A piggy bank. A money tree. The ubiquitous flying cash emoji. That stock market line graph looking particularly bullish. The Statue of Liberty. A “loan shark.”
These are all concepts that artist Kara Sweeney called upon as she created the cover for this month’s “Economics” issue. Her obvious jumping-off point was starting with the color green; from there, she started playing around with various elements, elaborating until the pattern clicked. Sweeney isn’t the sort of artist—or person, for that matter—who plans something out in its entirety before executing.
“Whatever I start working on first, whatever element—whether it’s a piggy bank or what have you—that will totally inform the rest of it,” says Sweeney. “A lot of it is about feeling—what feels right or what seems to work.”
This freedom of the process applies to her work and has also informed Sweeny’s journey to becoming the artist she is today.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota’s School of Design with a degree in architecture, Sweeney found herself in the same position as countless other college grads searching for jobs in the midst of a recession: working in restaurants. She decided if she was going to work in a restaurant, she could do it someplace much warmer than Minnesota—which is how she ended up bumming it in Hawaii.
“I was living in a hammock in a tree for a while,” she says. “No electricity, no shower, just eating fruit and whatever’s around. It could’ve been a lot worse. Now that I’m not there, it sounds a lot better.”
While living out of her home tree, Sweeney started painting surfboards. After a year of creating custom boards for clients, she finally gained enough local attention to sell out of them at her own gallery show, which got her enough cash to return to Minnesota.
Though she’d dabbled in painting and had experience in design from architecture school, Sweeney never planned to become an artist. “It just bore itself out of necessity,” she says. But after returning to the mainland, she started following a passion for patterns, fitting odd shapes and objects together in a way that—inexplicably—works.
“[It’s] the weird combination of things that don’t seem like they belong together, but then you see it all at the same time and you’re like ‘oh!’ and it just sort of clicks for other people,” she says. In a process she likes to call “digital collaging,” she starts with watercolor and drawing before moving the design to her computer. There she fills in details and lays out the pattern. “It’s just arranging things so that their shapes seem to work together, and then repeating that.”
Harnessing her understanding of scale and space from architecture school, and utilizing her 15 years of experience in the service industry, Sweeney launched a textile and surface design company last August called Good Taste. Currently, she has a project in the works with World Street Kitchen to revamp their interiors, collaborating with owners Sameh and Saed Wadi to design patterns for wallpaper. Looking to the future, she’s eager to collaborate with other artists and designers to see where else her work could go. “It’s always growing, it’s always changing. It has to,” she says. “You can’t [always] produce the same thing. I wish you could—that would be convenient for everyone.”
From her days living in a tree painting surfboards to running her own design company today, Sweeney has always been prone to just saying yes. “The way that I work is that I’m never gonna say no if there’s an opportunity to create something,” she says.
As she’s grown into her position as a bona fide artist, Sweeney has learned to be patient and give her creative process ample breathing room—re: respect the flow. “To get in a flow, you just have to wait for the moment to come, and then it just kind of explodes,” she says. “And I think that’s true for always, whether it was architecture school, or a surfboard, or the cover for the March issue. It takes a second, but then when it does, it just happens.”
Name: Kara Sweeney
Currently Resides: St. Paul
Medium: 2D print design