“Is there anything I should prepare?” Sarah Hade asks me the night before our interview. We’re sitting at a bar with a few friends and I laugh at her question before telling her she just needs to show up. I’ve known Sarah for a few months now and I wonder if this is her first interview. At 21 and with two more classes to finish before she completes her undergraduate degree at James Madison University in graphic design, it’s not unlikely. Her question is sincere though, coming not from a place of nervousness, but rather from a humble notion that any fanfare surrounding her is quite silly. As I walk home later that night, I pass a sandwich board advertising a gallery opening at Larkin Arts; around the corner at Bella Luna Wood-Fired Pizza, there’s another. Both are the unmistakeable work of Hade.
In Harrisonburg, a sandwich board advertising happy hour specials and events seems to be a prerequisite to owning a business. Most are fleeting and transitory, allowing an establishment to advertise its specials to foot traffic who will quickly forget the sign as they go about their day. What Hade has done with her work, however, is to claim the space as her own. She uses the board not only as an outlet for advertisement, but as a personal artistic statement. Within the span of half-a-year, when her first board appeared, her work has been popping up around town with a fierce frequency, forcing questions about when art transcends all other contexts and purposes.
“You can spot her beautiful, lyrical letters from a mile away,” said Paul Somers, owner of the Golden Pony. “There’s a clear competition when I look at those signs. She wrote ‘SALE’ on the outside of the piano store, and it’s like, who wins the fight over what that image is? Is it art or is it an advertisement? Because it’s so damn beautiful to look at, the shape and composition and everything, it takes it to the next level that’s more than an advertisement.”
Before the buzz about her work took off, Hade walked into Larkin Arts hoping to find a graphic design internship. Owner Valerie Smith quickly paired her up with Trip Madison, Larkin’s graphic designer and a popular freelance artist in the community. He began to mentor Hade and show her what was possible as a freelance artist, with Smith not far behind. “I think that’s one of the best things about this community,” said Hade. “It offers so many opportunities for people who have been in your position to give you a little guidance and words of wisdom that you can take or leave. I’ve chosen to appreciate everything that people have given to me.”
In addition to her internship and undergraduate duties, Hade was waiting tables at Bella Luna on the side. The restaurant, recently opened, was looking to advertise its farm to table philosophy outside of the restaurant. “They found out I was an art major and asked me to do their boards,” Hade said, “so I did the first one and remember everyone being surprised and impressed. I was looking back at it thinking it wasn’t that good, so the next one I would spend more time on. I wanted to push my limits to see what would work and what wouldn’t.”
The meticulous labor of love that Hade puts into her work is apparent at first glance, but closer inspection allows for an appreciation that exceeds acknowledging an individual’s self-respect for their craft. Every serif stroke, kerned spaced, or accented shade is calculated and done with intent. Hade admits that she has found herself looking at a board after hours of work, being unsatisfied, and erasing the entire thing to start again.
“I'm in awe of her sign work,” said Madison, her mentor. “It's refined, perfectly executed, with a hefty dose of lovely. Her breadth and quality of work at such an early point in her career is impressive.” Hade went on to design the logo for Bella Luna’s sister shop, Bella Gelato, and has worked on projects for Mashita Food Truck, Whitesel Music, and the Red Wings Roots Music Festival. In September, she will become Larkin’s gallery co-director, focusing on their satellite at the Golden Pony, Pegasus.
“We all completely fell in love with her,” said Smith. “I think that her age — and I know it’s not the most important thing — but why it needs to be brought up is that she’s remarkable. She has a work ethic, a maturity, and a talent that is far beyond her years.”
Hade will graduate in December with her graphic design degree, but she has no plans to leave Harrisonburg. Instead of making a move to an urban hub, she has decided to skip the starving artist narrative and simply be an artist in the community that has helped cultivate her skills. “There are so many facets to this town that everyone is involved in different things,” she said. “It reduces the competitiveness that can be harmful, it’s good and supportive. Everyone becomes resources for one another and that promotes community and growth.”
As Hade and I finish up our interview, she smiles and tells me the voice recorder made her a bit nervous. It’s almost as if by speaking with me, it validates her popularity in a way that might be ephemeral otherwise. The next day as I meet with Smith at Larkin Arts, she’s there too and quickly excuses herself for coffee so the two of us can chat. It’s not that she rejects the attention, it is simply outside her periphery. For Somers, who has dedicated so much of his livelihood to advancing the artistic community in Harrisonburg, the fuss over Hade’s work cannot be overstated. “I can’t even put chalk to the board we have out front,” he tells me with a smile. “The standard is so high because of her, I’ve just given up.”
To see more of Sarah Hade’s work, visit her online at sarahhade.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers