Patricia Sannit, in this deeply personal visit to her Phoenix studio, reflects on the ways loss, vulnerable ecologies, and recent residencies in Iceland and Sweden are shifting her practice.
A pair of ceramic figures stand outside the door to Patricia Sannit’s studio at the Rocking S Art Ranch, a creative compound Sannit founded in a quiet Phoenix neighborhood in late 2021, where several artists have studios and share kilns, equipment, and other resources.
Shelves filled with tools, clay, and other materials line several walls of Sannit’s space, where smaller ceramic pieces sit on scattered tables, and two larger works in progress hold the center of the concrete floor.
During a studio visit with Southwest Contemporary in January 2023, the artist sat near a makeshift desk where she uses a large monitor while editing video footage from recent artist residencies in Iceland and Sweden.
As we spoke, Sannit reflected on the evolution of her art practice, and the ways her creative and personal journeys have intersected over time. Experiences of loss form a poignant throughline in her body of work, which includes sculpture, painting, assemblage, video and sound, and performance.
Sannit’s own devastating loss informs much of her recent work.
In April 2022, her husband, renowned paleoanthropologist William Kimbel, died after fighting cancer for three years. “I’m rudderless without my Bill,” she says. “He was incredibly supportive, and now I’m feeling sort of scared and empty.”
Amid the grief, she’s found new ways to think about her own identity.
“In some weird way, I feel like I’m young again, and I feel a responsibility to not waste this opportunity to be a new person,” she explains. “Most of us don’t get to be a beginner again.”
In September 2022, Sannit traveled to Sweden for an artist residency. “I went to escape my life,” she recalls.
While there, Sannit focused on video and sound work exploring human impacts on ecologies in the forests where clear-cut areas seemed to be a metaphor for her own life. “I feel a little shell-less,” Sannit says. “The amount of vulnerability I feel allows me to go out in nature and be more vulnerable.”
At times, Sannit’s work has centered the collective grief of her community.
When early pandemic days threatened to bring the Phoenix arts ecosystem to a grinding halt, and numerous creatives experienced the loss of family or friends due to COVID-19, Sannit and a small group of fellow artists spearheaded a project that helped artists and community members create and find meaning through artworks installed in public spaces.
“I think during the pandemic, I learned that we always foreground our own experiences, and I started to see the world differently,” she recalls. “The planet was having its own convulsions, but we forgot how many other organisms are out there.”
Years before, she’d exhibited pieces channeling her longtime interest in history, archeology, and migration, which addressed loss across continuums of time and space.
“We all mourn the loss of life and cultural heritage as the result of war and violence,” Sannit wrote in an artist statement for her 2016 exhibition Time Stands Still at Gebert Contemporary in Scottsdale, where Sannit incorporated a performative element: walking barefoot in a circle of wet clay on the gallery floor.
“I think a lot about history, and how our history is a cycle of human invention, creation, transition and destruction. As humans, we build, change the landscape, move on, leave behind, build again. My work represents that cycle,” she wrote.
Sannit expanded on those themes for her 2017 Phoenix Art Museum show Rise Fall Rise, which included an installation of sculptures made with “fired clay, found materials, metal, rebar, concrete, longing, sadness, sweat, and resilience.”
Working in the studio, she’s surrounded by artifacts of myriad creative explorations, including a row of pendants with small ceramic forms and her artist catalog with a cover that echoes the shapes, earthen colors, and textures of her sculptures.
Many of Sannit’s older works sit inside the home studio she’s had for twenty-five years (which is separate from her space at Rocking S Art Ranch), where she sometimes goes at night to draw studies of stones and other bits of nature.
Lately, she’s been attending workshops, trying new materials, editing video, and working on a new collaboration with emerging fiber sculptor E. G. Hall. She’s also developing a second collaboration with choreographer and contemporary dance artist Nicole L Olson.
In the future, Sannit wants to participate in additional artist residencies, perhaps in a part of the world she has yet to explore. “Every place I go, I learn something new, but home never seems as intriguing because everything looks so normal.”
Even so, Sannit says she’ll be sticking close to home, rather than traveling abroad, for a while. She’s already thinking about places like Joshua Tree and the Petrified Forest, where she might discover something that triggers an idea that can anchor a new body of work.
“I’m looking for places in nature that are remote from people, but still reflect human impacts.”