By Gussie Fauntleroy
Sally Strand’s still lifes and figurative paintings are her way of processing the visual images around her
Sally Strand quips that she found her career path by opening a Chicago phone book. She was young, living in the city on an urban studies program involving documenting people in public housing, working as a secretary, and bored. She read art books to pass the time, but at some point she realized she could be in a job like that all her life unless she chose a direction. So she pulled out a phone book and opened it to the A’s. Instantly her eye landed on art school. She applied to Chicago’s American Academy of Art and with her first class there, she knew she was in the right place. “I thought, ‘Oh! This is me!’” she recalls.
As she speaks, Strand is sitting in her studio in a charmingly funky beach-house neighborhood in Capistrano Beach, CA, where her second-floor view catches sailboats on the water through a screen of tall pines on the nearby coastal bluff. Now 51, the Colorado native has been living and painting full time in Southern California since the early 1980s. Her award-winning realist paintings—she works in both pastels and oils—were featured in a recent solo retrospective at the Bakersfield Art Museum in Bakersfield, CA. She has exhibited and taught around the country, and her work is in numerous private and public collections. As she recounts how she got to this point, it’s clear that while the art school idea popped out at her from the phone book, it didn’t come out of the blue.
All through Strand’s childhood years—first in Golden, CO, and later in Evergreen, west of Denver—a flow of creative energy surrounded her mother, whom she calls “one the most multitalented people I’ve ever met.” Her mother’s primary artistic expression was in printmaking, but she also worked in jewelry, sculpture, and weaving. “We’ve had the most special relationship all my life,” Strand reflects. “I’d come home from school every day and sit on the step of her studio, and we’d talk.” Even now, at 81 and living nearby, her mother remains Strand’s most valued critic. Her father was in the insurance business, and while he didn’t take part in the family’s artistic activities, he supported and encouraged them.
One creative experience that stands out among the artist’s early memories involves handmade puppets. Her mother carved the puppets’ heads, sewed their costumes, and directed theatrical stories for them. Strand mostly remained backstage producing sound effects while her older brother, who later became an actor, voiced and operated the hand puppets. The trio took their show on the road, traveling around Colorado to perform. “I still have those puppets,” Strand notes wistfully. “They’re exquisite.”
Other aspects of Strand’s childhood were equally rich. Summers were spent in an old family home on a lake in the Wisconsin woods with no television—just imagination, nature, and play. When she was a young teen, the family moved from Golden to a cabin built into a mountainside on Upper Bear Creek near Evergreen. The creek tumbled over giant boulders not far from the cabin door. A climb to the cliff behind the cabin every evening took Strand to her special spot for sitting alone, gazing out over the tops of tall pines, and quietly absorbing the sunset view. The first few winters in the not-yet-weatherized cabin were cold, and the well sometimes went dry. But for Strand, it was an “absolute wonderland.”
As a young girl, Strand showed budding artistic talent, and in high school she brought home art awards. But it wasn’t until a few years after high school that the idea of actually being an artist first congealed in her mind. She had graduated at 17 and joined the traveling youth musical performance group Up With People. (The group’s first performance was at the infamous 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.) For two years Strand performed all over Europe and North America, living with dozens of families and experiencing a mind-expanding wealth of circumstances and cultures. It was during this time, needing to orient herself in each new city, that she formed the habit of turning to the phone book for ideas. It was also while with the traveling show that she realized visual art could become a vital outlet for the overwhelming inflow of new experiences. “I was on a train in Germany and I looked out the window and saw some immigrants walking, bent over with boxes on their shoulders,” she recounts. “I took out a sketch pad and started sketching. I was taking in too much and had to get it out.”
Two other experiences as a young woman also were important in allowing her to see herself as an artist. One was reading a book on Michelangelo and being struck by the fact that she related naturally to the way an artist thinks. The other leap of understanding took place during a photography class, when she realized there’s a strong connection between the way we see and how we think. All this was subconsciously at work, no doubt, when she flipped open the Chicago phone book in search of direction in her life.
In Chicago, while earning a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of Denver, and then in New York City, where she attended the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, Strand spent endless hours in two of her favorite pursuits: taking in great art and observing people. The camera became an important tool after she settled in Southern California, as her career began gathering steam and she and her husband were raising their two sons. In those pre-digital days she used a telephoto lens to remain unobtrusive as she took pictures of people on the street, working in shops, or waiting for buses or trains.
It is from these years of collecting visual memories and photos that the artist now draws material for her work. Along with still lifes of fruit, eggs, unmade beds, and other everyday sights, her figurative paintings present the world in its daily, commonplace glory. These are regular people going about their routines, quietly involved in mundane moments that may not seem memorable but which, in Strand’s hands, become visually powerful.
“A lot of artists have grand themes,” she points out. “But I’m more interested in portraying the way we really are in daily life.” In news, after hours, for example, two men are absorbed in reading newspapers while a woman in the background sips wine. Multiple layers of carefully chosen color infuse the work with warm, rich tones. Strand’s command of composition and light, and a compelling sense of solidity, transforms an ordinary scene into one that catches and holds the eye. Her images astutely convey the physical expressiveness of people in groups or alone—at work, at play, or at rest.
None of her paintings is based on a single photo. Instead, she pulls a figure from one, a head or hand from another, background elements from another. She alters the angle of light, combines figures, and from all the parts creates an entirely convincing whole. “I’m not so interested in portraits or likenesses of a particular person,” she explains. “I’m more interested in the universal—body language, gesture, the nuance of a turn of the head or a person stepping off a step.”
In the same way, Strand’s figures are rarely specific to a place or time, but reflect experiences familiar to us all—resting, working, waiting, interacting or not. Even objects can tell a story, suggesting human qualities and relationships, the artist believes. In still life with tangerines, ocean series, one piece of fruit sits elevated on an upturned glass before a sunset, while other tangerines of various sizes are grouped around it. In duet, two pears on a reflective surface invoke the intimacy of a graceful dance.
Adding potency to each image is a fluency of shadow and light, color and form. “Under all good realism is good abstraction,” Strand explains. “I tell my students, there has to be a strong underlying abstract design to catch the viewer’s eye and make them want to walk across the room to see it more closely.”
Ideally, good art also shows the viewer what it was that caught the artist’s eye. As such, a painting can reveal the overlooked beauty in our everyday world. “Most people go through life and look but don’t see,” Strand muses. “So it’s been kind of an epiphany for me, to understand that this is one of the roles of an artist: to play a wonderful part in helping people truly see.”
Strand is represented by Bakersfield Art Museum Collectors’ Gallery, Bakersfield, CA; Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, CO; and www.sallystrand.com.
Featured in July 2006