Sigrid Sandström is a Swedish painter whose work has been exhibited around the world. She has had a major solo exhibition at The Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA, and one-person exhibitions at the Inman Gallery in Houston, Galleri Olsson in Stockholm, Edward Thorp Gallery in New York, and The Company in Los Angeles. Her work has also been featured at a number of major art institutions including The Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, as well as Moderna Museet and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.
Sandström has a B.F.A. from Academie Minerva in the Netherlands and a M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art. She attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture as well as the Core Residency Program at Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, and was awarded both a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2008 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant, among many other fellowships and grants. She has taught at Bard College, Massachusetts College of Art, and the Glassell School of Art in Houston. She is currently a professor at The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, Sweden.
Sandström may at first appear shy and unassuming, prone as she is to twirling a lock of hair around her finger and peppering her speech with self-deprecatory interjections. Don’t be fooled. She is determined, opinionated, strong-willed and, as she will tell you herself, very stubborn. A big force in a petite package, Sandström knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go out and get it.
Were you the kind of child who drew all the time?
Yes, I was drawing a lot. And if there was something I had some confidence about, it was painting. I just remember drawing ponies in school, people would order one and I would draw it because I was so good at it. And that made me feel like I had a talent. I also made illustrations for a horse magazine I made with my cousin, things like that.
But it wasn’t like I walked around with a pen in my back pocket and couldn’t live without sketching. Not at all. It was not a given that I would be involved in art in any way.
But did you have a sense that you could become an artist? Artist, that is a pretty strange concept for a child to wrap their head around.
It didn’t exist in my environment, it didn’t exist in my imagination that one could be an artist. Not in that early stage, anyway. Since Mom was an architect, I guess that it what I said I would become out of pure…you know.
What did you do after you graduated from high school?
It was the 90’s. The expectation for me as a Swede was to work, save up some money, and travel. So I worked as a waitress and in a bakery throughout high school and decided to go to France to learn French, and then to go skiing and maybe take a little course at a university there. I did that. But I was just really unhappy during this time.
I felt completely lost in the face of what choices were available to me, what might feel meaningful— because I had reached the conclusion that it had to feel meaningful. But I had no idea what direction to go in. Nothing felt right. I was very depressed, which was brought about by a lot of things. I was suffering from serious Anorexia. That affected my reasoning a great deal. Because Anorexia stops you from thinking clearly, you freeze-up inside, become a kind of icicle for a long period of time.
So I would say that I began making art was for purely therapeutic reasons. And it wasn’t intended as art. I wanted to do something that once made me happy, that I had felt that I knew how to do— because I thought I was terrible at just about everything.
So, I started taking summer art courses and community college classes. And I felt that I wanted to get out and meet people. So, I started studying at Uppsala University [a Swedish college town].
I still had a lot of problems, but I read things that I wanted to read and after a time I began thinking that what I wanted to do was work in the theater as a set designer, thinking that would be a great way of combining my interest in literature and visual arts. So I just walked up and asked the Head Set Designer at Stadsteatern if I could be his assistant. And he said yes. It was incredibly fun to work there, but I experienced the theater world as very hierarchical and it made me stressed out— because I get stressed out easily. I didn’t like being the mediator between so many different opinionated people and I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that it was so hierarchical and elitist. As if it is any better in the art world! [Laughs.] But at the time, I thought at least then [in the art world] I could just do my own thing.
At the same time as I was working in the theater, I got a studio in an old, abandoned school in the middle of Uppsala.
What did you do in your studio?
I painted. A lot.
What did you paint?
I painted images that were very self-exposing, psychological, autobiographical…images that it would be very difficult to look at today. It was clear that they were created by a very unhappy young person.
Did you show your work to anyone?
Yes, unfortunately. I am so ashamed! That is actually what made me become an artist— that I had a disproportionate exhibitionist need, or disproportionate self-confidence, to show, “I made this!”
I don’t think I saw how terrifying those paintings were. I just thought, “I have painted something, now I can show it to my family and friends.” But if I had been my family, I probably would have thought it was quite hard to look at those images. At the time, I just thought they were real.
And then you made the decision to go to art school.
Yes, I was having so much fun in that little studio in Uppsala that I dropped out of my university courses. I had been studying art history and literature, which I thought was a lot of fun, but there was always that thought in the back of my mind: what am I going to do with this? So I enrolled in a landscape architecture program and stayed there for a full year even though I knew right away that it was totally wrong for me.
But, in that program, we had one art class where we painted with watercolors and I thought that it was so much fun and I was given a great deal of encouragement from the teacher. She was good at making me feel as though I had something to say. And, above all, I loved the critiques— to sit and discuss and really understand other people’s ideas. So, it became more and more clear to me that I should go to art school.
I applied to an art and crafts school in Stockholm and it was so exciting to get to play around with different materials. But painting was always the most fun— that is where I felt I had more exploring to do.
After that, I had another stroke of hubris: I thought I was a real talent and should start the royal art academy in Sweden. But I didn’t get in. I had also heard about a school in Holland, since my best friend had done an exchange program there. It was a tiny place in the boondocks, in Northern Holland, Groningen. I was able to start in the second year of their four-year program.
It was a small city, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language, I was unhappy. And then the weather, that damn weather can drive anyone crazy! It rained every single day. But, because I was a little nerdy and worked really hard, because I didn’t have any other life, I was chosen to go on an exchange to Cooper Union.
So you went to New York.
Yes. I hadn’t thought of going to New York. I wanted to be trudging around in rubber boots in Iceland. New York wasn’t the dream. But I had met exchange students in Holland who said, “If you get it, goddamnit, go! You don’t understand how great it is.”
Cooper Union is unique, since it is free.
And you could feel it, too. A tremendous energy.
At first, I was supposed to be there for one semester, but I didn’t want to go back. And, if I want something, I usually do my best to get it. So I begged my teachers to stay. And they invited me to stay for another semester.
After that, I was supposed to go back to Holland and finish my degree. But I informed the school that I had been able to borrow a studio in Brooklyn, in Greenpoint. So they had to deal with me doing my final year at a distance. Then I traveled back and showed my final project and worked there for a month or so.
Where did you live at first, when you were studying at Cooper Union?
I lived in a home for women that, historically, had long been a home for young women in the world. You had to be between 18-25 years old. You lived in a munk’s cell. It only fit a bed. The bathroom was shared. You could eat breakfast and lunch in the dining room, and it was very cheap. But you couldn’t bring a friend or a partner up to your room, so there was a visitor’s room near the entrance where you could sit and hold audiences during the day. It was pretty interesting, living with all these young women. The majority were aspiring actresses and dancers.
What kind of gigs did you have to support yourself?
While I was at Cooper Union I worked as a waitress and did some catering gigs, more and more. And the following year, I worked as a waitress at the Swedish Consulate. At the Consulate, there was a family who wanted someone to clean their house and take care of their kids part-time in exchange for a small studio apartment in the building. I lived with them for nearly three years, and that’s why I never left New York! It was the best job in the world. I worked fifteen hours a week for them and got an apartment in New York. And a diplomat visa.
So there you were, in your Park Avenue apartment.
Yes, without really understanding, until now, how absurd that situation was. My life in general took place in a completely different world from my living situation.
What was life like for you during those years?
I had graduated from Cooper Union and had friends from there. I worked very methodically in my studio. I was there every day, and when I wasn’t in the studio, I was working as a waitress or with the Swedish family.
There was really nothing in Greenpoint at that time, and Williamsburg…it wasn’t as sketchy as it had been in the 80’s, but there was just one restaurant there, a little place called Planet Thai. By the time I left, the place had expanded over an entire block, but to begin with it was just two tables, almost like a take-out place. Other than that, there were regular delis. Nothing else. After a few years, a Mexican place came. And then the boom happened.
I guess you could say that New York was my salvation. It was so fantastic to, in theory, be able to start all over again— even in reality. I mean, I could just decide to be someone else. It was such a sense of freedom, to just put some distance between myself and everything that was too close. And I thought there was a kind of generosity in New York, a kind of openness, you didn’t put people in boxes right away. Maybe that happened anyway with time, but that initial curiosity… I felt like I could rearrange things that had previously ruled my entire life.
I thought I had greater freedom to try things on a purely artistic level. And I was just one in the crowd, I could blend in. There was a kind of peace in that anonymity. Strangely enough— and I still feel this way— it didn’t feel that competitive.
Before you began with art, you felt like you needed to identify yourself as something—your mom was architect, your dad was an engineer, and so on. Now you were in New York, had a degree in art, and were working in a studio. Did you identify as an artist at that time? Is that what you were?
Absolutely. I identified with that very strongly. Since I have a tendency to align myself with the reigning structures, I soon realized that there was something called graduate school. That didn’t exactly exist in Europe. But then I began hearing about Yale, which everyone said was a really good school. And I started to realize that there was something more you could do. And I felt that it would be fun to know more people, to belong to some sort of context. If there was the opportunity for critical feedback, I needed it. And if I went back to school, I would be able to stay in the States for another two years. So I applied to Yale and got in. I was honestly ignorant about what a big deal that was. I knew it was a good school, but I didn’t fully realize how prestigious it was.
I found out that I was accepted and was so happy, but then I realized how much it would cost to go. And parents were expected to help out. I was just lying in bed one night thinking: I am twenty-nine years old, it is not okay for me to ask my parents for money, especially since they don’t have that money. I mean, they would have had to move out of their house! So I actually declined Yale’s offer. I called and told them I didn’t have the financial resources and that there was no way I would ask my parents for money. And then, somehow, the Financial Aid office found the money. In the end, I almost didn’t pay anything at all during those years.
I honestly didn’t have an agenda when I made that call to say I couldn’t go. I didn’t know that what I was doing was a common strategy [to get more financial support]. I think university degrees should be free, and if they aren’t, then the system should be more fair. I mean, I was just very lucky.
Tell me about your time at Yale.
Those were incredibly intense years. You worked in the studio around the clock. It absorbed all of your life, really it did. That was an exciting feeling. And it was very difficult— to suddenly be confronted with the fact that you can no longer close the door, that you are constantly being forced to answer for yourself, to respond to critique. I don’t think they deliberately tried to break you down, but there was definitely an idea that forceful questioning of what you had done would allow you to be born anew, more or less. It was tough. Many tears. I don’t really know what you retain, either. Sure, you write things down during a group critique, but there is still very little that you actually retain. As an insecure art student all you want is to hear something positive! I guess I got pretty thick-skinned, after that.
But was there a strong community among the students?
Well, that is what I had been hoping for, and I think it depends very much from year to year. But my year, there were a lot of closed doors, you felt a little threatened, like your fellow students were also judging you. I thought that was sad.
But I went to a summer program that had everything I had wished for. It was completely fantastic. Skowhegan.
Tell me about Skowhegan.
Over sixty artists together, day and night. You share a room with someone and live in a little cabin by a lake in Maine. And you have continuous conversations with the teachers or other visiting artists. Artists and students live together and socialize very intensively over those nine weeks.
Nine weeks. That is a long time!
Yes, a lot happens— in every way!
Any particular memory?
I painted a large part of a forest red, it took all summer.
Didn’t that end up being the cover image for the Skowhegan catalog that year?
Yes, it did.
What you seem to have been describing all along is a search for belonging. And there it was, suddenly.
Yes, absolutely. It was also so unconditional, somehow, and everyone really helped out, contributed: we are going to be living here for nine weeks, so let’s make the best of it. It was a very warm group, apparently one of the most lazy groups, the least intellectual. That’s what I’ve heard afterwards. [Laughs.] We were just undisciplined, partied, and had a wonderful time. It was exactly what I needed.
How old were you at the time?
Twenty-nine. You know…it is so strange. I think I felt like I was fifteen years old throughout all those searching years, until I was in my thirties I was completely immature. I had poor judgment, ended up in dangerous situation, was super naive, beyond naive, lent money to crack addicts… That is why it feels so strange to talk about this, to think back on how naive I was.
After your summer at Skowhegan, you returned to Yale. Did you have a new sense of confidence after that experience?
First of all, it was everyone’s dream to get to Skowhegan. Only two were accepted. So after I had been accepted, I had a feeling that there must be someone out there who saw me. Even if everyone else thought I was shit, there was something…
At Skowhegan, I was thinking a great deal about being Swedish and how the landscape there in Maine so much resembled the Swedish landscape. It felt so strange, like it was a memory but at the same time a distortion. And it made me think a lot about why we experience a place the way we do— culturally, geologically, weather-wise, based on past events. I had realized what I wanted to do. I went from working with fragmented body parts in a non-landscape to working with concrete landscapes. For many years, I had an image bank to return to. There was a kind of confidence in knowing at least what area I wanted to explore.
Looking at your work, that summer marks a huge shift. After that it was like you had found a language.
Yes, that is how it was. And after that, things started going well for me. I was awarded two fellowship opportunities and I had such a difficult time choosing. Either I went to the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown or I went for one year in Houston, Texas. I guess most people would go to Provincetown because it was more familiar, and it had suited me better because it was the kind of nature that I adored. But the Houston Fellowship, at the Museum of Fine Arts, was for a longer time, and it was just more different. I felt that I would otherwise never go to Texas.
A more daring choice.
Of all my years in the U.S., Texas made the strongest impression. Because it was so different. Houston, in its grotesque ugliness, seemed like a humid purgatory, but grew on me. As a city it has a liberating attitude of not being easily impressed by things, it retains its integrity and independence. After coming from the homey North East or Sweden to this expansive place….it was like my melancholy just went POOF! It didn’t exist anymore. The landscape of Texas was so vast and expansive, and amazingly fascinating to me.
We were six privileged people who somehow were given the opportunity to play at being artists. We had a paid-for studio at the museum, the people who organized the Venice Biennial would pass through, everyone would pass through who was going to Texas.
Where did you live?
Again, I lived for free! I was given a free apartment that someone had donated to the program. I was given it because I was a foreigner and therefore wasn’t allowed to work in the same way. And then I taught. That was how my teaching career began, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had that experience. It was invaluable if you look at the past ten years when teaching has really become the way I make my living.
You had institutional support through schools and fellowships during many years. But how did your career as an artist develop more concretely? Did you work with a gallery? Was your work shown? Could you make money on your art? When was the first time you sold something?
I remember the first time I sold something. One summer before I had started art school I was taking a painting course in Provence. I painted a painting that I thought was beautiful, depicting red poppies in a field. We had an exhibit on the last day of the course. There were two shops in the town, one sold Provencal fabrics. And they wanted to buy my painting! It cost 300 francs and I got them and it was completely incredible.
After that, I don’t really remember. I have always shown my work in cafes and things like that. Before I started graduate school, I was shown in a few group shows, one in Soho. Things like that.
My question, I guess, is based on some idea that selling is important. And maybe it isn’t. Is that how you seek validation in your identity as an artist, that you are able to sell? Or is exhibiting the big thing? What creates that feeling of forward momentum?
To exhibit, I think. To be a part of a context. To be asked.
You want to move forward. I guess it is natural to want to feel like you are developing. If nothing ever sold or if you never got any of the grants you were applying for, it would obviously affect how you feel about things and if that were the case, I don’t think you would get asked to show your work. But I have always had other jobs in order to support myself. I have not expected to be able to live on my art alone.
Has that ever been a goal, to be able to live completely on your art?
I have a very hard time looking ahead at all— either I’m terrified of the unknown and how things are going to turn out, or I live in the present. I would say both are probably true of me. The reason I move somewhere has always been predicated on being offered something there, and I have always thought that, whatever it was, it would be temporary. About one year, that is as much as I have been capable of thinking ahead before it gets too scary.
Now is the first time that I am actually in a more long-term position. That is also why I have never said: I am going to be any artist, no matter the cost. I have said: I want to do what I am doing now and I will find a way to do it for NOW and one year into the future.
Of course it feels reassuring to see that one thing leads to the next, when you look back. It is not that a certain decision is so important, but rather that every decision leads somewhere. That nothing is final and nothing is static.
At the same time, I don’t think a lot of thirty-five year-olds would want to be renting a room in someone’s apartment the way I did in both Boston and New York. So I think I’ve made a great deal of compromises and I guess I never imagined a life of ownership for myself. I owned a car that I bought for 1,000 dollars. I haven’t had that need to feel rooted. But I have had the need to feel like I can survive for a year at a time.
After your time in Houston, you taught in Boston and then at Bard College. But there was always that longing to return to Sweden. And now you are back. You have built your entire career abroad, what is your experience of being in Sweden?
There are very few possibilities to get financial and institutional support in the Unites States while in Sweden there are still resources so that many people can get work stipends for several years. There is project money you can apply for. That is a big difference.
But there’s another sense of immediacy in New York. Because either you don’t have any money and then you have to hustle, or else you have a career and then you still have to hustle. So it is a more leisurely climate here, but that can also provide you with more time for reflection.
And I also tend to think that New York can be quite provincial. The attitude is: New York is the world, everyone goes there. While when you are here [in Stockholm], you are reminded of the fact that you are on the periphery so you look beyond, out at the entire world, and that is exciting and new for me.
It’s funny, when you were in Houston, you painted your distinctive, arctic landscapes and now you are here, in cold Sweden, and you are going through a shift in what you are painting. The mountains are disappearing. Has your actual work process as well as what you are painting changed since you moved here?
Yes, I don’t long anymore. That longing was very abstract. But now I am here and while I once projected a longing for a place, I just don’t have that any more. That feeling is gone.
And now I have a child, which makes me work in a completely new way— much more fitfully, in short windows of time. Before, I often used to work for an entire day, completely forget time, become obsessed with solving something. And now I sort of have to build up to that. You can see that very concretely in my paintings: blocks and fragments are brought together, I am building things more with structure than with a continuous flow of time.
It is very, very clear to me that my art is a part of my life. That it is affected by outer and inner circumstances. They go hand in hand. That can be reassuring. I don’t have to force things, it usually halts along beside me— we are a team somehow. My life affects the expression my art takes.
If you look at your life— from renting a room in someone’s apartment at thirty-five and having the feeling of being completely alone, to now living in an apartment that you own, in a residential area, with your partner and daughter, and having a solid job with a five-year contract.
[Laughs.] It can be a little crazy, sometimes it feels a little claustrophobic. I thought a five-year plan would be a relief, but it is also a little scary. You can get the feeling that you’re already retired, or something.
You described your first forays in a studio as being driven by your frail psychological state, your depression, and that art became an outlet, meditative, maybe therapeutic. Now, when you are in such a different and more stable phase of your life, your actual work process must have changed.
I am not going to hate on that early process because it was necessary back then, but it is just so different from the way I work today. I guess it comes with time, by now I have developed confidence in the fact that this is what I do.
As a painter, I think time is in your favor. Experiences are only good, somehow. You become more confident in that you not only grow more skilled but more sure of yourself, inside, too. I have a kind of faith that, with time, I will find a solution. I have almost never abandoned a painting. I think it is incredibly irritating but also incredibly fun— to wrestle with a painting until I win! It is possible that the painting isn’t good, but it is complete for me. That is important for me, to reach a kind of solution. I think that is a huge difference. From, previously, being despondent: “This will never work!” To now, going home pissed off from the studio one day but knowing that I will and can go back.
Now you know that you will break through.
Exactly. And you get that knowledge through time and experience.
Any early triumph?
To be accepted to things you have applied for, that kind of YES! feeling. That has been incredibly important to me. Every time, it feels unreal.
You have a child now. How is that?
It is much bigger than I ever could have imagined, the transition is huge and it puts things in perspective. What did I do with all those years when I had time?
With all the maturity you have now, is there something you would tell Sigrid of that earlier time?
Things will get better with time! [Laughs.]
I would tell her to try to surround herself with a group or colleagues that she respects. There is so much focus on who get what. Well, what we know for a fact is that your own generation is who will be the ones deciding in the future, so it is important to create a community. Maybe it sounds hokey, but to make sure to surround yourself with people you work with rather than people you work for.
And stubbornness doesn’t hurt.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo of the artist by Mattias Olsson
Images courtesy of the artist, for more visit: www.sigridsandstrom.com