Sarah Sandman: The Human Scrabble Artist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because people are still more interesting than your screens. For now.
By Meghan Walsh
It’s not even 8 in the morning, and Sarah Sandman is in prime storytelling mode. She’s telling me over Skype about the time she sewed a 31-person Baja train for her friend’s 31st birthday. She’d worked on it for 24 straight hours. But when partygoers tried to slide their heads into the meandering contraption of Mexican blankets, it didn’t exactly work as planned. The finished “train” was a tangled mob of ponchos and errant limbs — torso-less arms and legs flailing helplessly in the air.
Or maybe it worked exactly as she planned.
This artist has a big idea — “magical togetherness.” She’s referring, she says, to the feeling of connection strangers or friends have when they come together in unexpected ways. As an artist, community organizer and teacher, Sandman makes work that facilitates human connection, for better or worse. It’s arguable that this artist has the DNA of a social scientist. “I’m interested in how design, objects and experience can build a sense of connectedness,” says the flannel-wearing St. Louis native.
If little-known outside art and social-justice circles, in those worlds she is a force. In 2009 Sandman helped launch FEAST, a multiyear community-driven arts fundraiser in Brooklyn; her work has been exhibited at the Wassaic Project, a prominent New York art collaborative where Sandman has twice been a resident, as well as at the 2010 Open Engagement Conference in Portland, an international conference that supports socially engaged art; and last month her design studio, Public Displays of Affection, partnered with Airbnb to create a miniature golf course at the Brooklyn Half Marathon pre-race event, with each hole inspired by a different Brooklyn neighborhood. The 2015 TED fellow is now working on a multiyear project that examines the relationship between the Appalachian Trail and the Schaghticoke Native American reservation that it intersects.
The 35-year-old first got noticed in the summer of 2008, when after finishing grad school she, in typical spur-of-the-moment fashion, decided to ride her bike across the continent. At each location, she’d hold events at bars or cafes where local artists would bring a piece and exchange it, no money involved, creating a project ultimately known as the Gift Cycle. Sandman’s claim is that messages are more powerful when they’re physically transported, rather than being simply broadcast over Twitter. The trip was the culmination of a multiyear exploration into what it means to do socially aware visual design — and the start of her rise to notoriety.
An excerpt from Sarah Sandman’s 2015 TED Talk
“As an artist and designer, I’m not interested in expressing my individual, internal battles. I’m interested in extracting a collective voice. In my practice, I look beyond just making cool-looking posters and websites to designing new ways to bring people together.”
A graphic designer’s typical postgraduation trajectory leads to corporate campaigns that always seem to somehow advertise high-fructose corn syrup. That’s exactly what Sandman, who now teaches at a community college in the South Bronx, did for several years. Until, while working in New York City on a sustainability project for a major brand, she had a realization: Advertising pretty recycled things won’t persuade people to make real changes. “It was still all about a product being the way we are going to change things in the world,” she says. For any kind of sustainability movement to stick, she determined, it had to start with community ownership. And human relationships.
At a regular gathering of artists in Brooklyn, where she now lives, everyone gets a necklace with a letter dangling from it. You might know this game as Words With Friends. But players in Sandman’s version — Human Scrabble — have to rely on other people. “In some way, she’s trying to remind us what it’s like to really share something with somebody in the same space,” says Jill Peterson, Sandman’s creative collaborator at Public Displays of Affection, a design lab they started in February.
Sandman’s type of work, formally called social practice, is a fusion of art, design, performance and community organizing. While it’s been documented for at least the past 100 years, only recently has it gained legitimacy, with roughly a dozen masters in social arts programs taking shape in the past decade. And in New York City, mixing art and activism is as ubiquitous as the dollar slice. For 15 years, Critical Mass has held a monthly bike ride that uses art and pedal power to promote community and a car-free world. There’s bleach-blond anti-consumerist street preacher Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir. ACT UP’s infamous pink triangle and the slogan “Silence = Death” debuted in New York in 1987.
But don’t expect fine art to reliably acknowledge social practice. “The question always comes down to: How do you define art?” says Noah Simblist, an art professor at Southern Methodist University. Even its cheerleaders admit this type of work is hard to pull off. You might ace the logistic hurdle of bringing people together but bomb on the aesthetics front. Or you might get a bunch of kickass artists who don’t have a clue about working the sociological angle. Sandman, however, has “found a way to straddle all of these worlds,” says Eve Biddle, co-founder of the Wassaic Project.
Sandman’s biggest challenge is balance. As her dad, John Sandman, says: “Once she gets into a project, she becomes totally absorbed by it. That’s all she can see.” Diagnosed bipolar in her mid-20s, she has made much of her acclaimed work during manic episodes. Her parents would wake up to find their teenage daughter had been up all night working on a 7-foot-long cake chronicling the history of the U.S. There’s an uncanny parallel here between Sandman’s struggle and that of social-justice movements: Bipolar by nature, they tend to vacillate between full-throttle and burnout.
In her manic states, Sandman says there is a firing of ideas, her brain jumping from one to another. Merging those visions is when something “interesting” happens. But last April, it went from interesting to scary: She’d been awake for four days and had a psychotic breakdown in LaGuardia Airport. She’s spent the past year trying to find the right combination of medication and therapy, so that she’s not dulled but also not out of control. And it’s actually brought a depth to her work that was lacking. She is asking an age-old artistic question: “How can I catch that idea at that specific time without going over the edge?”
That’s what magical togetherness is — a perfect collision of forces. Take that 31st birthday party and the failed poncho train. Eventually the birthday boy freed his friends from that poly-cotton straitjacket with a pair of scissors. What a gift.