The Healing Power of Art
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with the phenomenal Sarah Beth Morgan. Sarah Beth is an animation director and illustrator and online educator based in Cleveland, Ohio. She is also the director of the film Between Lines, which is a story that tackles the topic of bullying. Sarah Beth has said, “I want to pierce the viewers of this film with deep-rooted, gut-wrenching empathy. And I want people who have experienced this to know they are not alone.”
We discussed how she found her voice as a director, how she addresses trauma in her work, and the healing powers of art.
Lo Harris: Could you start by sharing a bit more about yourself, your work and how you got started?
Sarah Beth Morgan: I'm an animation director and an illustrator. I’m represented by Hornet as an animation director. I went to Savannah College of Art Design in Georgia. I studied motion media there. I didn't really know what motion graphics were before I started. Before that I was just like, oh, I'll do graphic design or I'll do photography or something. This is stuff I did in high school. But then when I got there I discovered it and it was really cool. It just seemed more up my alley. So that's how I fell into that. I took the courses and graduated and then I worked at a studio in L.A. for two years. I got a good feel for the industry that way and then moved to Portland and started working at a really cool animation studio there. Then I went freelance in 2018 and that's how I got my start into teaching.
LH: I'm really interested in talking about how you found your voice in your illustration. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that when getting started, you really went out of your way to post your work on social media every weekday. What did you learn from that challenge and how is it impacting your trajectory today?
SBM: I feel like I got started on Instagram before it was influencer world. I knew that you could gain a following but my reasoning wasn't to get sponsorships or anything. I just wanted my work to be out there.
There were days where I had downtime and I was like, okay, I'm just gonna pump out a bunch of work and then I'll post them consecutively throughout the week. I didn't love my work at that point. I was just like, I'm just gonna put stuff out there. And if people like it, that's great. If they don't, whatever.
It was a lot of mixed media content. But I did feel like it really helped me grow as an artist because I got to try different styles. If I ran out of ideas, I had to force myself to do something.
I don't know that I would live by that form now. I definitely enjoy my downtime, and I like to spend more time on my work than just one day. But I think it was really nice experiment.
LH: How do you approach putting pieces of yourself and your life experiences into your work and do you find that this philosophy carries over into client work as well?
SBM: I will say most of the emotional or conceptual stuff that is in my personal work doesn't carry too much over to client work. However, I do think that brainstorming and concepting projects on my own has actually made me a better conceptual thinker for client projects.
With my personal work, it usually comes if I'm having a really intense emotional reaction to something, or I'm really stressed and I just feel like I need to put it on paper.
The work that I'm most proud of comes a lot from my anxiety and trying to visualize it in a metaphorical way and trying to have other people relate back to it and take their own meaning from it.
LH: You mentioned that you're very passionate about working through trauma using your art and your film Between Lines feels deeply emblematic of that mission. So, if you're comfortable, would you mind sharing what the film was about and how you drew inspiration for it?
SBM: The film is based on this experience I had with bullying when I was in seventh grade.
I had like this really bad experience with these friends of mine who all of a sudden decided they weren't going to be my friends. So it was such an impactful moment in my life. For me, it was really traumatic and it's actually something I didn't really process until maybe five years ago. I started working with a therapist and we started looking back at some of my childhood traumas. And it was like, Whoa, I didn't realize how much that affected me. I was bullied. So, I became very self conscious. That kind of affected the way I saw myself for the rest of my life. And I've had a lot of issues with friendships, and that has carried over through my entire life.
My therapist really encouraged me. She was like, you know this obviously is something that really affected you. It could be kind of a release to make something beautiful out of it. And I thought, that's an amazing idea because maybe I can heal from it and grow.
I think she just meant draw something but I was like, no let's do a three-minute film. The film itself is not necessarily me as the main character. I wanted it to relate to anyone who was watching it. I was hoping that anyone who watched it would be able to take something away from it from their own experience of bullying. Or if they had some issues with anxiety or depression, I hoped they could see themselves in it a little bit.
Then the film just took off and we had over 30 women working on it, and it’s at film festivals now. It is such a healing process.
L: How do you go about grappling with trauma in a way that ensures that your art feels restorative for you as the artist?
SBM: That's something I actually struggled with when I was writing out the sequence of the film. My initial reaction was, oh, maybe I'll make the bully a monster. But, you know what, that person was a real person. They had an experience too. I need to think of this from a more realistic perspective.
The end of the film ends on a positive note. There's hope, there's light at the end of the tunnel, and then also me as a human, I've recovered and healed from it.
LH: Because you're a young woman who is a leader in animation, do you find yourself having to actively push against stereotypes and harmful ideas in the corporate space? And what advice do you have for someone who wants to tell an authentic story, wants to share an intimate perspective, but they're worried that their voice is not going to be respected or heard?
SBM: Growing my confidence as a director, and as a woman director especially, has not been easy. When I started I think I was so used to schoolwork. You do work, you turn it in and you get a good grade and you don’t have to say anything. So I think when I first started in the industry, I was quiet. I was shy. I wasn't confident. And I think that's also a learned behavior that a lot of women grew up with. You're supposed to be timid.
My bosses noticed I wasn't really being confident and they pointed it out. In my first annual review, they were like, I don't know if you're thriving here. That's when I pushed myself to learn how to be more confident. And that was really just fake it till you make it.
Unfortunately, I have seen men, especially white men, who are younger than me, or are brand new on the job like, move past me – a lot.
I think what really helped me grow as a director and a person in leadership was freelancing. Learning how to talk to different people in different parts of the industry, owning my rate, owning my skills. Just being real with people and being honest – I think that is what really helped me level up.
LH: How important do you think it is for an artwork to bring a call to action or a demonstration of what healing and next steps can look like after trauma?
SBM: I think it's extremely important if you're going to put something out there that could potentially re-traumatize someone. Obviously, you want to give them tools to figure out what the next steps are. Not to say that you can't put work out there that's dark or something that means a lot to you that maybe you never found a solution for. That's not wrong, but if your purpose of your art is to help other people heal, then yes, I think that's super important.
We've been partnering with this nonprofit Bloom Foundation. They work with young girls to work through their trauma and one of the things I love about their program is that they're not necessarily saying here's how to stop the bullying. Their whole thing is we're just going to talk about it. I think that just opening up the conversation for people to recognize that something has happened to them, and then giving them a safe space to talk about it is… that's starting something. Anybody who watches the film, I want them to know that they can reach out.
LH: Would you prefer working independently as an artist or working in a group with other artists?
SBM: It depends on the project. If I'm just doing an illustration for myself, I love just drawing. There's the freedom to do it on your own time and your own pacing. But for work projects, definitely I would prefer to be on a project with other people. I don't really animate much myself and I think other people are so talented that I want to harness their talent and bring it into the project. None of my work would be animated so well if not for the amazing people working on it with me. It's really cool to like see your work come to life in ways you didn't expect.
Be sure to follow Sarah Beth Morgan on Instagram @wonderfall.