"It's a vulnerable time," said two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster. Not only is the Broadway actress-turned-television-star currently performing an intimate cabaret at Café Carlyle, she is leaping into the uncharted territory of visual arts.
Foster and her good friend Julien Havard (a full-time artist whom she met over a decade ago when he was hired to be her backstage dresser during Thoroughly Modern Millie) are presenting their original works in an exhibit at Taglialatella Galleries. Running from September 16-23, the show will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
TheaterMania had the opportunity to sit down with Foster at Taglialatella Galleries, where she will soon present her work to a New York community that knows her best as a singer-dancer-actress extraordinaire. As she sat surrounded by her pieces filled with self-affirming phrases, she spoke candidly about her supportive partnership with Havard, the artistic outlet that keeps her going through the ups and downs of show business, and the Dumpster-diving that is sometimes necessary to make it happen.
Was Julien the one who got you involved in visual arts?
I had been doing stuff before we even met. When I was young, I used to draw and paint. I was always crafty and always working on something. But then [Julien and I] started working together on Millie and he brought in some of his art, and I had done some drawings and we kind of inspired each other. We had our first art show together in Provincetown in July, and this is my first time ever really putting some of these bigger pieces out into the world.
Is it more intimidating to put your art out into the world than it is for you to be onstage?
It's very vulnerable. To put artistic expression out there is always scary. That [pointing to piece pictured above] has been sitting in my house for like twelve months, and I've been sort of staring at it, and now to see it in this gallery, I'm like wuuuut? [laughs] It all feels a little vulnerable but also very exciting. What freaks me out is when I've sold pieces. If someone buys it and it's on their wall and they've put value to it, that's kind of thrilling to me.
All of the pieces are so detailed. How do you put them together?
It's just tons of found paper. The wood actually is found [too]. This piece was the top of a crate box. Some of the other wood pieces were from a Dumpster outside the wood shops on the lot of Bunheads. I would go Dumpster-diving every night.
Would you test out your work on your Bunheads castmates?
Yeah. I would bring in stacks and stacks of paper and sit in my chair and cut strips of paper, and people would be like, "What are you doing?" I had my own little craft corner. Then I would go home on my days off and start to assemble stuff. But everyone was always kind of curious what I was working on.
Is the process of making these pieces therapeutic in some ways?
Very. I think as a creative you're always looking for some kind of outlet. And in an industry where we wait for the phone to ring a lot, there's all this downtime. People write or they direct or they create things. For me, a lot of it is drawing and my concert work, because those are things that I have some creative control over. It's a great way to fill the time with creativity and [to] keep moving forward.
It seems like a lot of your work centers around self-affirmations. Is that important to you?
Totally. When I was doing Anything Goes on Broadway, I was really nervous and needed constant affirmation that I could do it. "Badass" was on my mirror because playing Reno Sweeney, I had to have this real sense of self-assuredness; I think I wrote "You Rock" on one of my mirrors; "No Fear" was a new year's resolution a couple of years ago and it became sort of like a mantra; and "You Are Loved" is something a friend of mine wrote on a scrap piece of paper one day [that] I taped to the back of my door at my house. It's all shriveled up, and it's on a piece of Drowsy Chaperone stationery, and I've carried it from house to house.
Does your work reflect the way you see the world?
Yeah, I guess so. I'm an idealist, and a dreamer, and if life could be colorful and happy and positive and joyful, that would be awesome, so I like being able to create that in the visual art that I do. I think it's easy to fall into cynicism. Hell, I struggle with it as well. I think that's why I try to surround myself with positivity and affirmations and good stuff. It's an amazing career to be a performer. I love it. But it also can be very hard and it can attack all the vulnerable parts of yourself: your ego, your self-esteem, everything. So as you're constantly putting yourself out there more and more into the world, which is fun — to leap — [but] when you fall down, how do you keep picking yourself back up and moving forward?
Do you ever have second thoughts about bringing this private form of expression into the critical public eye?
Of course. Trust me, there's been a million times where I've wanted to bail and not do it. I think [that's] a reason [Julien and I] are doing it together. There's a sense of camaraderie and friendship. I also think, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, there's just goodwill surrounding it. It's definitely scary, but I guess I'm thinking more about sharing the experience with Julien…[and] I'm thrilled to be able to be doing it.
Here's a first look at some of Foster's other works that she'll be presenting at the exhibit: