At a time when anxieties over information security are running high, there’s a strange catharsis to be found in a series of collages made from materials designed to keep information hidden. Back in 2008, when artist Sarah Nicole Phillips worked sorting mail in an office, she discovered the artistic potential of a ubiquitous office supply: security envelopes.“While tearing open the envelopes I became mesmerized with the large variety of intricate patterns printed on the inside, to obscure their contents,” Phillips tells The Creators Project. “The patterns are surprisingly delicate and reminded me of Japanese decorative paper and gift wrap. The cubicle in particular has become a symbol of unfulfilling, monotonous, paper-pushing work,” says Phillips.
In addition to the tremendous array of graphic possibilities offered by security envelopes, they’re also a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly art material. “I didn’t earn a lot of money so I was happy to have found a free art supply and to be diverting paper destined for the waste stream,” says Phillips. So, after spending some time collecting and examining these envelopes, Phillips began to cut and glue them into detailed illustrations. “My first security envelope collages were small and depicted scenes of dense grasses and flora that echoed the material’s use as a camouflage for private and sensitive documents,” explains Phillips. While her early collages responded to the intended function of the materials themselves, Phillips eventually began to depict imagery that related to the social and environmental issues that she associated with them. “As I developed my technique and repertoire of envelopes I created landscapes that became increasingly elaborate and dystopian. The onset of the recession made the material more evocative and layered with meaning.”
Another significant influence on the imagery that Phillips chooses is the office environment from which her materials come from. “My latest body of work includes traditional office imagery like drop ceilings, cubicles and uninspired lobby décor. Traditional offices are designed to maximize efficiency, indifferent to human comfort and happiness. The cubicle in particular has become a symbol of unfulfilling, monotonous, paper-pushing work. I suspect a lot of daydreaming about anarchy and escape takes place within those three walls, so I make fantasy environments where vegetation is infiltrating those spaces.” Phillips is also fascinated by the tension created by placing something from the natural world into the context of an office environment. “I enjoy the odd paradox of the lobby flower: they are often simulations of tropical, moisture-loving plants stationed in dry, sterile offices—their petals collecting dust or their colors fading with years of exposure to the same light,” says Phillips.
Despite the thoughtful moments of office tedium that originally led Phillips to make these works, she doesn’t have as much time for daydreaming anymore because she’s busy making new work for upcoming exhibitions from the plethora of reused printed materials she’s collected. “I have my sights set on trendy open concept offices and beautifully designed, co-working spaces that are gaining in popularity. I’m sure workers in those spaces occasionally crave the cathartic chaos of a fire alarm or infestation.”
You can see more of Sarah Nicole Phillips’ security envelope collages on her website, and catch an upcoming exhibition of Phillips’ new collages made from credit card offers at The Courthouse Gallery in Lake George, New York next year.