Sarah Hawkes Bypasses Cultural Barriers Through Her Portraits of Farm Workers in Southern California
Language or culture barriers are a unique part of living in the United States. BYU illustration graduate Sarah Hawkes invites audiences to explore her unique artwork of Southern California farmers and learn how it creates connections to other cultures.
Hawkes got started through a state-wide art portfolio review and was told to consider applying to the illustration program. In retrospect, Hawke’s time at BYU allowed her to build a community of other artists and mentors, where she received feedback and developed her skills.
Hawkes served a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Southern California, where she worked almost exclusively with immigrant farm workers. “It changed my life,” she said. “It was a side of the USA I never knew existed, and made me wonder who else didn't know about these people.”
Hawkes’s interactions with these migrants on her mission filled her with empathy and a desire to share their stories with others through art. “I wanted everyone to be able to ‘meet’ my amazing friends,” she said. “Portraits felt like the perfect way to attempt to break the language and cultural barrier between subject and viewer.”
During her time at BYU, Hawkes received a grant to travel back to her mission to take pictures and conduct interviews. “The greatest challenge was that many farm workers move seasonally for harvests, so many of my friends were not available,” she explained. “The only person who was able to sit for her formal portrait was Rosa, depicted in ‘Woman of the Dates.’”
Hawkes described her paintings and what she wanted audiences to know about them. “Each painting is based on real people that I met and got to know while I lived in the Coachella Valley,” she said. “I was able to combine references from my grant trip, my mission and my own memory. In the end, I think this project led to me being even more intentional with the depictions of my friends.”
No piece of work comes without its challenges. For Hawkes, the project’s greatest obstacle was ensuring an authentic depiction. “I worried about layering my own perspective too heavily,” she said. “What helped was really trying to act as a biographer rather than as an analyst…I stayed as true as I could to what each person had shared with me about their lives, and who they saw themselves to be.”
When asked about what she wants people to know about the project and people she featured, she said, “Most of us care deeply about our families, about our faith and beliefs, and have to draw on inner strength in hard times. These were the themes that the friends I painted talked to me about over and over.”
Hawkes features the Savior Jesus Christ and the idea of faith in many pieces of her work. “I take a similar approach with any portrait. It's something I approach very prayerfully,” she said. “My goal is always to emphasize Christ's humanity.” When asked about the combining influence of art and spirituality in her life, Hawkes said that she feels the closest to God when she’s making something. “He is the ultimate creator, so anytime we create something I think we're being like Him in a small sense.”