Photo: Ruthie Abel

From Morocco to Joshua Tree: A Garden Studio Visit with Artist Sara Hall

“It’s more about shape and size and color than who makes it…” I am eavesdropping on Sara Marlowe Hall, an LA-based painter and entrepreneur.

Hall lives in Silver Lake, surrounded by hills and canyons. She frequents Morocco to source pigments and rugs and heads to Joshua Tree and the Yucca Valley for inspiration and objects for Merchant, a bohemian lifestyle brand she co-owns with her mother.

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When we met last winter, Hall was living in a 1982 Viking camper lodged in her mom’s Venice Beach back yard. A year later, we caught up at their homeware boutique, Merchant Modern.  The Santa Monica shop bustled with interior decorators and passers-by competing for vintage wares, oblivious to the rare rainstorm outside. In between customer queries, Hall shared a bit about her work habits, interests, and inspirations.

GC: You moved out of your camper?

SH: Yes, now I have walls!

GC: Do you miss the garden studio?

SH: After three years in the trailer, I needed a kitchen and bathroom. But I’m still painting outside, albeit in a smaller space. The canyons are inspiring and I’m still working with mom. Luckily I’m not confined to a cube.

GC: What are you and Denise (Portmans) collaborating on these days?

SH: We own Merchant Yard, a Venice pop-up garden shop, together. It has become a platform artistically for me. It’s midcentury, with lots of plants, sculpture and ceramics. And loads of outdoor furniture, as well as works from local artists.

Photo: Ruthie Abel

GC: So you are still spending time on the west side?

SH: A lot of what I do is sourcing, and we work on a lot of people’s spaces. We have a project downtown now. I go to Venice twice a week. And I am online, flea market thrifting. Sometimes it’s traveling to the desert for a week, or up the coast.

GC: In your amazing camper?

SH: The camper doesn’t come along but we have a new project that is a 1960s Airstream and we will be doing Merchant on the Road. The Airstream will be available for rent and you can travel in the aesthetic of Merchant.

GC: Sounds like a lot of driving. What’s on the stereo?

SH: That’s hard! Radio Nova, a French station; it’s super eclectic and the time zone is perfect because during my daytime they’re really going for it at night.

Photo: Ruthie Abel

GC: When do you have time to paint?

SH: Always. I’m working on a series inspired by Joshua Tree. The pigments are natural minerals, still sourced from Morocco because it’s still the purest place for me to buy them. I’m moving from cityscapes towards landscapes, exploring desert terrain. The palate is dustier and more muted, with burnt orange.

GC: What or whom do you credit with influencing your work?

SH: Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney. Both explore abstract in America and faces. I’ve been inspired by their palate and use of locations.

My last book came from a show called Blink. Each painting came from exploring spaces in a blink of a second. The current series is more simplistic in form and less hectic. The desert is a calm influence.

GC: You attended art school in London but returned to Los Angeles in 2013. Do you miss British city life?

SH: The lifestyle was great but it’s a hustle. London’s art world formed me as an artist but in California I have time to work outside and to produce more. In London and New York, artists are constantly trying to survive. California is very relaxed; I’m way more inspired here.

Photo: Ruthie Abel

GC: Me too. What is your go-to local spot for motivation?

SH: Red Rock Trail in Topanga. The beauty of Los Angeles is that nothing is that far from nature and organic shapes. Everything is vertical and sharp.

GC: Merchant Modern’s wares represent thousands of hours (and miles) of searching and gathering. What are your most prized possessions?

SH: That’s more things I inherit rather than collect. My grandmother was a painter and a potter. I would never sell her works or clothes.

In terms of my own possessions, I’m quite good at getting rid. It’s like changing your palate.  If I buy something, I sell something. It’s important not to consume in mass.

Photo: Ruthie Abel

GC: What’s on your Silver Lake bedside table?

SH: I’ve been reading artist essays, a de Kooning series and the new Robert Rauchenberg retrospective book from the Tate.

GC: You and your mom have an impressive mother-daughter rapport. Is there anything you disagree about?

SH: On journeys maybe I have more energy or our paces are different. We have different rhythms, but we work it out. Being on top of each other isn’t healthy and we have separate spaces. If someone’s at the store, then someone else is out shopping.

I always wanted to be as creative as my parents. I grew up, not with lots of money, but great experiences and travels.

GC: What’s the least glamorous aspect of your work?

SH: Probably the way we travel. I curate things to make them look beautiful when I come home. But the journeys aren’t glamorous. You have to rough it to really see places. After fifteen-hour dusty car rides we’ll stay in homes in small villages. It would be weird if finding treasures was glamorous.

Photo: Ruthie Abel

GC: Pretend I’m roughing it. Any other LA treasures to share?

SH: Elf is this amazing vegetarian restaurant in Echo Park. The food is incredible and you feel like you’ve been transported. It’s un-LA.

Menotti’s coffee in Venice. They use Californian coffee, it’s like a family in there.

Permanent Records, in Highland Park and Echo Park has among best vinyl around. They support great local bands too. 

For more information on Merchant Modern, read our story about the shop.

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