Lisa Sanditz is an American painter whose work has been exhibited in countless group and solo shows around the United States and Europe. She was recently featured in “Nine Walls,” curated by Isaac Mizrahi at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York (2009). Her latest solo exhibits include “Underwear City,” at the Rodolphe Janssen Gallery in Brussels, Belgium (2008), and “Sock City” at the CRG Gallery in New York (2006), the catalogue for which features an essay by Jonathan Franzen. Sanditz’s work is currently on display in a group show entitled “Big Picture,” at the Priska Juschka Gallery in New York.
Sanditz holds a B.A. from Macalester College, a M.F.A. from the Pratt Institute, and was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow. She currently teaches at Bard College and has a solo show coming up at ACME Gallery in Los Angeles in November, 2010.
In 2005, a 64-foot-tall billboard of her painting “Tie Dye in the Wilderness” was erected in lower Manhattan.
When did you decide to pursue art as a career?
I was the kind of kid who was always drawing. My parents tell me that when I was eighteen months old, I drew on all of the walls in the house. I guess I always desired a career as an artist, but I didn’t always think it was a possibility. I grew up in the Midwest, and I just knew that fiscally it was not possible to be an artist. But there was still a sliver of possibility in my mind, because I wanted it so. I remember in college and after college, people would always ask: “What’s your back-up plan?” And then someone a few years ago said, “There is no back-up plan.” And I realized that was the case. There was no back-up plan. I just wanted to do it and I didn’t really think about what the alternative would be.
When people asked you what your back-up plan was, what did you answer?
I probably just made something up. Like, “advertising.” Especially coming out of high school in the eighties and nineties, everyone was saying: “you have to do computer graphics!” So I would probably say “computer graphics,” even though that’s like the last thing I would want to do! But that was the thing to say.
How did your parents feel about your decision to pursue art?
Now they’re fine with it because it worked out. Back then, I think they thought I would marry someone who would be fiscally stable and I would maybe have some sort of job and maybe make some sort of art. We talk about that sometimes now. If I had been a boy, if they had a son who only wanted to be an artist, they would’ve been like, “I don’t know about that.” I never thought that way, though. I always wanted to take care of myself. I was a weird combination: I wanted to take care of myself but then I also wanted to do something where that seemed impossible!
I have a sister, who is a screenwriter in L.A.
My parents live in St. Louis. I think they wonder: “What did we do right and wrong?”
You took four years between graduating college and going to the Pratt Institute for your Master of Fine Arts. What did you do to support yourself during those years?
I moved out to San Francisco and had some crappy jobs, one filing asbestos insurance claims. I was part of a big machine, doing paperwork, having to wear office clothes when I didn’t have them. I had two outfits and alternated every other day to have an “office outfit.” But it paid well for being out of college—15 or 20 dollars an hour. I was always trying to make enough money so that I could have time in the studio. I also worked with high school students in a college prep program. That was some secretary work but I also started an outdoor art component to the program— mural painting. I was very into mural painting. I did that more than I worked in my studio during that time.
So you had a studio?
I moved out to San Fran with a friend and we got a giant loft immediately to have as a work and living space. It was kind of fun and crazy to live in Oakland in a giant loft space with a rope swing in the middle of it. It was in a complicated neighborhood, so it was affordable, but it still cost way more than we had thought we would spend. It was something like 800 dollars a month for the two of us. Now that seems like nothing.
Someone told me before I graduated college: you have to get a studio. And I do feel that‘s crucial – to financially prioritize that. Then you’re a little beholden to it, too. If you’re paying for a studio, you’re going to use it. So, I’ve always had a studio— even though most of them have been makeshift places where I was also living.
With an office job, how did you find time to work in your studio?
It’s called being young! I had a lot of energy. I would get up early, bike to work, bike home, try to work the early shift so that I would get home by four and then work in the studio long into the night. Since I had just moved there, I didn’t really have any friends. So I didn’t have a lot of distractions in the beginning.
What were you work habits like at the time?
I mostly worked at night. I worked on a wall in the middle of that huge room that we shared. It was me, my roommate, our boyfriends, her gigantic dog… The dog was an enormous Husky-wolf-Greyhound mix. Once, I had a couple of paintings I was working on up on the wall and one leaning against the wall on the floor. The dog came over and peed on it. I wanted to be so mad, but then I was like: “This is so great. I’m mark-making, you’re mark-making…we’re in this together!”
Were you showing your work at the time?
After I moved out of that huge loft with the dog I lived in other shared places, with other artists. We would have big, thematic parties, put work up and have people over. I would give away work and sell some to friends. I was in a couple of smaller shows. But it was difficult at that time in San Francisco. The scene was really dominated by the art institutions. Either you went to the Art Institute or the California College of Art, and if you didn’t do that, people weren’t that interested in you. That is at least how it felt to me at the time.
Did that motivate you to go to art school?
Sure. I was attracted to the idea of attaching myself to something around which I could build relationships. And, at the time, I was working in my studio and with the mural projects, but I was basically a secretary at work. I was making fine money but not sustainably. I just wanted to immerse myself more, to really devote myself to the work. The argument can certainly be made that art school is too expensive. For 100,000 dollars or whatever it costs today, you can just go get an apartment and a studio in New York and see what happens! But I wanted more of a structure.
So you moved to NYC to go to Pratt. What was it like being a young artist in New York at that time?
I was in New York for the second coming of the art Mayflower, if you will. There was so much happening in the early 2000’s. I happened to show up at the same time that the market was really booming and people were buying art. There was a lot of interest out there. That was timing luck, for sure. Because now it is different. I have students who are graduating and I don’t really know what to tell them.
During school, I lived with a roommate. My family was able to help me out with rent during those two years, which was an amazing opportunity. After that, I scraped by. When I was in school, I worked at the gallery on campus. And then I worked at a gallery downtown. I was the desk girl. I just sat there. It was definitely a lean money situation. Then I got a job making props for the TV show Blues Clues. That was a good deal. I was paid pretty well and I arranged it so I didn’t have to work full time. I did that for a few years. Then, the same week that I got unexpectedly laid off from that job, I had my first show in New York, and it did well. If I hadn’t lost my job I would’ve been too scared to quit it. As it was, I got some unemployment from my job and started working full time on my art.
How did you land that first important show?
I submitted work to open calls. There are many kinds of open calls, and I recommend young artists do this still. You send slides, or for some of them you actually drop off work to the gallery. I got into some of those. At the time, Christies or Sotheby’s organized an initiative to create relationships between young collectors and artists. They would have these big parties. I went to one of those and met a Venezuelan couple there. They were incredible and we had such a good time. He ended up having a gallery in his apartment on 12th street, near NYU. I had a show there.
Then, I shared a studio in Tribeca, on White Street, with four artists. One of them was my boyfriend who is now my husband. In that shared studio, the four of us would swap our work in and out. Whoever was having a studio visit would put their work up and the rest of us would stack ours on the floor. Once, my boyfriend had a gallerist visiting the studio from Brussels. So this gallerist, Rodolphe Janssen, saw my paintings in a pile and looked at them. He thought they were interesting, so he called CRG, which is a gallery here in New York who I’ve shown with ever since.
The whole idea of sharing a space with other artists is great because of the reciprocity that happens. Say someone comes in who is curating a show around a particular theme. Then you say, “My studio mate, who you may not know, is also doing work along that theme…” All of us help each other get the work more visibility.
Since that show, you have been devoting yourself to your art full time. How did you make that leap?
At first, I thought it was going to be so exciting. But then, after a week of not having a job and just being in the studio all day, it was a little terrifying. It is still a little terrifying. Endless hours of generating content and motivating and making work. Now that time doesn’t look as daunting as it used to look, it has gotten more precious. It’s a stressful luxury.
Do you worry about how your work will be received?
Before I showed the last project I did, when I made paintings of industrial single industry cities in China, I was really nervous about how it was going to be received. Because it was such a big subject area to deal with. Being an American artist making art about a foreign country, having that country be China, dealing with industrial economics, and the environment, and things that are changing…I was really scared. I thought: it is either going to be a firing squad or people are going to like it. I had no idea. It was received really well. Then I breathed out a little.
Do you still feel a lot of self-doubt?
It never stops! Maybe that’s when you know you’re an artist, because you experience self doubt every second.
Have you ever felt like giving up?
I never wanted to give art up, but the self-doubt and the self-criticism are relentless. I don’t think I am unique in that as a person who is always generating content and trying to be critical with your own work and with the world at large when both those things are constantly changing. I mean, I feel good about the work this week. But if you asked me last week it would have been different! The fortitude has to be stronger than the self-doubt, ultimately.
What advice would you offer young artists starting out?
Getting a studio is really important, especially if you can share it with other people. And always prioritizing studio time. Having a critique group is also very important. And expanding your critique group beyond just the people you know. And you can contact people too. I’ve contacted artists I don’t know personally through the Internet and asked to meet up with them. Most artists will respond to some kind of dialogue. Maybe not everyone you contact is willing to meet you, but if there is a real connection between your work and theirs, if it is a genuine contact you are reaching out for, they may very well do it.
Also, I would advise young people to apply to shows. And to have your own shows. Take initiative. There seems to be a lot of different kinds of galleries now. Having people into your apartment space as a gallery, inviting friends, seems to work as a way of building dialogue and getting to know other people. I think very few people who wait around will have things happen for them.
Images: “Ice Festival” and “Tower of Babble” by Lisa Sanditz
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
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