Artist Sarah Hensley on pain and joy
Painter Sarah Hensley doesn’t want to be called an outsider artist. Like many talented creatives, she rejects glib labels. “I don’t even know what ‘outsider artist’ means,” she said while scarfing down Kaeng khaio wan (sweet green curry) at Downtown Thai and Pho on Winston-Salem’s Fourth Street, a few blocks from where she works part-time at the Art for Art’s Sake Red Dog Gallery on Liberty.
I use Sarah’s first name because she’s a friend, something I wouldn’t admit if I weren’t impressed by her work. This lunch proved to be her introduction to Thai food. Fortunately, she loved it, and so our friendship remained unblemished. “I guess I can’t be defined,” she continued while spooning up the last of her broth. Her green grin (the color came from her lipstick, not the curry) mocked the cliché. She’s not the kind of person to say something like that with a straight face.
Sarah would rather talk about how much she enjoys painting than what kind of artist she is. “In Kernersville, I have so much fun,” she said. “I work in the fresh air and among amazing people. It’s such a delightful place that its employees go there to hang out on their days off.”
She was referring to the mural she’s been working on at the Brewer’s Kettle in the town some residents call K-Vegas. “Every time I think I’m done, they build me something else to paint.” In 2017, she also took part in a collaborative mural project on Winston-Salem’s Trade Street, working with other AFAS members to integrate their work with the pre-existing graffiti and challenge conceptions about public art. “I didn’t want to cover up or totally remove the graffiti,” she told the Winston-Salem Journal in February of 2017. “We got our friends involved, and now it’s this huge crazy art wall that looks really cool.”
And then there are her Zarbies. As she told the Strange Carolinas website in October of 2016, she likes to take old Ken and Barbie dolls and turn them into zombies [www.strangecarolinas.com/2016/10/sarah-hensley-interview-with-woman-who.html]. That project began one Christmas when Sarah and her “soul-sister and hetero-life partner” Kendra Parker were broke and had to come up with presents for their children.
Sarah is familiar with being poor. She became a professional artist after injuring her back eight years ago. “I’ve been doing it since I fell through the cracks of the professional world and lost my regular people job.”
She used to be a surgical assistant. One day, she said, she had to move a very large patient all by herself. “We’d just had a big meeting about the bottom line, and I couldn’t call in the team to assist in moving this person.” So she did it all by herself. “I blew all the disks in my lumbar spine,” she said. “I had to have an anterior fusion, so some of my vertebrae are now one vertebra.”
That’s why, when we left the Red Dog Gallery to eat at Downtown Thai, a trip that would have been an easy walk for me, we drove. A lot of things that once were easy for Sarah aren’t anymore.
Her battle for Disability benefits has gone on for four years. “I got a kind lawyer, and he assures me that if he didn’t think it was a case worth winning, he wouldn’t bother.” She said she remains optimistic. “Which isn’t to say I have faith in the system, as that would be stupid; the system thinks I’m too bubbly, and they keep saying no because I don’t have enough paperwork describing my depression.” She explained that her chronic pain and inability to do many things that others take for granted “doesn’t make me sad enough to satisfy them.”
Sarah said that her art helps keep that sadness at bay, much of the time. “It’s kind of how I lift myself above the muck and mire. I wish I had Disability, because maybe then I wouldn’t struggle so much, but if I didn’t struggle, maybe I wouldn’t appreciate the things I have.”
Sarah’s favorite medium is acrylics. “It’s the easiest one for me, and the most fun,” But she also likes trying new things. When I asked her what medium she wanted to tackle next, she grinned the way she had at her first taste of Thai food.
“I want to do everything. Art is like a big buffet, and you gotta get a bite out of every dish.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.