A Modern Vanitas: A clinical view of mortality on Point of Origin by Sarah Sudhoff.

By Stäcy Smith


Three white four-by-five foot kites with black strings dripping down from two prominent points hang from the ceiling like Alexander Calder mobiles. They are quiet witnesses and cousins to their framed counterparts, debossed shapes on white paper in slim black frames lining the walls of Cindy Lisica Gallery. The sounds of rhythmic breathing break into the space: softness of a sigh, a mouth opening, a tongue click but the hyperventilation is what prompted a request to interview the artist, Sarah Sudhoff. At first glance, Sudhoff’s work mimics play; the child’s kite, the framed debossed shapes reminiscent of the onomatopoeia in a comic book, but the sounds- those are serious, dead serious.

Sudhoff received a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance in 2017 and Point of Origin is the first culmination of hard won research requiring the abstracting of data involving patient transport in Life Flight helicopters in a unknown month and year from some of the hubs belonging to Memorial Hermann.  The strings that hang from the kites are actual flight paths from one helipad to the site of the patient pick-up and back to another hub. Even the supports of the kites resemble helicopter blades. “Life Flight is synonymous with Houston,” Sudhoff stated in an interview, “there are many air ambulances throughout the country, but it made sense to use Houston’s own.”  According to Memorial Hermann’s website, Life Flight was first launched in 1976 by renowned trauma surgeon, Dr. James “Red” Duke. It performs more than 3000 missions each year, operating within a 150 miles radius of the Texas Medical Center. 

The framed debossed shapes are patterns of flight too, but only a single trajectory or “trace” is left for the viewer to see. Sudhoff originally planned to stitch in the hubs on the debossed paper but after seeing the initial debossing she changed her mind, “They were so poetic, quiet and beautiful to me, the stitching on the wall (would have been) too much.” They are ranked together like silent sentinels on the wall, their paths nearly invisible, purposely inviting the viewer in for a closer look.

The speakers on the wall are audible transmissions through the artist’s breath;  a state of calm, alertness, preoccupation and panic echoing ceaselessly on a loop. These could represent the Life Flight staff and patient just as much as it could the ground observer or the survivor’s family.  Though Sudhoff admits that the sound in her project is the least resolved she explained that “a lot of my projects are about people and the body, but the body isn’t present. Sound is the closest connection.” When she sees the helicopter she is aware of her breathing. “Coming from a military background, I’m already attuned to the sound of helicopters but,” she continued “when I see a Life Flight helicopter, I exhale in hope. I hope that the helicopter has a safe flight and that the people survive. I’m thankful that I am safe and my children are safe.” She also related that when she was presenting this work to the Houston Arts Alliance another artist said “that when she sees the chopper, she exhales with dread, because her friend didn’t make it.” 

For those familiar with Sudhoff’s work, it’s no surprise that she has come almost full circle from her 2010 work, At the Hour of our Death where while working with forensics crime units she documented textile traces of a specific person’s passing through photographing the saturated fabrics left behind.  Contrairily, in Point of Origin the audience must confront a possible final journey, with no real conclusive ending. By leaving out the specifics, Sudhoff is not only upholding strict HIPAA regulations but also providing us with a clinical cliff-hanger. “Originally these strings were going to be color coded, based on the nature of the flight, but the work was so busy already that I went with black and white. In my earlier work that’s what drew people in, the saturated color. By making the work devoid of color, I want them to reflect, to sit with the work and to investigate.” 

Sudhoff has previously stated that she felt her work should “make the invisible, visible.” It is so easy to ignore the helicopters, unless they directly cross our path, their sounds fade into the peripheral.  “When I first started talking about this project, I noticed that people think these are just traffic helicopters. I want to increase awareness about Life Flight and to honor the people on these missions,” Sudhoff continued, “I’m so thankful that they exist and I hope to never be on one.”  She turned down the chance to do a ride-along owing to her fear of flying. 

 Point of Origin is the modern equivalent to 17th century Dutch ‘Vanitas’ painting. One doesn’t need painted rotting fruit and animal corpses to remind them of their own mortality, the words Life Flight will do.  Sudhoff plans to continue to use this data to create more pieces, she may even color code these future ‘life threads’ so that we can draw our own conclusions on the frequency of neonatal trauma versus bullet wounds, et cetera.  

Cindy Lisica Gallery will be hosting a free artist talk with Sarah Sudhoff and Life Flight Nurse, Clint Knueven, on Tuesday evening, January 29th from 6-7PM, 4411 Montrose, Suite F, Houston 77006. www.CindyLisicaGallery.com 


Sarah Sudhoff adjusting her sculpture Mechanics of Flight – West, 2019 PVC coated polyester, pine, string, 58 x 64 x 12 inches at Cindy Lisica Gallery. Photo by Stäcy Smith


The artist at Cindy Lisica Gallery pictured next to Transitory Observations: East #1, East #4, and West #2, 2019 Debossed monoprints on Lenox 100% cotton paper, framed 30 x 22 inches. Photo by Stäcy Smith


Or Vertical Crop of the first image…

Sarah Sudhoff adjusting her sculpture Mechanics of Flight – West, 2019 PVC coated polyester, pine, string, 58 x 64 x 12 inches at Cindy Lisica Gallery. Photo by Stäcy Smith