Friday, March 4, 2011

Sandy Swan







The pictures:

Photo of Sandy

My Portrait of Sandy

Preparatory drawing for a woodcut of Keesha

Earlier woodcut of Keesha

Portrait of Sally

Woodcut of boat

Woodcut of horse


Sandy With and Without

Sandy showed me an artist’s journal from a couple of years back called “Mornings with Keesha.” Keesha, her beloved dog and her companion on her morning walks, died three years ago.

“I went out first thing every morning and did a drawing or small water color. I would explore different parts of the Island, so I was gone at least a couple of hours. I would then bring something back to the studio to draw in the little journal as I was writing about each morning’s travels.”

Her current journal is called “Mornings Without Keesha.” The death of Sandy’s dog was a profound loss for her.

She started drawing pictures of Keesha in the woods with the idea of doing a woodcut that would be partially a companion piece for one she did of Keesha a few years ago and partially a process of mourning the lost dog. This was a piece she felt she had to do.

“It was blocking me from moving ahead,” she said. “It was a particularly complicated project and for a while I gave up the idea of making it. I found I couldn't start another woodcut until this one was made.”

Sandy feels that her time of mourning for Keesha has passed.

“I am ready for another dog if I can have one,” she said.

She is now working to complete the woodcut.

Her studio is filled with drawings on tracing paper of Keesha lying in the snow, facing away from the viewer, partially hidden in thick undergrowth. This image contrasts sharply with the wood cut that was done when the dog was alive. In that one, Keesha is very present, presented in sharp focus laying in the shade of a beautifully realized tangle of branches.

Taken together, these two images convey touchingly the way the dog has gone from being present in Sandy’s daily life to living in her memory. This is art put to good use; taking deeply personal experience, making it universal, communicating it.

It takes six month to a year for Sandy to develop a major woodcut.

She draws for several weeks, not only to get the image just right, but also to plan how each component will fit on a different block of wood. The image is then transferred to the wood, sometimes to linoleum glued to the wood. All the negative space is then carved away. The remaining raised areas are inked and printed. Sandy estimates that this print of Keesha will require fifteen to twenty blocks, each printed separately, perfectly aligned with each other, to reveal the final image. Line, texture, shading, pattern, and color are added one block at a time. It is a precise, time demanding, physically challenging way of making art. It is a testament to Sandy that her pictures look effortless.


Kerri Spier Talking About Sandy

I became aware of her work when I was doing framing. She was working on a big woodcut of her dog, but she fell on the ice and hurt her wrist. She was looking for someone to carve for her and I’d done a lot of woodcuts in college.

I like the actual process of carving the wood as much as the printing, maybe more. Often I like the blocks of wood more than the picture.

I was sort of in awe of her. She was like the guru. I was honored she asked me to carve for her. She’d give me the block and I’d take it home to work on and bring it back when I was done. She would outline what she wanted me to cut away, just the rough stuff. She did all the details.

I love her work. She takes everyday blue-collar scenes and makes them art. She did a lot of boats, but not the pretty sailboats, working boats like ferries and tugboats.

If she asked me to carve again, I’d jump at the chance.


Sandy at Boulter Plywood

Sandy goes into Boulter Plywood in Somerville, Massachusetts with tracing paper and graphite. While the contractors are lined up, she lays the tracing paper over interesting pieces of wood and rubs with the graphite to get an image of the grain and texture.

The guys who work there say, “Hey Sandy. Look at this one. I been saving it for you.”


Sandy on Pop Nichols’ Estate

During the happiest years of her childhood, Sandy’s family rented a converted barn on the property of Pop Nichols in Greenwich, Connecticut. Pop Nichols lost his money in the crash of “29 and converted several out buildings on his estate to rental property. In addition to the barn, he remodeled the former icehouse and chicken coops for people to live in.

Eccentric people came and went. Sandy and her brother Bill had the run of the property including the main house. Sandy’s mother had a victory garden, the family raised chickens and Sandy sold eggs.

Next door lived Mr. and Mrs. Wesley. They were very wealthy people who had a stable where they kept Al Baba, Mr. Wesley’s mount, and Bayberry, his wife’s. Sandy was horse crazy. She would loiter near the stable in hopes of getting to sit on Bayberry. It was well known that Ali Baba was too spirited for a child.

During Sandy’s years on Pop Nichols’ estate, her cousin, Marilyn, would spend school vacations with Sandy and her family. These visits always made Sandy’s mother nervous. However, Sandy looked forward to Marilyn being there because you never knew what was going to happen when she was around.

“My cousin was the instigator and I was her very willing accomplice,” Sandy said.

It was Marilyn who turned Sandy into a horse thief.


“Come on,” whispered Marilyn in the night. She was already out of bed and starting to get dressed. “No one will ever know. It will be so cool.” They were sleeping in a room that had a door that opened directly out of the house, so it was easy for them to sneak out.


The draw of the horses was too much for the girls to resist. They went to the neighbor’s stable and took turns riding Bayberry through the moon lit fields. This adventure happened every time Marilyn came to visit and Sandy became less and less worried about getting caught.


Then one day she came home to find Mr. Wesley's car parked in front of her house. Sandy’s parents did not socialize with their rich neighbors so she knew she was in trouble. The jig was up! Time to pay the fiddler.


Mr. Wesley said, “A girl who loves horses as much as you do should have the opportunity to ride. However, she should earn it, not steal it.”


Arrangements were made for Sandy to work in the stable every Saturday. She cared for the saddles and harnesses, cleaning the leather with saddle soap and polishing the metal. In exchange for her work on Saturday, she was allowed to ride Bayberry on Tuesdays. Eventually, she was even allowed to ride Ali Baba.


Besides horses, Sandy’s other childhood passion was her nature collections. She had so many snakes, turtle, and butterflies that Pop Nichols allocated her a room in the main house just to hold her butterflies. The rest of the collection remained in the barn with the family.


One day, Sandy was sick and brought her tiny pet garter snake, Ziggy, to bed with her for comfort. Ziggy disappeared. Sandy’s mother and sister Pat turned the house upside down looking for the escaped reptile. They couldn’t find him. The next morning, Sandy’s mother was brushing out her hair and found Ziggy curled up in her braid.


Sandy in her Winter Studio

For the last three years Sandy has been renting a house on the North end of Block Island to use as her winter residence and studio. She spends the rest of the year in her home and studio in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Her history with Block Island extends back to the early 1960’s, but this current rental arrangement suits her well. The large room she uses as a studio is filled with light and the view is of pond, beach, and ocean. It is breathtaking.

As Sandy was telling about her adventures in Horse thievery, she was preparing to draw Sally Spier. She attached a roll of white paper to an easel and laid out ink, brushes and watercolors. Sally is a tall, skinny fourteen year old. She is a beautiful child who seems to have no vanity about her appearance. On the other hand, she is extremely confident about her intelligence and loves to challenge adults to games of Scrabble, which she inevitably wins.

As she began to draw, Sandy said, “At first look at me, then you don’t have to. I’m going to do your eyes first and I’m not going to talk about my life while I’m doing them.”

Sally’s hair fell down over the right side of her face.

Sandy said, “Thank you for wearing your hair that way. I only have to do one eye.”

A few minute later, she said, “I’m going to start over. I got your eye too big for your face.”

She rolled out more paper and began the drawing again.

In the end she produces a good likeness that also subtly captures Sally’s personality. This drawing shows what she looks like, but also you get a sense of what she is like. The insightful part of the portrait happens in her gaze that is both direct and hidden, in the trust of her chin, and in her elongated, adolescent body that contains equal parts of gracefulness and awkwardness. It is easy to imagine that Sandy was a lot like this herself when she was going on those nighttime rides on the barrowed horse.

Almost all my work is portraiture,” Sandy said. “It is always a particular boat, building or animal. Getting a likeness is very important to me.”

Sandy Today

Sandy has achieved a degree of financial stability and professional recognition, many artists, even very talented ones, never reach. It has taken a long time. She’s been twice married and divorced and once widowed. She was a teenage mother and a high school dropout. She moved from job to job and place to place. She has always been grateful for the early support of her family. In 1962 they helped get her established on Block Island by buying a home for her there. Sandy feels this was a huge turning point in her career as an artist. Despite the chaos and uncertainties of her early years she has always had confidence in her self as an artist and her ability to follow her personal vision. Today, she is just where she wants to be, doing just what she wants to do.

I asked her how aging has affected her creative process.

She said, “I always have a sketchbook I’m working in. I have about twenty-five of them. I notice I can’t get an image as quickly as I could when I was thirty. I’d give anything to have my old brain back, but if I take my time and work at it, I can get there.”

I asked her about goals for the future.

She said, “Its an adventure. I don’t know what is coming next. There is a tree down the road. I’ve had my eye on it for about three years. I don’t know what I’ll do with it; maybe a collage, maybe a painting.”

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