The Canadian artist’s creations are often layered in meaning, both theoretically and physically.
It can be difficult for some of us to admit that we have been influenced by our childhoods. We may want to forget some memories from those early years of life, even as we use other experiences from that period to inspire us in adulthood. For artist Samantha Sandbrook, her experiences as a child are part of what inspires her to create thoughtful pieces that comment, critique, and reflect on society.
With many children, the things that they care about are the things that they draw, but in Sandbrook’s case, what mattered to her were stories that came from literature.
“I started reading at a young age, and I really loved poetry. I also loved getting into historical characters, like Empress Joséphine,” recalls Sandbrook. As a child, her creative expression went beyond drawing and colouring, which she would do for hours at a time without noticing. That same feeling of timelessness would also occur when she read a book, as she became immersed in its characters. Similar to most of us when we were children, and even as adults, doing what she loves was her way of escaping to a separate world of personal comfort.
“I started doing little paintings of princesses, but as I grew up, they evolved into more romantic pieces, because I wanted to add more edgy, societal elements so that they are not just pretty pictures.”
For Sandbrook, the love of painting and reading started because of her parents, both of whom are teachers. Most people begin to think critically about culture and society in their mid-to-late teens, but Sandbrook was forced to so at an earlier age.
“My mother, who is an English teacher, made me read a book a week. At the end of each week, she would quiz me,” explains Sandbrook, before listing some of the questions that she would be asked to answer. “What is the thesis of the book? How did I feel about the imagery in the story? What are the symbols in the story? All of that thinking is built into my art today.”
As early as the 5th grade, Sandbrook was reading Jane Austen novels, and other works of literature, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, which she had to memorise.
“I did paintings about that lady, pining away, looking out the window for Sir Lancelot to come rescue her,” Sandbrook says. “Now, that’s not an attractive role for a woman to be in, because it is very passive. When I got older, I learned to criticise that very thing that I yearned for and loved.”
While her love of reading came from her mother, both parents gave her a love for art. According to Sandbrook, this was done through sternly suggested leisure time which she had to comply with. When both of your parents are teachers, following their suggestions is not optional.
“We got to travel to Europe almost every summer. We would do Europe on $50 (Canadian) a day,” remembers Sandbrook. “They brought me to many art galleries, because they had an interest. As an only child, I had no choice. The question for them was never Would Sam like this? It was always: You are going to fall in line and you will look at this gallery.”
Looking back, Sandbrook is not bitter, just grateful. “I loved it. Seeing all of that artwork at a young age would later influence my work as a professional.”
Another influence came from her grandfather, who built wooden displays for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He also used to make model boats, perfectly to scale, some of which can be found in museums across Canada. “That meticulous nature that my grandfather had, and that perfectionism, combined with my mother encouraging me to question what I was reading, informs my work today,” says Sandbrook.
With an artistic foundation that was laid in her childhood, Sandbrook has learned to see all creative disciplines as sharing commonalities, from fashion to architecture, and furniture to sculpture. It is why she is so adept at mixing media and art forms.
“I bring painting into my furniture design and sculptures, and I draw on them,” says Sandbrook, describing her approach to her work. “Everything starts from a concept, or a thesis that I want to attack. From there, I think about how it is going to be made. I can use wood with a highly lacquered surface, but I also like to use acrylic mixed with brasses, because I like the contrast in those materials. You can do beautiful three-dimensional pieces that speak on many different layers.”
Sandbrook’s work does not begin with a sketch or the stroke of a brush. Based on her upbringing, it will come as no surprise where she begins. “I start with words,” She says succinctly. The questions she tries to answer in her work come from those words.
“For my Imagine Console, I, like a lot of people, was feeling very sad about the state of society right now, especially in the U.S. It makes people feel very unstable. What shows instability? I was thinking about having the floor beneath my feet start moving, and about tectonic plates crossing over each other. All of the plates of the console table are shifting in time and space, which creates a type of instability. But then I still have this idea of a utopic vision of the world that I want to achieve. That is why the word IMAGINE is painted on it. The console shows the tension that I feel, where we are going through a period of shift and change, hopefully for the better.”
Her process of interrogating cultural and societal expressions can be seen in her wall sculptures, such as #Modern Love and I Still Love You. For the Antoinette wall sculpture, she uses 140 identical capsule-shaped pieces. From a painting, print, or digitally altered image, she screen prints them on the back of the 1.5-inch thick lucite pieces, to create the main imagery that will be seen.
“What you also see in the middle of the lucite pieces are other layers embedded within, like pieces of plaster, paint, old pieces of wooden pallets,” Sandbrook explains. “All of these pieces appear to float at various layers in the lucite, which is supposed to look like some of the walls in the back have come off and are flaking out. I also often embed the most important word in the piece.”
For I Still Love You, Sandbrook put the word still on a separate layer. “In that piece, the word still is more important than the word love,” she explains. “Still implies that after we have gone through all of this, I still love you. This is far more about longevity and real love, than saying I will always love you, which does not have that same ambiguity.”
The strategy of using different layers in her work to convey deeper meanings can also be seen in #Modern Love. “Love has changed in our society, but in what ways?” Sandbrook asks rhetorically. “This question can be answered by the multiple messages that I have written in graffiti into the background. Once I embed all the different layers and printed on the back, then the whole thing gets polished. It becomes very jewel-like, because I want the final piece to seem encapsulated in time.”
Within her work, there is a definite theme of love, peace, and beauty. All things that fascinated her as a child, and all things that are too often lacking in our world today. When asked if her work is a commentary, a criticism, or a reflection of modern love, Sandbrook gives a nuanced answer. “My work is a combination of all three.”
Listening to her describe her work in these terms, was like watching someone unpeel the layers of what they have created. It provides a stronger appreciation for her work. “I’m a romantic in many ways, however there are some things that have changed, both for the better and for the worse,” explains Sandbrook, as she ponders #Modern Love. “The temporary nature of love today can be seen in people being married more than once. Now, it is walk beside me not walk behind me, because you are holding hands walking through life as partners. In some ways, love has not really changed. Bob Dylan sung, You were my first love and you will be my last. I know a few people who have that kind of a love, which is rare these days. In general, things right now are very transitory, and that is the nature of contemporary love.”
In terms of showing female perspectives, Sandbrook’s Antoinette wall sculpture does what Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, does not. “That wall sculpture is a reflection and a critique of what I think modern love is. The novel by Rhys, is a commentary on Jane Eyre from the point of view of the character of Bertha Antoinetta Mason, who is Edward Rochester’s first wife. I felt like in this wall sculpture, Antoinette gets to express herself, whereas in the Jane Eyre novel, and in the book Wide Sargasso Sea, she does not really get a chance to express herself. She is perceived by Mr. Rochester as this wild creature of the Caribbean, through a colonialist lens. She in her own right was full of beauty and luscious as the tropical island that she was living on.”
The exercise of questioning everything that she reads and sees, is something that Sandbrook tries to get those who view her work to do. Her Ciel wall sculpture is a reflection of that curiosity.
“I love getting the viewer to question what they are looking at. I like the idea of imbued meaning that is not readily apparent,” says Sandbrook. “This was inspired by one of René Magritte’s paintings from the Surrealist era called Ciel, or sky in English. The painting did not have the image of a sky in the background. It just had the word ciel on a white canvas. He also did another one called Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe (This Is Not A Pipe), but it was a painting of a pipe.”
By taking the word ciel, printing it out onto a piece of acrylic, then cutting them into circles, the perception of reality is changed. “Now the piece is a step further removed from the word ciel, it is not even ciel anymore, just lines and shapes,” describes Sandbrook. “When I decided to reassemble these pieces, with acrylic and into industrial pipe parts, you saw disorder when I put them up on the wall. It was just mismatched patterns and black lines. This is not a sky, is it?”
When people observe her Ciel wall sculpture, she enjoys their reaction, and how everyone, including her, wants to do the same thing. It is a reflection of how we attempt to make sense of disorder, rather than being fine with how things are. “People come up to it without thinking of the different layers and meaning to it, but want to put the pieces back together again. They want to make all the black marks line up. It is an interesting joke on the viewer. I feel that way myself. I want to align the lines, so I get it,” Sandbrook admits. “But life is not like that. If you try to match patterns your whole life you are going to be pretty miserable, because life is all of these random lines.”
After interrogating the nature of love and the realities of contemporary life through her work, Sandbrook would like to focus on art that provides a commentary or critique on the state of the environment. “Part of me will not let my work get too dark,” concedes Sandbrook, “but I would like my work to become a little more political. To make a piece that is beautiful, while also saying something serious.”
She has ideas for more political works, but has no idea what they will look like yet. She sees fellow Canadian, and photographer Edward Burtynsky’s The Anthropocene Project, as a good example of work with many layers that depicts the scarring of the planet by human activity with compelling images.
Sandbrook wants to express similar truths, in her polished and edgy style. “I like to see the beauty of things by painting graffiti-like imagery because it is a real and honest way of communicating with the viewer.”
Words Phil Roberts