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Sandi Snead - Southwestern Surrealism
by Sydney Francis

I never cease to be amazed at how an artist can capture the depth of the human soul in a single image. It is a common cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. In Sandi Snead’s case, however, a thousand words cannot necessarily describe the complex emotional and spiritual textures delicately woven together in her pencil drawings and oil paintings.

At the beginning of our interview, I took up Snead’s portfolio to get an idea about how to address her work. My initial impression of the first image in the portfolio, Looking In, was that it was a muted photograph. But then I realized that it was a very detailed black and white pencil drawing. The execution of Looking In is so exact that it takes the viewer a minute to process that the content of the work is surrealistic.

Struggling to find the words to talk about her work, I asked Snead what she felt was invested in the drawing. She said that all her pencil drawings are about this abandoned mission she discovered in Northern New Mexico. Upon entering the mission a flood of feelings and psychic impressions overwhelmed her. She sensed a great sadness and grief, like that of many people dying.

My second realization about Looking In was that I was being observed by the many tiny faces in the walls. Subconsciously I felt the presence of spirits immediately, but then I began to consciously take note of the each and every individual face in the mission walls. And that is when I began to acknowledge the haunting spiritual narrative that is being told in these mission drawings.

In addition to presence of the faces, a surrealistic drama is taking place. A Christ-like figure stands above the crowd, holding some sort of sphere. A floating bottle dropper is baptizing him. A mysterious man stands behind him and peers over his shoulder. Bystanders below look away toward something else happening outside of the scene. Another man peeks through the window at the activity within. And a small dancing figure in the same window strikes an ethereal pose like bird in flight.
Surrealism was a political concept postulated by artist and theorist André Breton between World War I and World War II. The point of surrealist art was to reach beyond the ability of formalist art in order to transform the social consciousness by stimulating the unconscious through the fantastic juxtaposition of realistically detailed images. During this inter-war period, many modern European artists, including the surrealists, were seeking to express the stark spiritual reality around them.
Snead’s drawings can be correctly classified as surrealistic. Through realistic rendering she creates a haunting picture of spiritual life that is disturbingly vacant of human warmth, but very rich in psychological content and mysticism.

The chilling presence evoked in her drawings could partly be a result of the medium she engages. The highly detailed black and white images clearly represent the starkness and melancholy of the abandoned mission. Snead works in a unique drawing style, layering parallel pencil layers from light to dark at a 45º angle, using a hard pencil. There is no crosshatching for shadow and texture, but rather the texture is created by the repetition of the pencil strokes. For a drawing like Looking In, 30" x 38", Snead estimates about one hundred hours of drawing time.

Snead has been painting and drawing since she was a young child. She showed me one of her drawings and one painting she had done at around 14 years of age. Her ability to create real texture and detail with photographic precision was already developed. Because of her very obvious artistic talent, she won a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where she studied to become an illustrator. She worked as an illustrator for a few years at the well-known firm of William Cook. However, working at the drawing board sixty hours per week, she quickly realized that there was more to creating her art than merely the execution of realistic images.

Snead pointed out to me that she has been dancing for over 25 years. The action in her drawings and paintings is that of Martha Graham style modern dance movement. It is her Modern Dance education, rather than her art school background, that has really informed and influenced her work.

Returning to the images with the knowledge of her dance background, one begins to sense the kinetic interpretation of the space. The sharp and graceful poses of the figures express in dance language the human emotions of the work. For example in Maten Me the foremost figure is holding a pose that frames the intensity, sadness and introspection of the overall drawing. The second figure, in the middle, acts out the deep pain of physicalized grief or torture. This second figure actually has face make-up on like that of a stage performer. The third figure in the lower right hand corner silently listens and observes in the scene. The viewer expects her to eventually emerge from the recess she.

Also in Untitled the drama of the image is revealed in the dance movement. In the distance a group of figures strike the quintessential Martha Graham pose, which happens to echo the repetitive quality of the arched windows. The dance movement also psychologically symbolizes the ghostly quality of the work, as spirits rising.
Snead continues to explore complex emotional narratives and stylized dramatic movement in her oil paintings. In contrast to her drawings, her oil paintings are alive with vibrant, complimentary colors and sensually smooth textures. Using fewer details and a simpler composition than in her pencil drawings, The Friendship shows her ability to create an equally intricate story in oil. The woman in the foreground appears to be looking down at the rose in her hand, but she seems to be thinking about something else. The figure on the horizon is frozen as it reaches out to the woman walking away. There is a tangible psychic distance between the two, mirroring the literal distance portrayed in the picture. The shadow expresses the dominant action in the painting; it appears to move and to change with the blowing breeze. Ironically, the shadow signifies the life in the painting.

In 1987 Snead came to the Canyon country for the first time from Florida. She fell in love with the place and knew she had to live here. She was compelled artistically to focus her art on this area of the Southwest, which she knew did not appeal to the average Floridian’s taste in art. From 1990 onward she made annual trips to Moab. In 1998 she purchased a piece of land in La Sal and began building her home from nothing, while living in a tent. She has been working on a new series of oil paintings representing local rock formations. She plans to show her recent work about the local area in 2002.

Snead’s current work using local rock formations is a synthesis of the haunting surrealism found in her mission drawings with the vibrant and stark drama represented in her oil paintings. Snead describes it best as somewhere between Dali and Georgia O’Keefe. Her mural Rock Talk on the wall out side of the Marc II Gallery is a simplified and acrylic version of an oil painting concentrating on the Moab environment. In the rock series, she continues to explore the use of faces, which maintain the texture and spirituality of the work shown here.

Snead will be the featured artist at the Red Rock Bakery in December as a part of the Moab Art Walk on December 8th from 6-9 p.m. She also has a mural on the outside south wall of Marc II Gallery a.k.a. Ruby’s.

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