Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

by Michelle O. Potter

Sabrina Ward Harrison is one hell of a woman.

She talks about the wonders of tea as if she were introducing you to a source of mysterious, hidden wisdom and power. She wears long, funky skirts that she designs herself. Sabrina can make you laugh on a gray day. And she always remembers to stop and smell the flowers.

Sabrina’s book, Spilling Open: The Art of Becoming Yourself, was written when she was only 19. After it was first published, she traveled to Italy. Since then, the book has been republished, she’s gone on a book tour and given workshops about “The Art of Becoming Yourself.” Following a long relationship and a huge move from California to New York, she’s back with a second book, Brave on The Rocks: If You Don’t Go, You Don’t See. Hilary Swank will write the foreword to the book, which will be published by Villard at the end of August.

When I called Sabrina for her interview, she was applying red mahogany dye to her hair. She’d been in New York for just three weeks. I asked her how things were going there.

SABRINA: The chance to come to New York and try living here was a big gift to myself. I feel that I was picked up by God and dropped here. I feel like I’ve won a chance to really experience an amazing city at the perfect age. Amazing.

MP: What’s an example of this “amazing city”?

SABRINA: To be able to get on my bike on Memorial Day and head out along the Hudson River to watch the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty. That view! I didn’t know I could have such a view.

MP: Tell me about your space in New York.

SABRINA: Well, like anything in my life, it has a funky set-up. I share an apartment. You go across this roof to get to my studio/living space. I call it “The Female Quarters” because I share the space across the roof with four boys. The whole place is covered with ivy and it just feels like a sacred place in New York. I wake up to the sounds of birds and church bells.

MP: How do you find a sacred place in every day life?

SABRINA: You take into account who you really are. For me that meant that I gave up living in the hippest part of the city for a place that’s quiet, where I can be reflective. 

MP: How good do you think people are at finding these spaces for themselves?

SABRINA: I don’t know. I just know that I grew up with a mother who understood the importance of creating an inspiring home. She used a lot of color, texture. She always said, “Sabrina, you can just feel how you really feel,” which was such an unusual concept when I was growing up. It was so different for me. I was so focused on “I don’t want to feel this way—fat or whatever,” and she told me to feel how I really felt. 

MP: Are you doing a lot of work on Brave On The Rocks right now?

SABRINA: Just finished. It’s going to the printer next week.

MP: Who came up with the title?

SABRINA: There’s a letter from my dad at the beginning of the book that tells the story about the title. In our summer cottage in Canada, I was always barefoot. When I was about six years old, my grandfather had gravel delivered and it was left on the road. I held up my arms to be lifted over it. My dad leaned down and said, “Sometimes the road is rocky and sharp, and you have to be brave and cross it.” That became a metaphor while I was growing up. “Dad,” I’d say, “I’m going to be brave on the rocks.” Whenever I try something different—travel alone, move to NY—that’s a time for me to be brave on the rocks.

MP: In Spilling Open, you mixed together quotes, personal wisdom, family pictures, drawings, and photographs to create an incredibly personal journal about being yourself at age 19. Are we going to see more of that kind of work in Brave on the Rocks?

SABRINA: It’s the same format, but Spilling Open was looking in at myself, and Brave on the Rocks is looking back out at the world.

Brave on the Rocks speaks to questions of success. As young people, we get caught up in the idea that achieving our goals is going to resolve the questions we have. I had a sense of that after Spilling Open was published. The public must have thought I was really confident, but the reality was that I was left with even more questions. I developed ulcers, and I speak about that a lot in the [new] book. The pressure to be more and share more—I felt like I’d lost the part of me that was there for myself. So I let myself get lost again. I bought a really cheap ticket and went to Italy by myself. 

MP: Why Italy?

SABRINA: Oh, why not Italy? It was films like Enchanted April—have you seen Enchanted April?

MP: No.

SABRINA: You should rent it for yourself. It’s such a great “woman” movie.

MP: Italy was somehow connected to womanhood?

SABRINA: Yeah. I wanted to re-color myself. And Italy was what I wanted to color myself in.

MP: What are the colors of Italy?

SABRINA: The colors of Italy are sea and Tuscan light and back seats of Vespas. Hot spinach with garlic. Sweet dashing boys. Scarves in my hair. Italian skirts.

MP: Hmm, you just mentioned skirts...

SABRINA: Italy awakened a childhood dream in me of making dress-up clothes with all of my colors. It was something I hadn’t been good at and didn’t know anything about. I failed home economics and couldn’t sew a straight line.

So, I came home, and, with the help of a friend, I began sewing these ribbon skirts. I wore one on my book tour for Spilling Open [when it was republished], and so many women responded with wanting to wear these skirts, too. I’m now in the process of getting these skirts made available to people. I feel we need to keep wearing our colors.

MP: What are the colors of a Sabrina Skirt?

SABRINA: Rich crimson reds, chocolate browns, golds, and olive greens.

MP: Any black?

SABRINA: No. I think I need to challenge myself with not wearing black so much. It’s a safe way out.

MP: How’s that? 

SABRINA: Black makes you look thinner, taller. Black’s a guarantee, but it’s not what you remember from the party. I think we need to wear more things that delight us—to put on a skirt and twirl. We need to wear our own colors. We all have them.

MP: I don’t see you as person who takes “The safe way out.”

SABRINA: My dad used to read Robert Frost’s poemThe Road Not Taken” to me. I try to take “The road less traveled,” the curious route, in my life. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be living the curious life I’m living now.

MP: You’ve been on the Today Show and Oprah. It seems like you’re getting your first taste of fame. How do you like it?

SABRINA: Fame is a funny thing to hold. It feels like “Just pretend.” I know the feeling of being a fan. It’s just weird that people feel that way toward me.

MP: Who are you a fan of?

SABRINA: I’m a huge fan of Ani DiFranco [singer], Anne Lamont [writer], Mary Ellen Mark [photographer], and Robert Rauschenberg [artist].

MP: Do you feel a push to develop in any artistic direction?

SABRINA: I think I’m just feeling a push to develop as a person, as a 25-year-old. I’ve been caught in the feeling of developing professionally, toward my work, but what about just being 25? And being here, in New York, right now?

MP: Let’s wrap this up before your hair gets too dark or falls out! What can we expect from you in the future?

SABRINA: You can expect—I don’t know! You can expect to see my skirts in the world, and my handwriting on the walls. How’s that? Now, I’ve got to go wash this dye out.

Sabrina will tour for Brave on the Rocks: If You Don’t Go, You Don’t See during the month of September. Readers can check www.sabrinawardharrison.com for information about the tour, Sabrina Skirts, and upcoming projects.

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