Of Time and Tide
Things slowed way down for Vanessa Sweet when she moved from Alaska’s largest city to a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait.
Before, she lived in Anchorage, where she worked for a design agency by day and picked up freelance graphic work at night. When she could, she snatched hours to make her own art, but her hectic workload dominated her creative life.
She moved to Shishmaref with her partner, Nic, and daughter, Luna, now 6, in 2016. The chunk of land one mile wide by three miles long — and shrinking every day from erosion — has about 600 residents, according to a 2016 census. The dramatic change of environment helped Sweet settle into her own ideas and their expression in sketches, drawings, graphics, written work and animation.
“I’ve gotten more deliberate with my choices,” she said. “It’s nice to be removed from the distractions of a larger place. There’s no going to the movies, no fast food. It’s almost like I have that space to really focus and not distract myself.”
She has more time now to think and create, she said, but there’s also the urgency of confronting rising seas and crumbling coastlines every day, and the real experience of witnessing the changing climate’s impact on communities.
There’s a sense of a bigger timeline issuing its deadlines and assignments, and the feeling of not knowing whether or how or if the needed work will get done in time.
Time Stands Stills, Time Flies
For Sweet, the tug of time also feels weighted by the labor of parenthood, when there’s no time to do anything, even sleep, and yet everything takes forever to do.
“Prior to parenthood, our time is our own, and we spend it unscrupulously,” she said. “Adjusting to the reins of a small human calling the shots really was immensely difficult for me. I wanted to create, I wanted to do, and I was struggling to find time to sleep and shower, let alone create.”
Since her second daughter’s birth in 2018, Sweet faces the same struggle, but with the perspective of patience and less busyness. Between chores and putting out fires, she finds moments to observe, to consider, to experiment, to reflect — all the things required to create with real passion, she said.
“I am more comfortable with personal projects unraveling at the pace they come to,” she explained. “But I nearly always have a sketchbook handy to jot down an idea as it pops up — because I might not remember it when I have the time to sit and develop it unless I do. Trying to find balance is really the key — and making sure my girls get attention and care.”
Time and the Wild Woman
Both the abundance and loss of time has allowed Sweet to begin to express her own personal stories and feelings in her art, and to use her voice to talk about the social and environmental issues that press upon her mind.
She first wrote a poem “Wild Woman” in 2010 to talk about the fear of death and the fears women face daily and throughout their lives, but she didn’t finish the project until last year when she animated it.
The short film is the most personal piece Sweet has completed to date. “Being brave enough to believe in and be honest with myself, and to hint at what has happened to me, knowing it would have an audience, was challenging,” she said. “I had to admit to myself that it’s okay, that I can be honest with myself and confident in my voice.”
Moving north, becoming a parent, and pushing through her spoken word film transformed her art making. She mostly made fun illustrative pieces before, and she still does that type of work on freelance projects and children’s books. Now she wants to move toward more hard-pressing subject matter in her personal work to develop as an artist.
“I struggled with that for a long time because if I’m going to make something, what’s the point of just making a fun character if it wasn’t serving me or serving other people?” she said. “I realized that I could make things that have a social impact.”
Sweet completed “Wild Women” after the bitter 2016 presidential campaign and election when the tone and intensity of dialog grew uncivil and often cruel.
“I had a lot of moments when I thought, ‘I don’t know if I should do this, what’s going to happen if I put this out there?’”
But she did, and its timeless story speaks to both the women’s movement today, and to women’s losses and doubts, courage and love, resilience and power through time.
Today, as rising tides relentlessly erode her new home’s coastline, Sweet gives her ideas time to reveal themselves, knowing “there’s space to breathe and explore and not be afraid of that.”