Sarah Uhl is a self-taught Colorado artist with a passion for the mountains, an inclination to avoid complacency, and a desire to make a difference with each brush stroke. The once professional cyclist’s style of illustrative art has helped tell stories for non-profit environmental groups as well as major brands like REI, Outdoor Research, Aspen Skiing Company, Alpinist Magazine, and 5Point Film Festival.
Bicycles & Beer
Sarah started racing bicycles at the age of 14. She was on the fast-track to racing at an elite level and often missed school to travel internationally with the US National Team. “I supported myself as an athlete and had a unique opportunity to pursue my dreams.”
By the time Sarah was 24 she had already had a ten-year long career and was yearning for what was next. “Nine years [after retiring] I still have layers of that life coming off. Many of the people I raced with are still racing and some have gone to the Olympics a few times now.”
Her first “real” job was for working for New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I went to college, but I consider my time at New Belgium my University because I learned about storytelling and how to provide an experience for a customer. When they hired me I didn’t even drink beer, never worked in a bar, or even had a ‘real’ job.”
She worked her way up to teaching beer sensory and sustainability requiring her to taste and approve production release beers and teach sales people how to talk about the beer and articulate flavors.
Falling In Love with Outdoors
Often making trips to the mountains and developing a taste for adventure, Sarah attended the 2011 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, Colorado. 5Point is an annual adventure film festival which hosts dozens of filmmakers and adventure athletes from around the world.
Jeremy Collins’ film The Wolf and the Medallion, which won “Best of the Festival” that year, resonated with Sarah. “It was all about how in life we get in these ruts; just doing what we think we’re supposed to do. The wolf is ‘complacency’ and it’s chasing us. If we never let it catch us then we will always live a new and interesting life. It really got to me.”
She decided to quit her job at the brewery and move to Carbondale. After a year of working another job, she became the event director for the 5Point Film Festival. “That really exposed me to this universe of creative people living these untraditional lifestyles. Making their art, making stories come to life as writers, filmmakers, or photographers”. This was the direction she wanted to go.
“It was a slow and intentional process for me. Figuring out what’s my version of art and how am I going to contribute”. She started pursuing illustration and in the Summer of 2016, became a full-time artist with a focus on mountains and creative storytelling as her primary subject matter.
Why the mountains? “It’s a romantic question in a way. It’s different for everyone but that’s just where I feel most alive… I just feel like I’m a better person when I’m in the mountains and getting to experience them”, she says.
When TrailRunner Magazine commissioned her for a job in Tennessee, Sarah struggled to find inspiration in the landscape. “Tennessee is just rolling hills and trees, and I just couldn’t do the thing. I spent five days illustrating it, and redid it five times. It was good for me because it’s part of being a professional, but it was just out of the spectrum of what I like to draw.”
Right now she is focusing on artistic story maps. “They’re big projects that are really satisfying to me because it’s sort of a whimsical, playful, illustrative style”. Some are literal and some are ethereal. One story map she did for adventure apparel company, Outdoor Research, is a map of the US that focuses on illustrations of flora and fauna in the shape of the states.
Sarah considers them big research projects. Her most recent project is for Aspen Ski Company which they will be using for the Skiing World Cup. She spent a lot of time walking the streets of Aspen analyzing features and illustrating historic buildings. “One way I like to describe story maps is that they capture the legend and lore of a place. They are great because they draw people in and are informative, but they’re also playful and celebratory of a place, event, or concept.”
In 2017 almost all of Sarah’s jobs relate to environmental conservation. “My art is less about art and more about answering the question of ‘how am I contributing?”. This summer, she is gathering a group of artists to go to five endangered public lands and create art for conservation groups. Unlike some artists, Sarah enjoys commercial art because it allows her to partner with organizations that need help telling their story in a relatable way.
“This project is totally born out of passion and desire”. She hopes to have a film made from the experience, but would be satisfied if her art played a role “in something that wakes people up and helps them feel a connection to eachother and to the land”.
The Business of Art
Sarah believes that many artists struggle because they fail to focus on the business aspect of their art. “Sometimes there’s that push and pull for an artist between creating work for their lifeblood and doing work for a client. Maybe you’re not going to like the final piece, but you’re getting paid to do it and it’s for the client. I see so many other artists who are monumentally more talented than I am, but they don’t make it easy to hire them or to find their work”.
So far, most of her jobs have come from grassroots networking. For example, she made a connection to Hillary Oliver through contracts from the 5Point Film Festival. Hillary directed a film called Being Here about women adventurers, shot in the Moab Desert, and featured Sarah.
Months later on the sidewalk at the Telluride MountainFilm Festival, Hillary introduced Sarah to a friend who works at REI. “We had this really long conversation about something super personal,” said Sarah. “I told her this totally sappy story about what was going on in my life and we connected. That was the end of the conversation, but that’s the type of thing that turns into work – human connection. A lot of times with freelance work, people just want to work with someone they trust and like”. REI, one of the largest outdoor retailers in the world, then became Sarah’s client.
However, Sarah knows building networks and confidence in yourself takes time. “I’m really glad I’m doing this in my 30’s and not in my 20’s because I’m able to pull and draw upon everything else I’ve done. My networks, my business sensibility, and my own understanding of myself. And I do think that I’m finding quick success with [art] because of that and I have the confidence to build a viable career out of it instead of hanging my hat on this identity of ‘I’m an artist, look at me with my paintbrush’,” she laughs.
Irons In the Fire
Instead of cold-calling major brands (which she sometimes does), she finds “backdoor exposure” which often leads to more jobs. For example, she puts more energy into seeking out collaborations with fellow creatives or speaking to bloggers. Also, recently she has been getting more commissions after sharing her personal watercolor work on social media.
“Part of being a freelancer is about having tons of irons in the fire and not having any expectations that any of them are going to turn into jobs immediately. And if you just have a lot of them, it has this beautiful ripple effect that comes back around. I think that is why I chose to be an artist full time.”
As we all do, Sarah battles between striving for success and feeling content. “My curiosity for the world and interest in life is what pushes me to stay out of that complacent place”. While she understands that sometimes life gets in the way, she wonders why that desire to avoid complacency isn’t universal. “Why doesn’t everyone have that wolf chasing them down the road to find whatever is new, interesting, and fresh to them?”.
To find out more about Sarah Uhl and her art, go to her website at sarahuhl.com. Or follow her on Instagram @sarahvirginauhl. Do you have a passion that you wish to pursue? I hope you found inspiration in this story and if you did, please share! Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know