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A Moment with Sablā Stays

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The Far Rockaway native, Sablā, has seemingly done it all. Maneuvering in-and-out of the fashion industry, graphic design, and art direction, there’s nothing that seems out of her reach. And that couldn’t be truer than now, as she finds herself working as the Art Director for Solange. 

We sat down in the late afternoon and shared a drink during our zoom call. Although this was our first time meeting, we managed to skip all the small talk and get right to what was on our minds. Nothing’s off the table for Sablā, a trait that makes talking to her incredibly easy. Shifting from her family, to her career, to the way music manages to transcend all of the work we make, this conversation was one for the books. Enjoy. 

MW: Where are you calling from Sablā?

SS: I’m over in New York. Specifically Brooklyn.

MW: Are you born and raised in New York?

SS: Yeah. I was born in Harlem, but grew up in Far Rockaway. 

MW: Have you ever left?

SS: I’ve never lived anywhere else. I was actually supposed to move to LA back in April, but the whole Covid-thing got in the way. Originally I was supposed to go out there for work, and it felt like a chance for me to expand. It’s definitely not off the table, but both my parents are older and I’m not necessarily ready to move across the country away from them just yet.

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MW: I remember you had a post on your Instagram a few months back talking about your family and fears surrounding Covid. 

SS: That was a really emotional time for me, as I’m sure it was for many people. I was really freaking out. Both my Dad and Brother work at the only hospital in Far Rockaway, so there was a legitimate paranoia surrounding me during that time.

MW: Have you been able to come to better terms with the situation? Or is it still a major stress on you?

SS: My anxiety around it has definitely calmed down a bit. But I’m not allowing it to come down fully. I think some anxiety is good. It never hurts to be a little cautious. But being around them and seeing them definitely helps. It makes the situation more comfortable.

MW: Is family a big part of your life?

SS: Oh, good question.

MW: We’re cutting to the chase early on I guess.

SS: It’s a really big part of my life, but I try not to let it take up too much space, which is kind of weird to say. I’m adopted, but I’ve always been in contact with my biological family. Most people have two sides of their family, but I have four, so there’s just a lot to untangle in all of those relationships. It can be tricky at times.

MW: I’m sure. Were you raised in an artistic household?

SS: I want to say no, but I’m not entirely sure if that’s fair of me to say. There are definitely families who bring up their kids with a priority on the arts: going to museums and galleries, early musical lessons, stuff like that. Which was not my experience. But I was always encouraged to express my creativity. And it came pretty naturally for me, but my Mom definitely instilled that in me.

MW: It’s always interesting to hear how that affects us now. A friend of mine was raised with parents who were a painter and a designer. And would always receive pretty harsh criticism early on when it came to creativity, to the point where it became detrimental to their practice. They eventually lost interest and didn’t pursue it anymore. I always feel thankful, even though creative expression wasn’t emphasized when I was growing up, it was always supported wholeheartedly.

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SS: Naturally. It can be scary. I’m such a harsh critic, I’m scared if I have children one day that I’ll be too hard on them.

MW: Nothing but perfection, you know.

SS: You know? But I’m working on it.

MW: Let’s talk about your Instagram bio real quick. “Ex-fashion designer, now graphic designer disguised as an art director.” What’s going on there?

SS: This is funny because I just changed it to that last week. I feel like I have quite an unorthodox pathway into what I do now. Starting out, since I was 14, I was training to be a fashion designer. I focused my studies around it in high school, and went to Parsons to major in it during college. When I was 18 going into Parsons I felt a real hesitation with continuing to pursue fashion, but I still went with it. I loved fashion from a maker's standpoint. The artistry of making a garment. But the industry on the other hand was really disenchanting. I spent a few years dabbling in styling and then joined Omondi as a design intern where I eventually was promoted to Assistant Designer. After my run at Omondi, despite loving my experience there, I had not an ounce of desire to work in fashion. I couldn’t picture myself doing it any longer. Which is unfortunate, given the fact that I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a fashion education. But I don’t regret my time at Parsons or professionally in fashion, not in the slightest. It’s obviously the reason I am who I am today, artistically speaking. While I was still at Parsons, I was working at Afropunk during the summers from 2012-2015. At one point, I got promoted to being a graphic designer there, without ever really being asked to. I’m also a Myspace kid, so I had been doing graphic design longer than I realized. But, 2018 rolled around, I just left Omondi, and I was planning my transition out of fashion design. It never really hit me just how boxed in and professionally sheltered I was.. Leaving fashion to fully pursue graphic design was really my way of getting my feet wet in the creative industry. It was a vehicle to explore what other options existed. I remember sending out a mass email to my entire network, explaining the transition I was trying to make, companies I was interested in working with, and so on. Some people that worked at Saint Heron picked up on it, and it got relayed to Solange, and I eventually landed an interview. For some time, I was freelancing for her as a graphic designer and art director, but as of this year I’ve joined on board as a full-time art director. Hence, ex-fashion designer, now graphic designer disguised as an art director.

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MW: I’m obviously curious what working with Solange is like. She’s such a north star for so much of the creative work that we personally aspire to make.

SS: She definitely is, I’ve been a fan of hers since I was in High School. You couldn’t find one of my mood boards as a teen without her on it so it’s lowkey surreal to be able to work alongside her. I feel like she doesn’t get enough credit for how hands-on she is with everything. It’s truly a collaborative process. Given my experience and skill sets, working with someone like her is so much easier. I’m more responsible for the execution of concepts and bringing it to life. I’ve found that translating someone else’s vision into design is a lot less scary than having to do it for myself from ground zero. Doing that kind of work requires a whole different part of my brain which I tend to reserve for myself. 

MW: It can kind of be an uncomfortable question, but do you ever feel like you’re fighting for your authorship in the work you’re doing?

SS: Not really. I get what you’re getting at, though. There’s a pretty distinct line between client work and personal projects. Stuff with Saint Heron, obviously I’m walking into the room knowing that I’m getting paid for the work I’m turning in; that’s the trade-off. If someone were to come up to me and say: “I want this out of your sketchbook”, that feels like a whole different conversation, you know? It’s definitely a mentality.

MW: It can be so tough though. You pour so much time into work that doesn’t have your own name on it. Even if you get tagged as the designer, or whatever, it can still feel like a battle. And it’s never a healthy one.

SS: Definitely. I feel like a lot of creatives have it twisted. From the most basic viewpoint, you’re being hired for your labor. And taking it past that, oftentimes people come to you with an idea already fully realized, at least in my experience, and you’re just executing it. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they stole anything.

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MW: I want to segway a little bit and talk about music. I noticed you knew Jasper Marsalis, aka- Slauson Malone, and followed Standing On The Corner. Those guys have just been such a huge inspiration for me. And obviously working with and around Solange. It just clearly plays such a huge part in your life.

SS: It’s so funny. I never give enough thought to how music is always at the forefront of what I’m doing. Even looking all the way back to when I was a kid drawing in my room. I loved my job at Afropunk so much because I was around nothing but music. The music itself, the community, the culture. All of it. It’s funny you called out those guys. I wasn’t expecting you to bring them up. I just got put onto Slauson’s music by Arthur Jafa. I met up with him in LA and he was like: “I’m going to my friend’s show, do you want to come with?” And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, in the best way possible. And my friend Anthony Konigbagbe also put together a cinema exhibit that he performed at and we just became acquainted after all of that. But to get back to your point, it’s so hard to pin down. Trying to explain how music influences me is like trying to explain why breathing is so important, if that makes sense. There’s this whole other side to the conversation surrounding the impact that music videos have had on me. Whether it’s through fashion or graphic design or the cinematography. I haven’t given enough thought lately to the influence of it all.

MW: 100%. I think about it all the time. When I look at what I do, whether that’s art direction or design or filmmaking, all of those practices pale in comparison to the amount of time I’ve spent with music. And when you think about it in terms of hours at the grindstone, I’m much closer to being a master of music, than a master at any of those other practices. It’s always at the center of what I’m doing. It works through everything. I think music videos are a perfect example of this. Even though the medium is film and moving image, the focus is on the music itself. It’s what brings it to the forefront. It’s one of those things that seemingly transcends everything.

SS: Exactly. I think music is one of the highest art forms. Being able to read and write music, to compose it; it’s like you’re speaking a completely different language. I’m so jealous of it.

MW: Have you been listening to anything that you’ve been obsessed with?

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SS: Mariah Carey.

MW: Absolutely.

SS: Honestly I’ve been in a weird place with music lately. Weird as in not listening to it. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m getting older, but I haven’t been moved by music as much as I used to be. I don’t know whether that has to do with my brain chemistry or just the discovery process. Streaming platforms are great and all, but it’s utterly changed the way we interact with music. And I kind of hate it. I used to be on the computer for hours, for days, just scouring for music. And every so often I’ll designate a day to kind of do that again, trying to keep my feet to the ground with “underground” music (i feel like nothing is underground anymore). But I miss it. I hate that I’m even saying I miss it. It’s not like they’re not there anymore — the days of just digging through these independent music blogs and everything. They still exist. I just feel like the gap between me and them has gotten so wide.

MW: I know. I feel it. With streaming specifically, my retention rate is at an all-time low. I could listen to Spotify’s curated playlists all day and maybe remember two songs out of the entire batch. 

SS: Right. Like I hate that. It just doesn’t click for me.

MW: It’s why I’ve found so much delight in platforms like NTS. I’ve been jamming away on it pretty much every day.

SS: Oh, I love NTS.

MW: Right? Instead of looking for music blogs and specific songs, I’m looking for DJs and mixes that have an overlapping taste as my own. And I find myself not worrying about what exact song is playing because I can trust the curation a little more.

SS: That form of intimate curation feels way better than an automated Spotify or Apple Music playlist. I follow certain DJs on Soundcloud as well who never disappoint. Something about it feels like it’s coming from a more trusted source.

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MW: You seem like a real busy body.

SS: Definitely.

MW: How are you relaxing? And taking care of yourself? Do you make time for it?

SS: I’ve been making a better effort to carve out time for myself. Wellness has sort of become a catch-all term that we see a lot of now. I’m making sure I’m getting my nails done. Getting my hair done. Everything like that you know. But also honing in on my health, making sure I’m actually exercising, giving myself enough time to go through a meditation routine. I’m also really big on talking on the phone. So I’ve been trying to actively stay in touch with those who aren’t immediately close to me. 

MW: I feel like the conversation is shifting a little bit, at least in my circles. I feel like for a little while, wellness was a joke. If you take any time to care for yourself, that’s time you could have been working, and you must not care about your career. It’s such a flawed mentality.

SS: Wellness is not a game. There’s a lot of unlearning we all have to do. A lot of our self-value is tangled with our productivity. And those two should not be in the same room, whatsoever. Not that I feel worthless if I’m not doing anything, but there definitely is an air of emotion, of guilt, that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

MW: I’m so glad you brought that up. I constantly have to remind myself that the end goal is not to be productive. At the end of the day, our work won’t save us, you know?

SS: It really won’t. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but most work, like I mentioned earlier, is just an exchange. Labor for income. So to prioritize that relationship over the one with yourself, with your body. It doesn’t make much sense. And waking up early, staying busy throughout the day, working hard.. It’s important to note, those aren’t bad things. But doing those things for the right reasons, for the ultimate benefit of yourself, instead of being busy for the sake of being busy. That’s what matters. And making sure you’re drinking enough water in between all of those things.

A Moment with Sablā Stays

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