Sally Anderson: New Mexico Painter Makes an Extraordinary Shift into Ceramics
I recently received a portfolio of images of ceramic sculpture by an artist, Sally Anderson, from my hometown, Santa Fe. I was skeptical. In a small town how could someone a) be making ceramics, and b) of this caliber, without me knowing about it? The photographs were by the award-winning Addison Doty so I suspected that maybe he had given them the magic. When I asked he simply said, “visit her.”
I did and my amazement grew. Her work turned out to be serious sculpture, impeccably crafted. It matched the images and was ready for prime time. Anderson is 71 years old. She began ceramics seriously about three years ago. There was a five-week stint of weekly classes at Santa Fe Clay a few years earlier but that did not grip her.
To know how she pulled off this coup one needs to know a little more about Anderson. She has been an artist and designer since 1964, after a BA at Beloit College, Wisconsin and attending University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in pursuit of her MFA. She had her first solo exhibition in 1967 working in batik and painting and she never looked back.
Her life has been a series of highly focused objectives, which she achieved and then followed for a decade or so (with the constant support of an encouraging and charming spouse, attorney Charles Anderson) the she would move on to a new challenge, discipline or medium.
She bought a loom in 1972, trained herself and within a year was being to invited national exhibitions and winning awards. In 1986 a visit to a furniture maker in Taos (she lived in Albuquerque) nudged her into a career in domestic furnishing design. Soon her designs— furniture, rugs, and fabric— were being licensed across the US and some internationally.
Then, as licensing design became less profitable, she returned to painting as well as becoming a dealer with her son, Seth, as a partner. He is a painter and a now-thriving designer and builder. She opened successful spaces under the name Anderson Contemporary Art in Albuquerque, Taos and Santa Fe. The initial goal was to sell her and Seth’s art work but they later developed a stable of other artists as well.
Anderson and her son left the business of dealing in 2004. Then health issues for her husband intervened. Once those were resolved three years ago Anderson was looking for her next conquest. Anderson decided first on sculpture, then choose ceramics as the best medium to make the forms she imagined. She set up a studio in her garage.
What sets her apart from the aforementioned fine artist arrivistes is that she did not suffer from premature exposition. First, she labored for six months making and remaking a certain form type. It was a sculptural form with protruding elements, very difficult to perfect in clay even for experienced ceramists. She kept this up until she felt she had the level of refinement and authority she was seeking. Her masterstroke was never considering glaze for the surface. That would have plunged her into a complex unpredictable field that could have taken many years to perfect. She had no interest because glaze did not offer what she sought. She wanted to surface these forms with paint.
She tried any number of approaches, solid planes of color, different patterning until she hit on a splattering effect, which looked liked sand blasted stone and suited the organic form. The surface was meticulously produced not by a splattering technique but brushstroke by brushstroke.
This took her through another period of research, this time with brushes as she recalls. “Long handles, short handles, stiff bristles, soft bristles, many bristles, few bristles” until the surface results were as near perfect as she could manage. These works, her very first body of ceramics completed in 2014, each hand-built and unique, is shown above, market ready with no hint of her short involvement.
What changed her surfaces, and radically so, was being trapped in traffic one day. A motorcyclist pulled up alongside and she became transfixed by his helmet and its brown, glossy, immaculate surface of automotive lacquer. From then on car bodies, particularly those with custom painting, fascinated her to the point of obsession.
Finding a body shop to work with became its own odyssey. She took trips into rural New Mexico to obscure body shops, to dealers in automotive paint, trying to involve one skeptical painter after the other, traditionalists in this artisanal world. She designed a three-pronged stand to make their job easier. Now after several fits and starts Anderson has found her perfect collaborator, a younger bodywork specialist who enjoys and understands her aesthetic ambition and is regularly achieving the kind of surface perfection she has sought.
Most would have given up after three months of closed doors and setbacks but as you might guess by now Anderson does not take no for an answer when she is set on a course. She has since become knowledgeable about automotive paints.
Finally she has achieved the look she wanted and the result is stunning contemporary art. The surfaces are sandpapered twice, one after each priming coat. The result is an alien glow and extraordinary movement within the forms’ multiple contours. There is precedent to what she is doing; Ken Price used the same paints in his 1960’s works, but he was not her muse in this case.
Now, in her methodical manner and the determination of a small but resolute tank, she has moved to the next phase, the market. David Richard Gallery, in Santa Fe is now showing her work. The gallery is internationally known for specializing in Postwar geometric, Op, Pop, and color field, minimal and gestural abstraction in a variety of media and will present her work on Art Miami (December 1 – December 6, 2015). Look out for it.
Readers have been aware of my rants against artists, often blue-chip, who join adult education classes for ceramics. That is not a crime. In fact it’s great and should be encouraged. What is a crime is showing their work too early in their relationship with clay (sometimes from their first firing). Ceramics is a much more resistant material to expression than its plasticity would give one to believe. Then there is the wrath of the fire. The results are too often childish without the bonus of being childlike. The journey by Anderson from painter to ceramist, her insistence on the highest quality of work she could achieve and her smarts at mastering a narrow band of craft, stands as a rebuke to the arrogance we find with much fine art ceramics by visitors. A known signature does not imbue one’s inarticulate ceramic fumbles with value, aesthetic or otherwise.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.daily.