Interview with Sarah Begin

This week I profiled vocalist and artist Sarah Begin on The Punnery because I found the Carl Sagan portrait she’s currently working on fascinating. She’s working hard on the portrait and updating her progress on her own blog, Jazzy Beginnings. I sent her some questions about the project, which she was gracious enough to answer. Read on for the interview!

Q. Who is Carl Sagan?

A. Carl Sagan was, as is stated in his Wikipedia article, an “American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences”. One of his greatest achievements, in my opinion, was his 1980’s television program, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which helped introduce a wide range of fascinating scientific topics to homes all over the world.

Carl had this incredible ability to engage an audience with his almost childlike sense of awe and wonder. His unique way of delivering information made it easy to grasp complex scientific facts and theories. When I watch his show, which I definitely recommend, I can’t help but feel inspired and enlightened. In his lifetime, he made incredible contributions to science, including work with the Apollo astronauts, the Voyager space probes, and promoted SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Unfortunately, Carl Sagan died in 1996 at the age of 62 from pneumonia, after a battle with cancer.

Q. Why did you decide to paint a portrait of him?

A. My entire life I have been interested in learning about our planet and expanding my understanding of the universe. During my own personal journey to find meaning in life, I have come across many influential people, and one of them being Carl Sagan. His passion for science and understanding is so transparent in his character, that I find myself becoming increasingly excited about life and the universe when I watch his show or read his books. As well, some of my inspiration came from a musical project put together by John D Boswell called Symphony of Science. His project takes clips from classic science programs and puts them to music, making the scientists sing using Auto-Tune. His pieces are incredibly beautiful and a brilliant way of introducing science to younger audiences.

When I discovered a blank canvas in my apartment, it seemed obvious that I would paint Carl. I kept thinking of those classic portraits that you see of important historical figures and I thought that Carl Sagan deserved a place among them. I also thought it would be fantastic to have his contagious smile permanently placed on my wall.

Source: Jazzy Beginnings

Q. You mentioned over Twitter that this isn’t the first thing you’ve painted. Who or what else have you painted?

A. As I recently corrected on my blog,, I have done a few paintings before but none of this magnitude. In my adult life I have completed a total of three paintings. One of them is a small abstract piece that was basically me just playing around with colours on a piece of cardboard. The second is a graphic depiction of a flower that I mimicked from my bedspread in order to make my bedroom a little prettier. The third is the only other painting of a human that I have done, and it is of the bass player Esperanza Spalding. I painted in on a whim one weekend so it was a little rushed. Now that I have a little more experience with painting, I might actually revisit that one since there are a few things that I’m not satisfied with.

“The Flower”
Source: Jazzy Beginnings

When I began the Carl Sagan piece, I decided that I was going to take my time with it. I have a tendency to be a perfectionist, and since I’ve been actively displaying the piece all over the internet, I’m not going to stop until I am 100% happy.

Q. When did you start painting?

A. Oh, jeez, that’s tough. I’ve always been interested in art in one way or another. Since I was little, I have enjoyed drawing and playing with paints. I have never thought of myself as an artist though. In high school I painted elaborate tapestries to hang on my bedroom wall. I’m going to make myself look like an even bigger geek, but they were replicas of tapestries seen in The Lord of the Rings films. I was, and still am a huge fan of the books and movies, so I really enjoyed that project. Other than that, I’ve never really painted much.

I am a huge advocate of always trying something first before immediately declaring defeat. As a vocal teacher, I often hear people saying things such as, “Oh, I can’t sing. I’ve never been able to. One time at karaoke my friend made fun of me and now I just won’t do it.” To me, that’s a defeatist attitude and that just doesn’t fly with me. You never know what you can do until you really try it, and for me, I had no idea if my painting would turn out any good. I went in to the project with no expectations, and now I’ve surpassed my expectations. That feeling alone is what makes it worth it. I see this painting as a learning experience that can only help improve any future works that I complete.

Q. How long do you paint a day?

A. Well, with this piece it’s been a total of eight days of painting. It’s hard to say exactly how much time I spend a day, because once you get me set up in front of the canvas, I just keep going and going. I would say anywhere from 2-4 hours at a time. I thought it would be cool to document each day of painting so I could see the progress. I never imagined others’ would be so interested, but it helps keep me motivated.

I’ve discovered that painting is the one activity that really allows me to relax. I can be a very anxious person and I find it really troublesome to stay in one place for any extended period of time. I’m the type that will get up and start doing something else during a movie; I love multitasking. When painting, I am forced to sit in one place and keep my focus. I find it very therapeutic.

Q. Will there be anything afterward?

A. Definitely! I’ve gained a lot of confidence from this piece and it’s made me want to do more. I am planning on doing a series of influential scientists. I put out a Facebook request asking for suggestions and got a ton of responses. I’ve already determined that my next painting will be of the Evolutionary Biologist, Richard Dawkins. He’s another man who has radically changed my perspective on life.

For a little something extra, I asked Jorge Gavidia (my partner both in music and life), to write a song corresponding to each painting, and he has done a fantastic job so far with the piece for Carl. I have this grand idea of a darkened art gallery, with each painting illuminated and Jorge’s soundtrack playing in the background. Who knows if this will ever come to be, but a girl is allowed to dream, right?

Editor’s Note: On top of the questions about Sarah’s painting, I also asked her if she could comment on the Dali print recently discovered in a Tacoma, WA Goodwill. Here’s her response:

I also came across this article the other day, and to be honest, my thoughts were very similar to your own. It is rather underwhelming. The walls of my apartment are packed with various forms of art, so obviously I am an art lover, but to be honest, I don’t know that much about the subject. As a big time thrift store shopper, I would be extremely excited if I had found this piece, but at that point, I would be hoping that it was still with the $6.99 pieces. I wouldn’t pay big money for it. That said, I can appreciate the significance of the piece and understand why someone else would want to purchase it. I don’t know that much about Salvador Dali, but I do know that he is very important in the art world, and that alone makes the piece a gem.

My choices in art tend to be very personal, and almost all of the pieces I have contain some significant meaning. Some of the pieces have been painted by myself or Jorge, others are photographs or paintings we brought back from trips. I have these great prints of cats eating sushi that I absolutely love and I picked them both up for $1 at a flea market. I also have old musical instruments hanging on my walls.

Art is subjective, so there’s no reason why you should have to find the Dali piece appealing, but in the end, it’s the historical significance that really makes the difference.

Thank you for all of your support. It’s been a pleasure writing this for you. My hope is that my art will inspire people to research these great scientists and learn to appreciate the scientific world that surrounds us.

“Science is the poetry of reality” – Richard Dawkins

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Sarah for answering my questions! You can continue to see her progress with The Sagan Saga on her blog, Jazzy Beginnings.


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