Art Exposed: Nancy Sayavong | Comstock’s magazine

Even if you’ve never heard of Roseville-based artist Nancy Sayavong, her art feels
familiar. Her sculptural and two-dimensional work references the
shapes and structures of the home — a place that, for many, has
felt all but inescapable over the past two years. 

Sayavong is fascinated with the contrast between the romantic
ideal of the home and its lived reality. In a 2018 sculpture
titled “Making
It Work
,” three strips of pine molding form a suggestion of a
door frame, fixed high on a wall as if floating. They hang above
a chromogenic print of a similar door frame at a moment of
trauma. Paper towel and ammonia cleaner lie on the shag carpet as
if to clean up after something looming out of frame.

Three strips of pine molding form a suggestion of a door frame in
the 2018 sculpture “Making It Work.” (Photo by Nancy Sayavong)

The theme carries to her non-sculptural
work. For the project “Keyholder to a
Million Dollar Home
,” which ran from 2016-2018, she convinced
a property management company to donate a mixed lot of keys that
correspond to real homes in unknown locations in the Bay Area.
She mailed the keys to buyers around the country in slim yellow
envelopes like those one might receive when moving into a new
apartment. After signing and dating the envelope, the buyer
becomes a “keyholder” to a Bay Area home, even if real ownership
remains out of reach.   

Other work makes phantasma of the details that may appear in the
daydreams of aspiring homeowners: claw feet bereft of a bathtub,
a foggy etching of Victorian crown molding in an Ikea frame; a
Persian rug pattern burned into hardwood flooring. 

Take a closer look at that flooring and you’ll notice it’s
handmade from ash wood, expertly planed, tongued and grooved. It
looks good enough to go in a real home, not just the semblance of
one. This is no illusion: the artist is a trained woodworker and
metal fabricator, and she uses her training both for art and
remodeling jobs. 

These are skills she picked up like side quests over a lifetime
devoted to art. Sayavong grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, home
of Middle Tennessee State University, and snuck into survey art
classes at the university in her teens. After finishing her BFA
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she moved to the
Bay Area and earned an MFA at UC Berkeley, working at metal and
wood shops along the way.

In 2020, Sayavong bought a house in Roseville with her husband
and is renovating it herself. (Photo by Jordan Benton)

In 2020, she bought a fixer-upper house in Roseville with her
husband and is renovating it mostly by herself, with help from
plumbers and electricians. The couple’s goal is to resell the
house and use the funds to buy property closer to the Sacramento
urban core where Sayavong can have a studio practice. In the
meantime, she teaches university classes on an adjunct basis
(though she’s currently taking a break) and tutors other artists
in her favorite medium at a woodshop on her property. She had an
artist residency at Verge
Center for the Arts
last year and will have work on display
at the Grow Our Souls
exhibition at SOMArts in San Francisco starting April 30. 

“When it comes to my own personal business and art practice,
everything’s all transferable and dovetails perfectly,” she says.
“Dovetails — that’s a woodworking term.”

You have a lot of both fine arts and trade skills in
your toolbelt. How did you develop them?

In my undergrad in Chicago, I learned a bunch of things. I got in
at first for painting and drawing, and then kind of got bored of
it. Then I slowly got into sculpture, where I learned
metalworking and metal fabrication and then in turn got into
woodworking. They had a huge amount of facilities there, and
great instructors and technicians there to teach me more
transferable skills, like how do you make a deck? In the Midwest,
it makes sense to know how to do your own thing. … 

Sayavong’s work, like the steel, hydrocal and cement sculpture
“Investors of the Bay,” riffs on images and desires associated
with home ownership. (Photo by Nancy Sayavong)

I stayed in Chicago for about five
years, and then moved back to Tennessee and worked as a custom
metal fabricator for — it’s funny — for the Cheesecake Factory,
and department stores like Nordstrom. The owner of the shop
actually gave me a chance, being a woman and also a petite
figure, a woman of color, to learn from him and his shop crew. …
And then after that, I really missed working in some form in
academia, so I got a job as a metal shop manager at an
architecture school in San Francisco, and I worked there for a
little bit over a year.

Why did you decide to move to

I had a huge 10-year plan situation before moving to California.
I really either wanted to move to the East Coast or the West
Coast due to funding for graduate school. While I was working at
the metal shop in the architecture school, I wanted to be a
professor long term, like 20 years after that initial idea. So
after that, I got into UC Berkeley’s MFA program, because it was
fully funded, and there are amazing professors there as well, and
resources. …

Sayavong teaches woodworking to artists at a shop on her
property. (Photo by Jordan Benton)

(Tuition is) free, but it’s still Bay Area prices. I had to pay
for rent and food, so I really needed to get another job while I
was a student full time. I took on a full-time position as a
custom cabinet maker for this company where we catered only to
billionaires and to CEOs and kind of famous people that maybe are
multimillionaires, but not at the Bs yet. And that was fun,
because most of the projects did not have a budget, so I had an
ample amount of time to learn the craft, learn from my mistakes
and eat it a little bit. 

Can you tell me about your art practice and what
inspires you?

When it comes to my work life and experiences, it’s transferable
to my art experience and art practice. So the two kind of work
together on their own. One pays the bills and the other helps me
understand life a little bit better. 

My work revolves around psychological spaces such as your house.
The house is meant to be a safe space. When people come over,
beforehand you clean, you make it crisp, and it looks visually
like there’s nothing happening behind the scenes. But when you’re
just living day by day, you see the nooks and crannies. 

The house that we purchased was built in 1916, and the previous
owner lived there since probably the ’20s or ’30s. The individual
passed away, and his daughter was next of kin to figure out what
to do with the property. So she gave us the property and instead
of taking all of his things, she left the things that were his.
Maybe they took a typewriter or something for an heirloom, but
everything else. I learned about this particular individual
through all of the National Geographics, all of the film slides
that I’ve seen, notebooks, books. He was an Air Force pilot, a
veteran, a science teacher. So there was a Tesla coil in the
garage. He dabbled in electrical mechanics. And he took photos of
his school kids for yearbooks, candid shots. Pretty amazing. …

So that’s kind of like my practice, where my muse or my
inspiration comes from. It comes from the spaces that I

How is your residential woodworking different from or
similar to the woodworking you do for your

The difference is the production aspect of it. There’s a kind of
a completion with, say, a residential project, where it just
either has to be done or look perfect. How I work is, I draw and
write a cut list, and everything has to be in perfect dimensions,
because if it’s too big or too small, it’s not going to

In my sculptural practice, I apply the same practice when it
comes to drawing and writing down a cut list. But there’s more
flexibility to that; more happy accidents, like Bob Ross says.
Happy accidents happen, and I’m okay with it. In residential,
there’s no such thing as happy accidents. I have to figure out
how to fix it. …

For the 2017 piece “Foundation II: Flooring,” Sayavong
laser-burned handmade hardwood with an image of a Persian rug she
saw at an open house for a $1.1 million home.

Say if there’s like a crack in the wood, and I’m working on a
project that represents a kind of socioeconomic brokenness; that
crack looks amazing in the sculpture. But if there’s a crack on a
piece of granite, that’s not acceptable in a house.

Your portfolio also includes film photography work.
How did you get into that?

I’ve dabbled a bit with different mediums that fit my series or
my thought process. I plan on moving somewhere, maybe when I
retire or before then, like in France, where I cannot use my
tools, or I can’t really ship them and then use their electrical
units. So because of that, I’ll have limited resources, and
therefore I’ll probably do more 2D work and photography there. So
it depends on my environment and the intent of the work. 

Most of my 35 millimeter film photography, the little images of
mundane viewpoints of these traumatic events, my intent was to
kind of free shoot as a form of a memory of those moments. … And
then for the other works that are photographic, that was more
about limitation. I had an artist residency in Ireland where they
had a fantastic darkroom, and it was just an opportunity for me
to learn a little bit more about photography.

You’ve also done artist residencies in Israel and
around California. What draws you to residencies?

Oh man, so many things. Mainly to vibe and meet new other artists
from around the world, whether it’s visual or writers. I went to
and I met Amanda Petrusich, a journalist that writes about music
at The New Yorker. The way she thinks about how to create the
work, it’s so fascinating. So the main thing I love about
residencies is to get to know other artists and how they think
and where they’re coming from. And obviously, traveling is
fantastic too. …

The 2017 sculpture “Foundation: Bathroom” is made from poplar
wood, cinder blocks, hydrocal, mortar and claw feet cast in
concrete. (Photo by Nancy Sayavong)

The residency I had at Verge gave me a big
huge umbrella of knowledge of the Sacramento art scene. I met a
lot of people, especially the Open Studios. It gave me, I
guess, the comfortability to stay there and also to work without
feeling that I have to make work that’s popular or sellable. … At
Verge, I started on a series of works revolving around the house
that I’m remodeling, about Bob, the dude that passed away, and
all of his belongings and his photography. I digitized some of
his negatives, and I’m working with image transfers onto objects,
like wood trim. 

Speaking of the Sacramento art scene, how would you
say it compares to other cities where you’ve lived and

Compared to say, Chicago or San Francisco, those cities feel very
small. Of course, Sacramento is small, but small as in
competitive, like everyone wants the exact same thing. In
Sacramento, from my experience, many artists are okay with doing
whatever they want when it comes to where to show or what to do
with their art. I mean, it’s okay to sell your art. It’s actually
nice to sell your work here. And then being in Sacramento, it
actually gives me a push into applying for other opportunities
outside, because Sacramento is not like the New York art scene or
L.A. art scene where people just go there. There’s that push to
figuring out how to expose yourself in different places. For
instance, I actually have a show in Chicago, and I’m actually
working on the works here, and we’re going to ship it all the way
over there in the fall.

Do you think you completed the 10-year plan you made
before moving to California? 

Yeah, I believe I did! There were some small pebbles in the road,
but I’ve been very fortunate to be able to get through it.
Because I know that education is very expensive, and moving is a
risk. It’s all about taking risks, so I went through that. My new
plan of action is to keep on working at art, having a studio
practice in the Sacramento area, and why not have another in
another city or another country? I’m hoping to live in Europe if
life happens like that. 

Edited for length and clarity. 

Stay up to date on art and culture in the Capital
Region: Follow @comstocksmag on