Artist of The Week: Saara Untracht-Oakner

Saara Untracht-Oakner is an artist of many mediums, and thus, it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole her into just one category. When she’s not singing and playing guitar in BOYTOY, she’s painting, taking photos, or taking after her great aunt, Saara Hopea-Untracht, with some DIY jewelry-making. Art is in her blood, and it shows: she has a natural compulsion to constantly create (in her own words, “It’s a definitely a thing where I don’t feel productive unless I’m making something.”). Most recently, Untracht-Oakner had her first installation at Pettit Gallery titled “KITSCHIN”, which delivered an immersive, cartoon-like experience of a larger-than-life interactive toy kitchen for its guests in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The artist hopes to potentially continue KITSCHIN” in another gallery, or else create its follow-up, a children’s bedroom. It’ll have to wait, though; BOYTOY just released its latest album, Night Leaf, and they’ll be on tour for the rest of the year promoting it. Not a bad way to spend the summer—and Untracht-Oakner certainly isn’t complaining that her art takes her in many directions, often all at once. We sat down with the artist to talk more about “KITSCHIN”, BOYTOY, and what’s next.

Did you consider yourself a musician first or an artist first?

I actually have a sketchbook from when I was like 5-6 years old, I’ll show you guys. I was always drawing, and my parents bought me a sketchbook, I had a piano in my house, and my mom’s a singer and plays piano, my dad was a copywriter growing up in advertising, and so there was always music and art in the house, and I was just always drawing. Music I guess I started messing around on the piano, maybe when I was 3 or 4. Someone bought me a microphone and we would put on plays and I would sing in them. So I was always singing, my parents put me in piano lessons, I played cello and trumpet in school, I still have the trumpet because I can never get rid of musical instruments, they’re very precious. Like when am I ever going to buy a trumpet again? [Laughs] So yeah, then I started playing guitar when I was maybe 12-13, at camp, and I guess I started playing in bands when I was in middle school, playing blink-182 covers in my friends’ bedrooms, and then 15-16 I started really writing songs, and then I had a band college, and then in between that band and this band I did like a rap EP, called Lil Reignbow, and now I’m in BOYTOY, and I’ve filled in for my friends bands, like Habibi and some bands around New York.

So when you’re working on your art or your music, do you feel like they influence each other or the same things are coming out in different ways?

It’s funny because it’s something that I’ve thought about—like why do certain inspirations come out in certain mediums? Sometimes something feels very much like a song, like I wanna play my guitar, I wanna get my music out, and other times it feels like a painting or a poem or a photograph. I guess the photographs are less premeditated, but it’s kind of like when I’m bored of playing music, I’ll go draw. You know, if I’m like, “I don’t really feel like picking up a guitar, I’ll make something.” It’s a definitely a thing where I don’t feel productive unless I’m making something. 

Do you have a preferred medium?

I’ve been working a lot of with acrylic and sharpie and pastel, kind of layering those. And I love shooting 35mm film. My brother’s a photographer, so he’s given me two cameras that I use all the time.

It’s a definitely a thing where I don’t feel productive unless I’m making something.

I see a lot of rugs in your work—where does that come from?

Some of these are actually rugs from my house, and I have some books—so I’m named after my great aunt [Saara Hopea-Untracht], who was a jewelry designer, and my great uncle, my mother’s father’s brother [Oppi Untracht], he wrote this book about her work [titled Saara Hopea-Untracht: Life and Work]. She did glass work, silver work, jewelry, enamel, some textile stuff. So we’ve always had this kind of stuff in the house, always had rugs, and it’s just something that I was always surrounded by and just kind of really into. And I started drawing them and that’s actually where the whole kitchen installation came from. So I built a whole kitchen, with all flat surfaces, and drew everything—cabinets, a fridge, a sink—at Gallery Pettit, which is right down the street from my house. So it was an immersive experience, called “KITSCHIN”, four people at a time, and you could open the cabinets and the fridge and sit at the table. But the rug is what inspired that.

So do you think about home a lot, when you’re making stuff like “KITSCHIN”?

I used a lot of references from here, you know I’d be making stuff in the studio and then come in here and take pictures of like what’s in the fridge, or like the cabinets or something. So yeah the rugs evolved into that, and then I also made the sets for our BOYTOY music video, that’s coming out right before the record. So that’s all kind of evolved. I’d really like to do another installation, maybe a kids bedroom with like bunk beds and a toy chest and dressers and stuff.

And when the show’s done do you sell the pieces or keep them for yourself?

Some of the small ones, but the bigger ones are massive and super heavy. Potentially you could just use the flat front of it, like it doesn’t have to be the 3D build out of it, but no one has space in New York for that. I sold some smaller pieces. Someone wants to buy one of the stools but I don’t know yet if I wanna sell it cause it’s a set. That’s always the thing about art, too—you make it, and you wanna sell it, but then you do and you’re kind of sad about it.

It’s weird because it’s so personal and it’s almost like a piece of you and then you let it go and it’s just out there in the world in a stranger’s home.

Yeah. I actually sold some of the pieces from the set of the music video, I took them on tour by mistake, actually, but that was cool.

When people went into “KITSCHIN”, how do they react to your work? Have you talked to them about it?

Oh yeah, it was so fulfilling. It was an idea I’ve had for years and just to see so many people come out and have so much fun, and smile, and just kind of be a kid again—and even seeing little kids come into the space and just be like, “Woah!” It was pretty trippy, you know, like the whole room was white with black outlines so it was definitely like a psychedelic experience of feeling like you’re in a cartoon. But yeah, the feedback was awesome, and so exciting, and just affirming.

The feedback [for “KITSCHIN”] was awesome, and so exciting, and just affirming.

Do you make art with specific goals in mind like that, to make people a certain way or give them a certain experience, or that’s just something that happens after?

I think I do it for myself first, because I think it’s fun, and I enjoy it, and I wanna see what it would look like to have a room like this, and then having other people enjoy it too is like the cool part, because we get to share the experience. Because I mean I didn’t know what it was gonna look like either until I finished the installation. So I did all the pieces here, and built structures to mount everything, and then we built it in the space. And when it was done it was like, “Woah! This is what it looks like. This is so cool,” because I’d only seen the pieces flat by themselves up until then. But yeah we had an opening party, closing party, both were pretty packed, so it was very exciting.

Do you have any more art shows coming up?

No, but I’m planning something with Elephant in Nashville for 2019, that’s maybe when I’m gonna do the bedroom thing. It’s just really hard because we’re on tour all the time—going to Europe this month, a West Coast thing end of June-July, and then we’re doing Europe and Australia September-October.


So it’s like, the way I did this installation was when we came back from Europe in September, and then I had from September until mid-November, and I was like, “Alright. I’ve had this idea for so fucking long, I’m just gonna do it, I’m gonna make it happen. And I’ll figure it out as I go along.” I knew Ty from Gallery Pettit from surfing together, and he was wanting a new space, so he said I’ll build a wall, come help me paint, and then set up your show in there. So “KITSCHIN” was the first show in his new space.

Images courtesy of Corbin Chase

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists on the rise. 

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