Saturday, September 5, 2009

SANDY DONABED: Elegance With A Smile

Compositional Conversation is taking a break this week which allows me an opportunity to write about a wonderful artist and a new friend Sandy Donabed.

One of the most rewarding parts of attending a workshop is all the people you meet. I recently attended Quilting By the Lake and Sandy was in my class. I could tell almost immediately from the twinkle in her eye that she was someone I would enjoy knowing. Sandy shared images of her work on a small laptop and I loved the work and knew I wanted to feature her and her work here at Studio 24-7.

Sandy has an impressive resume including representation in numerous publications, collections and an extensive list of exhibitions. She earned an MS degree from Massachusetts College of Art, Boston and a BFA from Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.

Sandy has shared some wonderful insights with her responses to my questions. Enjoy!!!

Sandy Donabed


Question: I find your work to have a surprising and wonderful mixture of elegance and humor. Please tell us about the development of this interesting combination.

Sandy: In all my years of teaching I found humor was my best way to reach students, probably stemming from a college painting instructor who likened all odd shapes to food, as, "Well, Miss T., exactly what is this MUFFIN here in your still-life and why is it KISSING this edge?". This of course means that my fruit has taken on an amorphous and unfortunate shape and is precariously close to sliding off the edge of the picture plane instead of firmly planted, setting up some weak negative space.

Another point is that all my work tells a story. For me there is no working with just lines or only exploring color, no seduction by wonderful textures- it's all about the back-story with the art elements as mere support players. And if the story comes up as simply implied, the piece doesn't work until I can get it to actually tell the tale.

As a quilt-maker I am in love with commercial fabrics and traditional techniques. I have no interest in making my own fabric with all I have available to me, though I do occasionally modify and make marks when necessary. I love good craftsmanship and always aim for a finished and polished piece, apparently a legacy from my perfectionist mother. My work IS from a quilt tradition, and I try to celebrate that by not letting this branch of my work get too far off base from the history of quilting.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Cloth
5 separate pieces, each a 28" square meant to be hung in any imaginable configuration.

Question: I can see from your online gallery that your themes do appear across the different mediums you work with. Do you ever return to themes you have worked with in previous years?

Sandy: I think my major 'theme' is soft feminism (is there such a thing?), at least I seem to continually explore women's attitudes toward everyday issues: home, family, and work as filtered through my own experiences. My husband told me long ago that he thinks I make quilts because no one can read my handwriting. For this one time I'll admit he's right - this huge body of work is nothing more than an autobiography!

My 'different mediums' are really all the same - quilts are collages with fabric, collages are quilts out of paper, and the books - my newest obsession - are simply three- dimensional collages. I haven't strayed very far afield.

There is a continuing dialogue amongst quilters about working in series - I am constantly amazed when someone announces they are going to do a series of seven pieces dealing with, say, their road trip through Idaho. Huh? How do they know they won't exhaust the subject in three pieces? How do they stop at seven when they have barely begun to scratch the surface? My different series are quite amorphous - most of my pieces fit into several of the series I've been dealing with since 1975; I keep making new connections when I see them all together. I always suggest to my classes to get snapshots made of their work and shuffle the deck to find new relationships between the works; a fun card game for a slow night!

Tidal Pools Quilt
58" x 42" (approx.) linen, silk, cotton, digital image transfer, machine and hand applique and quilting, embellishment with beads and repurposed vintage silk yoyos from an Indonesian shawl.

Tidal Pools Quilt - detail

Question: What is your process for developing an idea from conception to finished work? Do you work on more than one piece at a time" Do you sketch, collect, journal etc?

Sandy: First of all, after 40 years of being an artist I have vast quantities of 'collecting' going on! Before I started making quilts in the '70's, I sewed for the house, my kids, and myself and saved every scrap. I also frequented flea markets and junk shops and amassed all sorts of stuff, including vintage fabrics and sewing supplies, old magazines, moldy books, and toys. This was all bought out of money I stole from the household, so some weeks the kids ate fish-sticks three nights so I could have the unraveling Navajo rug or the Guatemalan men's pants or a McCoy vase. They grew up OK in spite of me. Eventually my art started generating enough money to keep me supplied and that was a great year at the kid's table. (I usually don't start a new piece until the previous one is complete, otherwise my tinfoil hat brings in opposing signals and I get confused!)

I don't do preparation or research until I am in advanced stages of putting things together in a piece. My ideas come at unexpected times, usually generated from putting *this* next to *that* and realizing it elicits some primal brain response that it needs another *that*. One of my favorite quotes is from Jasper Johns and it goes something like, "Do something. Do something to that. Then do something to that." As soon as I start building, the piece takes on a life of it's own and I never feel like I have anything to do with it. Funnily enough things just appear when I need them most for every piece I've ever made so I worship the Synchronicity goddesses daily and try to stay always vigilant to their visits. I am taken over by thoughts and ideas at all times of the day and night and I have to let this idea soup concentrate before I jump too fast at each new direction. Slowing down is the hard part. I don't ever seem to make conscious decisions, instead intuition takes over completely, and this is a 24/7 thing. The process comes THROUGH me, but I never remember how it happens. Ideas generate ideas and 'what-if's' are tried without me being a willing participant. I have whole pieces I don't remember making but 'recognize' them as familiar somehow. I suppose this is good because I never regret selling a piece - for me it is all about the process, and after it's finished I am no longer invested, and certainly not interested in it any longer.

Tidal Pools Collage
18" square, digital images on photographic paper and fabric, embellished with beads.

Tar Paper Rolls
Source photo that started this series

This is the original photo at a construction site of tarpaper roofing rolls. I shot 25 photos which where the basis for three quilts and a collage, as well has having fabric commercially printed that will become a blouse. These circles also appear on the quilt "Tune In, Turn On, Drop Cloth'.

Question: Do you participate in any type of critique group? Please expound on why or why not.

Sandy: I've been in a crit group of seven women since about 1980 when we were all just starting making quilts as our art. We have all remained together, only adding one 'new' person in about 1985. We meet every three weeks and bring collected information about shows, interesting sources, new books and catalogs, as well as our work in progress. By now we all have a pretty good trust in each other and can honestly speak our minds when necessary knowing that the other members will be able to take some harsh talk, or, more usually, a bit of questioning to help focus their ideas. We all got together originally as quilt-makers but have since branched off into various related and complementary media but still remain very individualistic in our work - we don't seem to influence each others work, even when we share materials. I am so lucky to have had their support all these years because it's through their encouragement that I moved along this trajectory. Now that I am away from them for a good part of the year, I find I schedule my trips north according to the crit meeting dates. I don't have a group in Florida and doubt I will be able to find one without a lot of work because a critique group takes a long time to grow into itself. Thankfully, now I can keep in touch by sending digital images and thought bubbles to them to comment on. An interesting fact - we are all still married to our original husbands which either shows our perseverance or our complete lack of imagination!

Phrenology Book & Box

I found some old illustrations in a phrenology book from a used bookstore and became obsessed. I gathered all the images I could find and made a little presentation box for the pages. Each page is double sided 4" x 5" and I think there are about 75 of them, all printed on dress pattern papers.

Pages from Phrenology book

Question: Have you experienced any difference in the interest in or, acceptance of, your textile work and your mixed media work by artist working in more "traditional mediums"?

Sandy: After about the mid '80's I stopped worrying about whether my work was accepted in one niche or another. At that point I was disillusioned with the insular quilt world so I started entering mixed media and gallery craft shows instead of just quilt shows. I found that really no one cared what they were made of as long as they were fun to look at and different from the norm. If a show looked interesting and seemed to 'fit', I entered and have had pretty good success doing that. I also don't take part in art vs. craft debates simply because you cannot have one without the other. If I keep it simple in my own head it seems to work so I try to assume all the 'acceptance' issues don't exist = good work is accepted, bad work isn't. And I throw away rejection letters immediately.

Ironstone Book & Box
Book measures 3.5" x 4.5", presentation box is 5" x 9"

This book is about getting rid of my years of ironstone collecting. I took photos of every single piece (over 235) and printed them, then made a cover out of two old ironstone watercolor mixing pans. The wee dollhouse breakfront inside the box contains my miniature ironstone - it's a mental illness. But the point is that now that it's documented (!) I can dump the real stuff.

Ironstone Book and Box (opened)

Question: With all the demands of modern living, tell us how you manage to "get into" your studio to continue to make your art? Do you have a set schedule?

Sandy: When the kids lived at home I would get them out the door to school and head for the upstairs studio and clock in by 8:30. I wouldn't answer the telephone, or do laundry and other household chores until I released myself for the day as the kids came home. Later I started teaching in the local high school which gobbled studio time so I stayed up late after everyone went to bed and worked then. I always needed uninterrupted time even if it was just staring off into space, so I started my studio time about 9PM. While I was working in the high school I had free periods here and there so I used that time to do things like layering or drawing full - sized cartoons for a piece where I needed big tables shoved together. I was pretty religious about my time back then. Now that I don't have the family distractions I have had my studio right in the center of things so I work a bit, I do dishes, I work some more, I walk the dog, throw in laundry, work , make cookies. I have noticed my production go down in direct correlation to how busy my life is NOT, and know I need to focus! This fall I am opening a new studio in Florida, about a mile away from my house. I will again be 'clocking in' right after breakfast and working like it's a job where someone is watching me! I'm hoping I can gain some productivity back. Wish Me luck!

Thank you Sandy for a wonderful interview and I wish you my best with your new studio and your new schedule.


  1. Loved seeing an update on Sandy's work; Sandy, I haven't seen your work in awhile! Very nice. Now I am off to check out your website. Thanks for posting, Terry!

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  3. Isn't Sandy great? Sorry you and I didn't meet at QBL when I was there teaching, the same week.
    I knew your picture looked familiar,though - so I realized that's where I had seen you - at least from a distance.

  4. Awesome interview... she sounds like my kinda artis. :D

  5. How lovely to get to know Sandy a little better. Thank you for the interview, the time spent writing and the time spent making interesting and thought provoking art!