of like bones. I start seeing bodies in machines and machines in bodies. It’s all engineering and it’s all mechanics.”.
It is clear that Dolezal’s mind is always spinning uninhibited curiosity. From the bones on the platter to the iguana in the freezer to the octopus being preserved in a thick glass apothecary jar, Dolezal surrounds herself with lifeforms that fascinate her and satisfy her longing to understand the inner workings of the world.
“I got into this work because I needed something that keeps my hands busy,” she said. The physical work is different from navigating through the American West or laboring over coffee grounds for hours.
But this reconstruction of domestic life is her “new adventure,” she said.
“It’s got struggles, relationships, things I’ve never done before. It’s got all the stuff that you find in an adventure,” she said.
And as she makes sense of this new journey, Dolezal will continue to express her creative energy by finding the beauty in broken, dead things. Sometimes her pieces feel like a fight to make the puzzle complete, she said, but it will work out — it will make sense in the end.
Leandra Beabout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 314.
INTERESTED IN SARAH DOLEZAL’S ART?
VIEW HER ART: Coal Yard Coffee in Indianapolis, www.facebook.com/gearsonacid or Art Beat in South Bend