September Artist Spotlight: Botany Artist Sarah Nassif


Sarah, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us. You work in multiple art forms, can you tell us what they are and what led you to them?

I am a visual artist, and I work a lot with textiles, screenprinting and pattern design, often in the context of public engagement. I grew up in Oregon, surrounded by tall trees with a river in the back yard. I was a spent a lot of time outdoors and worked summers at environmental education camps starting at age 14.

Both of my parents were incredibly skilled with their hands, and they involved their four kids in projects to make things both beautiful and useful from an early age. They designed and built the house we lived in, and the whole family pitched in on the work for three years. My mom had me sewing in grade school, and by junior high school I was drawing inspiration from “Pretty in Pink” and designing and sewing a lot of my own clothes. I just remember always making things. I got a lot of joy and satisfaction from both learning and teaching new skills or just figuring out a solution to a problem.

What early influences did you have in the arts?

I was influenced at an early age by Beatrix Potter’s children’s books. I loved her intricate paintings of nature, and my mom’s Marimekko wall hangings of gigantic vibrantly colored plants. I remember an art project in fifth grade where we learned about motifs. We made potato prints on butcher paper we had crumpled and uncrumpled many times to make it fabric-like. I made a blue raindrop and printed my first repeat pattern.

I was surrounded by family with an interest in the arts. My aunt and uncle had a house they had designed and built as well. It was filled with photography from travel, beautiful weavings and paintings by their friends. My other aunt and uncle connected me with friends who taught me to screenprint at their home art studio. These friends operated a successful art business at Portland’s

Saturday Market. I used to visit them at the market, and I’d always peruse the stalls of the other artisans who made their livings selling at the market; I got a lot of ideas that way. In high school, I spent many hours experimenting with fabric dyes, plaster of Paris sculptures, candle making, knitting, bookmaking, leatherwork, you name it, and I tried it. My parents were always very supportive of my explorations.

Can you tell us how you started combining screenprinting and botany?


As a teenager, I read a biography of Beatrix Potter and learned she was a renowned botanist, and this, combined with my experience teaching kids about Oregon’s plant communities at camp, inspired me to study botany as well as art in college. I graduated from University of Washington in Seattle with a B.S. in Botany, and I worked for many years as a field botanist, environmental educator and urban forester in the Northwest. I still love studying the multitude of plant forms found in nature.

I moved to Minnesota in 2000, and I found myself surrounded by plants and trees I couldn’t name on sight because they were all new to me. My dad gave me my first digital camera in 2003 or 2004. I found I could use the simple camera to snap photos of plants on hikes and then look them up online when I got home. Learning the trees and flowers of Minnesota helped me feel more settled in my new home in the Midwest. My job at the time was not related to the outdoors, so this was a great way for me to reconnect to the plant world.


I started translating my photos into screenprintable motifs using Photoshop. I designed collections of motifs, printed them as oversized graphics on tees and bags, and sold them for eight years through my design company Rectangle Designs. I called it “botanically inspired fashion,” and I always included the botanical details of each plant printed on the product tags.

What do you get out of teaching versus creating your own work? Do you have a preference?

I love both. I always learn a lot from students and improve my own skills through teaching and it’s very satisfying to help another person learn a new way to work with their hands. Screenprinting is accessible for all ages and abilities. People are always excited when they make their first print. I also like to help others rethink what being creative or artistic is. I followed a pretty unconventional path to becoming an artist myself and I think it’s important for people to connect with their inherent ability to create. Teaching people to do this feels like a critical function in society right now as we fight the tide of passive activities encouraged by electronics.

What is the best thing about the process of creating your own work?

Making my own work is like a learning lab for me. Whether it’s a new technique or skill, or a new subject area to explore, it’s fascinating to add new dimensions to my practice. I’ve been getting into natural dye plants and simple weaving techniques this year. I love experimenting as I go.

For public art projects, I love to help people connect to plants and this special place we live in by sharing what I’ve learned about Minnesota’s rich and varied plant communities. I am always looking for creative vehicles for having conversations about people, plants and place. Art is such a great vehicle to put people at ease, engage their full senses, and set the stage for new community connections.

Have you been working on any new projects lately?

I just got done with the annual Minneapolis Monarch Festival. I design a poster each year that celebrates the connection between Mexico and Minnesota that the journey of the monarch butterfly symbolizes. This year’s print featured 11 monarch waystation plants growing in the Naturescape at Lake Nokomis. At the festival, I bring four presses and help festival-goers screenprint their own posters. This year we made 1,500 posters in six hours! That’s about a poster a minute, nonstop.

Next up for me is a new public art project at Arlington Hills Community Center on the eastside of St. Paul. I’m part of a team of artists working on a project called Shared Ingredients which will share stories of East Side food traditions rooted in local histories of indigenous and immigrant communities. I’ll work with the community to draw food plants that will become giant colorful graphics installed throughout the building.

You’ve been on the COMPAS roster for several years now. What’s it like for you to be a part of COMPAS?

COMPAS is an incredible community of professional artists who share a passion for teaching. I’ve found many role models and mentors since I joined. I look forward to the annual meeting each year when I can see fellow teaching artists and hear what they are up to. I love that COMPAS provides professional training opportunities like the one-on-one mentorship I had a few years ago to teaching art in memory care communities. It’s wonderful to be part of a respected, long-standing arts organization.

How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I have lots of projects going on all the time, so I usually work a little on something each day. I love to research new techniques and ideas and the Textile Center library is a favorite place to visit for inspiration. I recently purchased a 36” rigid heddle loom I’ve been weaving rag rugs on. Now I’m teaching myself tapestry weaving on a smaller rigid heddle loom. My daughter and husband each love to make stuff too, so we cook a lot, draw a lot, and generally keep a conversation going all the time that relates to someone’s current creative project!