Photographer Sabine Schmidt recently completed a photo series featuring tiny paper houses that she designed and created herself. The idea for the houses came about one frosty February weekend when Schmidt found herself snowed in for four days. As she wrote about the genesis of the project on her blog, "If humans are capable of building structures that not only provide shelter but hold memory and a historical residue felt by passing strangers years and generations later, where is that human information contained? What is the principle of 'house'?"
In one of her photos, her tiny, handmade house stands in the middle of a paved path, a lush green forest in the background. The juxtaposition of the miniature house with the enormous trees emphasizes the fragility and vulnerability of Schmidt's creation. Sunlight touches its white roof, making it appear to glow from within.
Date and place of birth: September 21, 1962, Wiesbaden, Germany
If I could photograph anything or anyone (living or dead), it would be: my parents meeting for the first time.
When no one is looking, I: make faces, especially when I’m driving.
I’m at my best when: I’m in control of my own time.
If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s: you meet everyone twice, so treat people accordingly.
Few people know I: think cheese is gross.
One word to sum me up: Adaptable.
The modern convenience I could do without: TV. I don’t have one.
Take anything, but don’t take my: eyesight.
Schmidt is consumed with the idea of home, environment, geography, and how and where and why we, as humans, interact with those concepts. The German-born artist has found much in Northwest Arkansas to feed that passion. Since she returned to Fayetteville in 2002, she has spent countless hours exploring her surroundings on foot. Her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, with an emphasis in translation -- earned at the University of Arkansas -- and her talent for wielding words like a paint brush ensures she observes things with a writer's eye.
"In a similar fashion, the Ozarks are really a snakes' nest of old road traces and trails," she wrote in a blog post in January of 2014, after a long walk in a chilly woods. "There are remnants of homesteads everywhere. That vertical rock I stub my foot on is actually a grave marker, and when I look more closely, I spot dozens more, many of them the graves of young children. ... Everywhere I hike, there is a story; but each one is told in a low voice that can be hard to hear over the wind and the water rushing over the boulders."
Painting with words
Schmidt has been pursuing photography for 10 years now, but one look at her biography and it's clear that she has been painting pictures with her words for much longer. As photographer Don House, her collaborator and partner of about five years, says in a 2016 interview with the Rockefeller Institute: "She is a writer and translator who fell in love with Arkansas and picked up a camera late in the game as another tool to express what she was seeing, and that gives a perspective, a freshness, that is attractive and effective."
Schmidt attended the University of Hamburg in Germany and earned a Master of Arts in American literature and culture with an emphasis in Southern literature. This focus was in large part why she applied and was accepted to the University of Arkansas's MFA creative writing program in 1991. "I just wanted to see what life in the U.S. was like," she says.
She moved to Fayetteville. But it was not love at first sight.
Accustomed to the fast-paced, urban setting of Hamburg, Schmidt says that she initially found Fayetteville a bit desolate. She had arrived in August, during a heat wave and before the influx of students would crowd the campus.
"It was a period of adjustment," she admits, laughing, during a recent conversation. She laughs easily and frequently, and has, as her longtime friend Gabrielle Idlet describes, "a Mona Lisa smile."
"It's a straight line across and goes up at the ends and makes you wonder if she's having a private joke or if she's with you," Idlet says fondly.
"It was hot, it was humid, it was horrible, and I remember walking up Dickson ... I told my sister about this walk and how dead the town seemed at the time," Schmidt says of the Fayetteville she encountered in 1991. "I told my sister, 'if I ever tell you I want to live here, shoot me!'
"She doesn't remember that, fortunately."
Schmidt had told herself that she would stay only a year, but she stayed just over twice as long as she devoured what was normally a four-year MFA program. "I just fell in love with the creative writing program. John Duval was my mentor ... I had classes with all of the [legends]: Miller Williams, James Whitehead. It was amazing."
Her sense of home and belonging was also helped when she got involved with something familiar. The former music journalist was hired as a DJ at KRFA, the university-sponsored radio station.
"I'd been fascinated by the concept of college radio, which we didn't have in Germany," she says. She had a two-hour Wednesday afternoon show: the first hour was American "college radio" music while the second was contemporary rock and pop from Germany. She still wonders if any students ever appreciated the exposure to music from another culture. "No one ever called in!" she says, laughing. "575-5583, but no one ever called."
It was at the radio station that she would meet the man whom she would later marry, and when she returned to Germany to complete her thesis, he accompanied her. After a year or two, the pair relocated to Memphis, Tenn., where Schmidt had been hired to teach at Rhodes College.
"I had the freedom to teach whatever I wanted as long as it was German, so they let me teach a film course, a translation workshop, a dramatic translation workshop in collaboration with the theater department. ... It never got boring."
Though she was hired in a one-year replacement position, she ended up staying at Rhodes for seven years, returning to Fayetteville in 2002 to pursue a Ph.D.
If she thought her second arrival would allow for a softer landing than did the first, she was soon disabused of that notion. While unloading their possessions in the hot, humid August heat, she and her husband broke up.
"It was 95 degrees, and we went to unload the U-Haul, and all of the tensions and all of the stress that had been kind of brewing just came out," she says, adding, ruefully, "It changed the plan a bit."
Her soon-to-be ex-husband moved back to Memphis, and Schmidt worked through the pain by throwing herself into her school program. She taught classes, as she did the last time in Fayetteville, but this time she was teaching English instead of German.
Capturing the moment
While focusing on her Ph.D., an odd thing happened to Schmidt: She fell in love with photography.
"I came to photography through writing, through academic research," she says.
She had settled on what she hoped would be her dissertation topic, but she needed to explore her ideas and see if they were workable. "I've lived in cities for most of my life and I've walked in cities for most of my life -- I've walked a lot." While housesitting for a friend in Malibu, Calif., she had an epiphany: The three authors she had chosen for her comparative literature thesis also shared an "obsession with walking and dealing with life in an urban environment. They all had some kind of trauma to deal with and walking was one way to do it."
Bingo, she thought.
She was awarded a University Dissertation Research Award and was able to use the money to go to New York for six months, where she retraced the long walks of a character from Paul Auster's book City of Glass.
"This character does these obsessive walks, and ... the person who is following him [realizes] that [the path of] each walk is actually a letter, and the character does one walk every day, so he's walking a message in the city," she explained. "I wanted to see what the character supposedly saw, and then I realized that the seeing needed some kind of manifestation. ... The city walking that was part of my dissertation research needed a visual component.
"That was it," she says simply. "That's how it started."
Schmidt started out with a small, 1.3 megapixel digital camera, a castoff from a friend who got it as a giveaway item when she bought a new computer. Despite her rudimentary tool, Schmidt realized right away she was hooked.
"Towards the end of my stay in New York, I remember the very last picture I took -- it was in August, right before I had to come back [to Fayetteville], and it was so hot. I was out and about taking photos, and I thought, this is serious if I'm willing to walk around in this [heat] to keep taking photos.
"One of the photos I took that day was the first photo I sold. So it was worth it."
Idlet, the friend who had given her the camera she used in New York, said, "It was pretty thrilling to watch her evolve as a visual artist. We used to go on these 'Writers in the Schools' trips to little towns in Arkansas and teach writing to primary and secondary schools. She would have us pull over so she could take photos of old run-down motels outside of Hot Springs and tiny towns in the Delta. She took some pictures of a dusty little diner in South Arkansas ... pictures of the fan blowing and the wallpaper. Never any people.
"She really captured the mood of the place. There was a kind of wistfulness or sadness, but you could feel the people were there."
Developing her art
Upon her return to Fayetteville, Schmidt lost no time in pursuing an audience for her new endeavor. Soon, she was installing an exhibit in the university's Writing Center.
"Carole Lane, the director of the Writing Center, she's amazing, she's wonderful, talk about somebody who has touched lives," Schmidt says. "She gave me an exhibition at the Writing Center. My very first photo exhibition was in the Writing Center with the photos that I had taken in New York."
Schmidt earned accolades for her unique ability to find quiet moments that others might overlook. "While I seek out people for my subjects, Sabine avoids them and concentrates on what they left behind, what they abandoned, so we can look at the same place at the same time and produce dramatically different images," House says in a 2016 Rockefeller Institute interview. "We see the world in different ways, and because of that, when we work together, the finished images tell a more complete story than either of ours would alone."
Erika Wilhite, artistic director of the Artist's Laboratory Theatre, is Schmidt's frequent collaborator and friend. "She is an open and vulnerable and wonderful artist," she says. "Not every artist I know is in such communion with her work, constantly, as she is. There is not a moment that doesn't matter to her."
Wilhite thinks for a moment. "She does what great artists do: She's awake for the moments that the rest of the world is asleep for and then reminds us [of those moments] by saying, 'Here you go.'"
It a comment that you repeatedly hear when speaking with people about Schmidt: She sees things others miss.
"She showed me some photos from New York from the area that I lived in in Brooklyn," says Idlet. "I was surprised at what had caught -- the form and juxtaposition of these strange photos that you might not really notice because the city is just a blast of everything."
In the last 10 years, Schmidt has had four solo exhibitions, including two with the Fayetteville Underground, where she is a resident artist and a former board member; a two-person exhibit at the Fayetteville Underground with House; and a whopping 34 group shows. She's received numerous awards, including an Artist Registry Award from the Arkansas State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and was the only Northwest Arkansas artist selected for the 58th annual Delta Exhibition, on show through Aug. 28 at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.
And that's what she's accomplished while juggling a full-time job. Last year, Schmidt decided to quit teaching altogether to focus on photography. The move allowed her to participate in six exhibits (so far) in 2016, build a new studio from the ground up, and mastermind her new series, which features a plastic dollhouse from the 1990s.
"A friend was giving it away, and she was looking for someone to take it off her hands and without seeing it, I said I wanted it -- without having any idea what I was going to do with it," she says with a grin. "It's all pastel-colored plastic. It looks terrible. It's great!"
"I really like miniatures and the idea of house and home and roots ... and where you feel at home," she says. "A dollhouse is really fascinating because as a kid, you're really playing with the idea of home."
With each new project, she has continued to settle more and more firmly into Fayetteville, making her adopted city feel more and more like home.
"Fayetteville has charm," she notes. "It's easy to feel like you're part of a community. Really, this lifestyle -- this is the artist's lifestyle. It's amazing.
"People dream of this, but I couldn't do it at any other place. Or I wouldn't want to do it at any other place," Schmidt says, smiling. "It seems like this is home."
NAN Profiles on 07/24/2016