Coming to a campsite near Austin, a pop-up exhibition in a pop-up camper

Artist Sara Vanderbeek and her family spent much of the pandemic traveling in a camper. She found a way to continue making art about our turbulent times.


Like so many, artist Sara Vanderbeek saw every facet of her life upended by the pandemic.

All the exhibitions she been working towards were cancelled or put on indefinite hold. Likewise, she and her husband, digital creator and filmmaker Eric Manche, suspended all operations of DORF, their experimental art space run out of their converted garage. And they took their daughter Florida out of daycare.

Vanderbeek recalls thinking: “What are going to do now to save our minds?”

What the family did was hit the road with a pop-up camper in tow, taking months long trips across the country, camping as they went. They traveled thousands of miles — through the uncertainty of the pandemic, through an increasingly polarized America in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, through a forest fire ravaged West, and through a historical racial justice movement.

Home, workspace, classroom for their daughter, the camper became their mobile cocoon. “Being embedded in nature as we were, camping along the way, that helped all of us emotionally, psychologically,” Vanderbeek says.

In practical terms, Manche could work remotely as long as they could get a decent internet connection, which sometimes took a little searching. “McDonald’s has surprisingly good free wifi,” advises Vanderbeek.

Daughter Florida adapted easily to the adventure. But for Vanderbeek, whose expressive paintings and portraits are often large in scale, maintaining her art practice proved challenging at first.

“I only used supplies I could fit into a small Tupperware,” said Vanderbeek. “Small paper, a sketchbook, pens.”

But soon she turned her restless creativity to bedsheets, tablecloths, cloth napkins and curtains, transforming the domestic fabric items the family used everyday into vivid paintings. This led her to make more fabric paintings which she would display at campsites on clotheslines or draped over a picnic tables.

A photograph taken at Mills Norrie State Park in New York shows a campsite festooned with paintings on fabric. A large bedsheet features an image of her daughter, double-eyed, smart phone in hand. There’s a Black Lives Matter painting and a handpainted Biden-Harris campaign flag. Another image shows two pairs of disembodied googly eyes peering out of a thicket of pattern. Monsters in the social-political wilderness of our times?

It’s a brave and exuberant display of political opinion as well as personal thoughts and feelings. And it’s a celebration of domestic craft fueled with the need to create — and it triumphs over the typical finickiness of the art world.

“Art has always been what saves me,” Vanderbeek says. “And this is a life-art blur.”

Sara Vanderbeek
Sara Vanderbeek’s portrait of her daughter painted on fabric, and hung with clothespin outside the family’s pop-up camper. Photo: Eric Manche
Sara Vanderbeek
At the Bentonville Film Festival, the camper Vanderbeek and her family have used for the past year exhibits some of the paintings on fabric she has created. Photo: Eric Manche

Then she took her project to the next level. On a trip to the East Coast and back this summer, Vanderbeek staged the “Pop-up Show” at campsites along the way, her new artworks installed within and surrounding the pop-up camper. And she staged it at the Bentonville Film Festival earlier this month.

Now “Pop-up Show” comes to Austin Aug. 27–29 at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin. (It’s the first park the family tried out their pop-up camper.)

The camper will be at campsite 53 on the park’s Big Cedar Loop. There’s an opening reception from 6 to 10 p.m. Aug. 27. The rest of the weekend viewing is by appointment only: And whenever you go, you’ll need to make a reservation online to get into the park too.

The camper is open-air but masks are required while inside and social distancing will be practiced limiting the number of people inside at once.

Later this fall, Vanderbeek will stage the show again Nov. 20 and 21 at the Museum of Human Achievement on Springdale Road as part of the Austin Studio Tour.

With their daughter now headed to kindergarten, Vanderbeek and Manche are staying put for the time being. And that means they will re-open their gallery this fall. On view from Oct.  29 through Nov. 14 — also coinciding with the Austin Studio Tour — DORF presents “Own it, examine it, and confront it head on,” a group exhibition examining rape culture, survivor justice, and healing.

Vanderbeek envisions “Pop-up Show tour” as an evolving endeavor. After all, it’s a reaction to the political and social zeitgeist, and is the American experiment really ever complete?

Says Vanderbeek of the exhibition project: “There’s no clear end, it can just keep going.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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