The Work of Idaho Artist Sara Joyce Uncovered

By Sheila Petticord. Originally printed in IDAHO Magazine.

Photos by Mark LaMoreaux.

In the spring of 1990, I was newly divorced, searching for a fresh direction in life and taking art classes at the University of Idaho in Moscow. I had always been considered the artist of the family, but a basic drawing class had me feeling stuck. I remember an especially exasperating exercise in which I was paired with another student and, with little instruction, told to render an image of her. I had no idea how to begin, and felt paralyzed by the thought that my drawing would do nothing but insult her.

I suppose I was ready for an epiphany when, several days later, I saw a painting of a friend that absolutely captured her essence in just a few inspired strokes. I was in the nearby town of Genesee, visiting Ellen Vieth at her flower shop. Behind Ellen, next to the cash register, hung a seemingly dashed-off painting, a mere sketch of her. Who did this? Ellen told me the artist’s name was Sara Joyce. I will always remember this first impression of Sara’s work, because it’s been reinforced so many times since then, especially in the past few months as many other art-lovers in the Inland Northwest have become more familiar with an artist who rarely showed her work, but who I believe Idaho will come to treasure.

Ellen agreed to arrange an introduction, and Sara invited me to her home in Genesee. A slender woman in her late sixties, wearing handmade clothes, she was a wonderfully quiet presence with a hint of mischief in her eyes. Her entire living space seemed to be a working art studio. Everywhere, tables were laden with books, art materials, piles of fabric, and artworks still in progress. I saw stacks and stacks of paintings on paper—a series on Genesee women.


“Incarnations of the Buddha, Number One.”

Sara invited me to look through the stacks, and quietly stood by as I searched for one like the painting of my friend. If I found one, I would ask to buy it and take it home. I thought if I studied it closely I would divine her secret. The truth is, as an impoverished college student, I couldn’t afford to offer more than $25, which only added to my already considerable embarrassment. In retrospect, I wish I had come better prepared with questions for Sara. I was tongue-tied, and we exchanged just a few words. I felt like an intruder in her personal creative space as I pawed through the paintings, and finally I thanked her. The visit lasted no more than twenty minutes, and twenty years passed before I saw Sara again.

The next opportunity came in 2010, when Ellen was working as exhibition and programming coordinator at the Lewis–Clark State College Center for Arts and History in nearby Lewiston, where I now live. Sara, I learned, had moved to Pocatello soon after we met. After twenty years there, she was in ill health and had moved to a care center in Moscow, to be near her daughter. Ellen called on Sara’s friends and fellow artists to help with a description of five decades of artwork that few eyes had ever seen, and she curated the first retrospective exhibit of Sara’s art.

Upon entering the main gallery for the opening reception, I looked at the first painting that drew my eye and felt a sense of instant recognition. I locked eyes with Ellen, and there was a moment of silent agreement: this was remarkable. I could imagine seeing this in MOMA. The piece I was looking at, “Lily Beckoning,” is a colorful small painting on canvas, but I felt it from across the room. The composition is of a young woman and a flower, side by side in a landscape. The image and its title made me wonder, “Is Lily the flower, the woman, or both?”

I returned to the gallery a number of times, and with each visit fell more in love. A painting called “Thee Mother” brought me to tears. A figure with a cross in the heart, she seems to offer an earthy liveliness, a primordial, feminine presence. The fullness I felt each time as I absorbed the breadth and depth of Sara’s work was like enjoying a rich, delicious Thanksgiving feast.

Feeling a desire to help bring more people to Sara’s art, I submitted a review to the newspaper where I worked as a copy editor. I did my best to hold back the superlatives, but few people seemed to understand my enthusiasm about the art. One friend commented, at the hair salon, “But it’s so simple.”


“Thee Mother.”

I found myself experiencing the individual art works as living, breathing presences. Sara’s fabric sculptures, among the most unusual of her creations, include a series called “Incarnation of the Buddha.” They possess the quality of “suchness,” a word used in Zen literature to approximate the indescribable vitality of a thing. Indeed, the qualities I found in Sara’s art are all aspects of the Zen aesthetic—simplicity, ordinariness, playfulness, mystery, and suchness.

When Sara came from Moscow to see the exhibit, I was there in the gallery. She sat in a wheelchair, surrounded by family members. It had been more than twenty years since our meeting. She was seeing her work, in its glory, on full display for the first time. I did not intrude. This time, I knew, no words needed to be spoken.

Sara died a few months later, in January 2011, at age eighty-eight. I felt a sense of loss that was compounded when the exhibit closed, as if a good friend had moved away. It seemed I might never see these wonderful artworks again.

So you can imagine my delight several years later, when I was invited by Sara’s family to write an essay to accompany a traveling exhibit of her work. Roger Rowley, the director of the University of Idaho’s Prichard Gallery, recognized Sara as a self-taught visionary artist, launched a show at the Prichard, and a traveling exhibit was conceived. Sara’s daughter Heidi and her siblings, Bill and John, created a team to manage the large collection of works and build an online presence for her art.


“Chocolate Buddha”

I set about learning more about Sara’s life during her years in Pocatello, and contacted some of her artist friends there, including artist Margo Proksa. I learned from Margo that Sara had enrolled in studio art classes at Idaho State University, and had explored a variety of media including clay and traditional methods of pottery making. She studied for eight years with ISU’s renowned anthropologist and ethnologist, Sven Liljeblad. I could see the relationship between Sara’s interest in anthropology and the simplicity and directness of her art, which reminded me of my first impression of her painting of Ellen in Genesee.

I was allowed to be a fly on the wall as Sara’s daughter Heidi worked with photographer Mark LaMoreaux at his studio in Moscow. More than four thousand dream journal entries and images were archived, and I saw, as Roger had seen, the clear development of Sara’s ideas from her daily journals into the larger oil paintings and her works with clay and fabric. Bill fashioned a beautiful kiosk to display some of Sara’s journals in the exhibit, alongside a digital photo kiosk. They can be seen at the final stop for the traveling exhibit, in Idaho Falls, at The Art Museum of Eastern Idaho, from January 19 through March 25.

During my travels and studies, as I gained perspective on the arts in America, I came to recognize that artists in Idaho have only just begun to have their work documented, and to find their places in art history—which means there is great opportunity here, with much work to be done. I had the privilege of seeing how nearly all Sara’s life in Idaho, she steadily produced a large, mature body of artwork, and it’s gratifying to see her work cared for and available to everyone again.