It's Just a Phase
Moving to New York
I moved to NYC on Valentine’s Day, shortly after graduating from the University of Washington with a BA, BS, and the Dean’s Medal in the Arts. My goal was to pursue modern dance, which I did, but I soon found that goals don’t always pay the bills, so I began working as a caterer and other odd jobs. I also started doing some paid modeling gigs. This phase was a natural extension of my life-long interest in dance, theater, modeling and the expressive possibilities of the body.
Picking Up My Camera
Frustrated by what I was experiencing in the dance world, I bought a Nikon DSLR and started taking pictures. My subjects were myself, my friends, and different aspects of the city and places I travelled. Some were staged, some were spontaneous. Then one night while scrolling through my pics I opened an image in Photoshop and typed a short poem I’d written over it. Exhilarated, I was soon writing words over many of my photos, and I came to call these creations “phoems,” or “photo poems.” Phoems and photographs survive from this period, and both are an early indication of the skepticism that was creeping into me about the male-centric world of dance and modeling and the desire to have a more agential artistic practice outside them.
Reclaiming My Image
2010, My Modeling Portfolio
Wanting to try my hand at making art out of my modeling images, I reached out to some photographers requesting co-copyright of our images and their response was consistently no, with many insinuating that I was stupid and beyond my rights to even ask. The unfairness of this situation initiated my migration from dance and modeling to visual and performance art. My first attempt at owning my own image resulted in the self-distortions of “My Modeling Portfolio.” This practice is still at the heart of my art as I seek to show that what a woman makes of her own image can be as much “art” as what a man makes of it, despite society’s and the art world’s implicit bias toward men artifying women (a bias I termed “Man Hands” in my 2015 curatorial essay for the show Body Anxiety, written about by Johanna Fateman that year in Art Forum).
2010, Naked Therapy
Eager to try my hand at online performance, I came up with the idea for Sarah White – The Naked Therapist and began offering hour-long Naked Therapy sessions via webcam. The practice then went viral in 2011 and has since appeared in 1000s of news outlets worldwide, with one Viennese journal calling me “Freud’s naked grand-daughter.” The project had immediate and lasting effects on my art practice by immersing me in an audience outside the NY art world; by putting me at the center of a global conversation over issues of public sexuality, therapeutic propriety, and artistic integrity; by getting my work discussed in influential art publications (“is it art or not?”); by moving my creative interests toward what was then called “social practice art”; by opening my eyes to embedded mechanisms of censorship when my work was accepted and then rejected from the West Chelsea Artist Open Studios because it was “an ad, not art”; and by providing me with a steady income and enough money to pay for my MFA. The whole experience left me somewhat stunned at how the female body, commercialized art, and online performance remain highly problematic for much of the art world.
Going to Art School
2013, The Female Painter
With an increased fascination in art and online performance, I decided to get my MFA in Visual Art from Parsons so I could increase my abilities and expand on the things I’d learned from sharing and talking about Naked Therapy as an art practice. While in school I carried out a series of experimental projects and websites. I also created multimedia works for the first time. These efforts formed the basis of my thesis, entitled “The Female Painter,” which explored the idea that a woman painting on an image of herself is emotionally and conceptually akin to a man painting on a blank canvas. A version of this essay was published here and featured in Artforum.
As I began contemplating my exit from art school, I felt like I wanted to embark on a durational multi-year performance that would capitalize on many of the aspects of the Internet, commercialism, and female sexuality that I had explored through Naked Therapy. And so the “Celebrity Project” was born. Basically, I wanted to appropriate my own image as a celebrity, ala Richard Prince, so I started an Instagram for a model named Ona Artist who sought celebrity through any available means. The intended basis of celebrity was a rock star with an EP, album, and music career, but the mainstream proved unreceptive to Ona’s presentation. However, she was greatly embraced on social media – particularly Instagram – which has grown to over 5M followers and provided me with a trove of images and concepts through which I’ve created a large body of work that evidences my continued obsession with the issues I posited in my MFA thesis.
Working on Commission
2018, An American Dream
With my newfound social media exposure, I began working with several patrons, the biggest of whom found me on Youtube. We were soon working together in my capacity as his (non-naked) therapist as well as on some mutual artistic collaborations, as he was a talented photographer/drawer and the son of a very well known artist. Our main project together was called An American Dream, which is the story, told in photos and captions, of a model working with a private producer and navigating the attentions and tensions of that complicated yet profitable process. This experience led to a varied body of work that includes photography, narrative, and the presence and absence of the body.
Selling My Art
2019, The Shows
Through these collaborations and increased attention from gallerists, I began showing at museums and making a living off selling my work via international art fairs, galleries, and private sales off my website. The experience expanded my abilities to materialize my work and gave me an education in mounting shows, shipping art, and negotiating with collectors and gallerists. The hard work and tough decisions I’d made in the ten years since I’d arrived in NYC, broke and dreamy, finally started paying off.
Surviving the Pandemic
And that’s when the whole world came crashing down. In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck New York City and soon spread around the world. Galleries and fairs closed down, art sales collapsed, and I found myself with no income. Despondent, unsure what to do, and close to moving back in with my parents, I noticed some chatter online among certain Instagram models about something called OnlyFans. It was a website where you could post content of yourself and charge for it, but also where you could DM with individual fans and charge them for photos and videos that you sent them in the DMs. Hesitant but desperate, I signed up and soon found myself making the only kind of content that actually sells on OnlyFans – porn. This led to my making half a million dollars in 2021, but also to increased stigmatization from friends and family as well as raw material for my next body of work.