Artist Sarah Thibault on being a digital nomad

We spoke to artist Sarah Thibault about finding inspiration on the road, her ABCs of travel, and how a snow-covered island helped boost her creativity.

Sarah Thibault in her studio. Image credit: Myleen Hollero
Sarah Thibault in her studio. Image credit: Myleen Hollero

Growing up, artist Sarah Thibault was shy and often spent a fair amount of time alone, using drawing, dancing, and singing as a way to express herself.

Up until last year, the San Francisco native worked in various admin roles before she made the big decision to ditch her office job and dedicate herself to her craft, packing her life into two small bags and setting off on a journey that has no end in sight.

“Quitting my job was scary, but I feel like by doing so, I gave myself a promotion with a corner office looking out onto the world,” she said.

Her travels have taken her across Mexico, Iceland, and Greece and have challenged her way of thinking, which has in turn fed into her artwork.

We spoke to Thibault about how she kicked the 9-5 and where she finds inspiration while on the road.

What sparked your interest in art?

I grew up in a creative household so I have always been exposed to the arts, but I didn’t start thinking about painting as a possible career path until college when I got encouragement from my drawing professor to pursue it more seriously.  It helped that I had a crush on him, so his input meant a lot at the time.

How would you describe your art and your connection to it?

I think of my painting and writing practices as platforms to turn dark into light—whether it’s to transform an uncomfortable emotion into a beautiful painting or to tell a story that makes people laugh.  I think my art is most successful when it can hold a mirror up to the audience and make them feel seen.

How did you become a digital nomad?

I have been living nomadically for about a year now.  Long story short, I had just left my stressful Executive Assistant job in San Francisco and was on a previously-planned trip to Europe when I got an email that my roommates and I were losing our apartment in San Francisco at the end of the month.

Self-portrait (hot pot), graphite on paper, 8″x10″, 2019. Image credit: Sarah Thibault

I started hustling for new jobs and new apartments while in Europe and even did a few interviews while there.  But after a frustrating month of nothing panning out, I started to look at artist residencies in places where I wanted to visit.  I had a little nest egg and nothing tying me down, so I figured now was the time. My only requirements were that the cost had to be cheaper than rent in San Francisco, not hard to find, and it had to offer space to make work and/or write.

The first place I went to was Mexico City where I rented an Airbnb apartment for 300 USD for 35 days. From there I have focused my trips around artist residencies where there is more of a built-in community.  So far, I have also been to Greece, France, and Iceland with a few stops back in the Bay Area for art projects including a recent solo show, and to Minnesota to visit friends and family.

Quitting my job was scary, but I feel like by doing so, I gave myself a promotion with a corner office looking out onto the world.

What influences your creativity?

I love pop culture and I also take a lot of inspiration from my surroundings.  My current paintings and drawings are based on photos I take while I’m traveling, but tweaked to reference historical painting as a way to connect the two forms of image-making—in particular still lifes and self-portraiture. I’m interested in my relationship to technology, maybe because of my current lifestyle, and how screen culture has influenced the way we process and mediate any given moment.

My writing is influenced by my surroundings as well, but usually by lessons that I have learned the hard way. As the saying goes, nothing bad ever happens to a writer.

How does travel affect your work?

Travel has been really great for my artwork. When you are placed into new cultures, it forces your brain to think differently, even just to get around and buy groceries. I don’t think I fully know what effect it has made on my art, because I’m still traveling a lot and learning so much about myself in the process.  

Starfish, oil on canvas, 97″x75″, 2018. Image credit: Sarah Thibault

In terms of my freelance work life, I have become a lot more confident in my abilities and more open to taking risks with the work that I take on.   Because I’m relying on myself financially, I don’t want to turn down a gig just because I haven’t done something before or I might not know 100 percent what I’m doing before I start.

What have you learned about being a digital nomad?

There have been some logistical things I have learned, like how to work from anywhere, how to create structure in my day when there is none, and how to stay in good communication with clients despite time differences.  Plus I created the acronym ABC for “Always Be Charging”. A dead laptop battery and a phone that doesn’t work means you don’t make any money.

The less obvious lessons have been about how to be more open to the present moment and more patient. Things always go wrong and I can feel vulnerable traveling as a woman on my own sometimes, but for the most part, people want to help and can be very generous to strangers.  

Also, I have learned to appreciate free experiences a lot more than I was used to, having had a stable job for a long time.  Since I currently don’t have an apartment in San Francisco and only have two small bags with me, there’s no point in shopping because I have nowhere to put extras.  Plus the more money I spend, the more I have to work and the less time I have to make art and go on adventures. Both these factors have forced me to get out of the “acquiring mindset” (a term I learned from Eckhart Tolle), and appreciate relationships I make and the glory of nature over fancy food or cushy hotels. Although sometimes I do splurge on a vintage dress, my weakness, and fantasize about having my own infinity pool.

What is the first thing you do when you get into a new city?

I usually hunt down a cafe that I think will make a good latte and take a minute to absorb the energy of the city.  Because I usually travel to places for a month at a time, I like to get a sense of a city’s personality and vibe before I dive into any site- seeing.

Still life (British Bake-off), oil on canvas, 97″x75″, 2018. Image credit: Sarah Thibault

Which place has had the most impact on your creativity?

Skagaströnd, Iceland.  I am as surprised as anyone that a tiny town in the middle of a snow-covered island would provide so much inspiration, but I really connected with the community energy and the landscape there.  Plus, every day during my residency I went to the heated swimming pool for a dip. It was very therapeutic as a ritual and I think really helped me stay in the creative flow despite the whiteout blizzards and the lack of affordable vegetables.

How do you tap into the creative process while on the road?

It can be tricky for sure because moving around a lot can be stressful, and stress kills creativity. When I arrive at a residency, it usually takes a few days to get used to the new space and the new vibe of the city.  I try to go with the flow, so if it makes more sense for me to do writing in one place and drawing in another, I listen to that instinct. I also try to build in some routine like daily journaling and taking lots of photos so when the inspiration strikes I have a lot of source material to work with.

Have you got any projects, exhibitions coming up we should keep an eye out for?

I am currently finishing up the last of three murals that I created for the Lakkos Project in Heraklion, Crete.  Next month I will be heading to Lisbon, which is from what I hear the Land of Digital Nomads, to work on my book about my experiences traveling for the past year.
Then in June and July, I will be heading to my last stop in Europe at the Buinho Fab Lab, an artist residency in Alentejo, Portugal. There I will be working on some new large-scale paintings and teaching workshops to the local schools.


Amy Mitchell-Whittington

Amy is an Australian journalist living in Berlin. She covers a range of topics, with a special interest in tech and science.