Not Good at Not Working: A Conversation with Sara Hinkle

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By Benjamin Rybeck

Somewhere, there’s limited edition Sara Hinkle artwork—specifically, a single book, in the possession of Bill Barker, the actor who has made a career of playing Thomas Jefferson, most notably for Colonial Williamsburg. “I’m pretty sure he was my first celebrity crush,” she says.

“Not Thomas Jefferson,” I specify, “but Bill Barker.”

“Yeah,” Hinkle says. “I loved that guy. So I wrote and illustrated a book about Jefferson’s life in crayon on copy paper when I was little, and I stapled it together and mailed it to him. It was the only copy, which I regret now.”

It’s a little ironic that one of Hinkle’s works that could’ve been permanent—that she could’ve kept forever—isn’t in her hands anymore. After all, so little of what she does she gets to keep. As a freelance illustrator based in Houston, the majority of Hinkle’s work is on chalkboards around town (she recently redid the boards at Fat Cat Creamery), which means that many of her favorite pieces—including work at Pass and ProvisionsRevival Market, and numerous other places—simply aren’t there anymore. “I don’t look at art as something super sacred,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me if it changes or disappears. The whole world is in flux all the time, so this just fits in with the rest of the world.”

But maybe some things aren’t in flux. For instance, as Hinkle and I sit at Paulie’s, the Montrose restaurant where she once worked, she waves hello and chats briefly with a woman sitting at a nearby table—a woman who has come to Paulie’s for lunch every day since it opened seventeen years ago.

The other thing that isn’t in flux in Hinkle’s life? “I need to be a creative,” she tells me. As a kid growing up outside Philadelphia, she drew, painted, took pottery classes. At the Maryland Institute College of Art, she majored in sculpture, but mostly because she liked the faculty. Since then, she has become more interested in illustration and hand lettering—the kind of work she now does for a living around Houston.

The path to freelance illustration took her, first, through the restaurant scene. “When I moved here and I didn’t know anybody, I figured the best way to get to know people was to get a job. I knew about food, so I applied to work at Revival Market. One of the reasons they hired me was because they had a whole bunch of chalkboards that weren’t looking so great.”

Through this job, she met David Leftwich, editor of the food and culture magazine Sugar and Rice (part of Treadsack), an association that has led to some of the illustration work Hinkle is most proud of. She has done something for each issue of the magazine, and she describes it as her “ideal freelancing job. We sit down, talk about a concept, and [Leftwich] gives me full creative control.” Through Leftwich, Hinkle met other people involved in Treadsack and began doing work for some of its restaurants, including Down House and D&T Drive Inn. Also, Hinkle’s husband, Travis, wound up snagging a job as the organization’s beverage director.

Hinkle finds the restaurant scene to be particularly close-knit, “where everybody knows everybody, for better or worse. If you go somewhere, you say hi to people, and generally speaking, you’re treated very well. But then there’s the downside, which is the gossip and the drama.” Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere Hinkle would rather hang around than the food scene, and when I ask her for a list of cherished Houston spots, she includes Paulie’s, Good Dog Houston, and Pax Americana—about which, she says, “Whenever my husband and I have a night off from being parents, this has become our go-to place.” Hinkle even stays employed within the industry, working two days a week at Blacksmith. “I freelanced full time for a year,” she tells me, “and I realized I’m too social a person to not have coworkers at least some of the time.”

Another reason she keeps this job? “I love to work. I’m not good at not working.”

She has plans beyond her own freelancing, though—which gets us back to Bill Barker, our Thomas Jefferson from earlier, the man who captured young Hinkle’s attention so much that she wrote a book for him. “I want to do the same thing,” she says, “but as an adult. I want to write and illustrate a children’s book based on the life of Thomas Jefferson, one that doesn’t gloss over some of the more uncomfortable things about his life.”

As a project, this is still in its conceptual phase, but she recently returned from a trip to Monticello with her daughter, who now has the American history bug too. I like to imagine somewhere, right now, Sara Hinkle and her daughter, bonding over talk of Thomas Jefferson. I like to imagine Hinkle telling her daughter about that book she once made for Bill Barker. Whatever happened to it, anyway? Maybe it’s in some library near Colonial Williamsburg. Maybe they should go find it together.

Sara Hinkle’s work will be on display at Brazos Bookstore throughout the summer. A reception for her and to unveil her work at the bookstore happens at 5pm on Saturday, May 2 as a part of Independent Bookstore Day. 

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