"I find that women and femme folx tend to have the strongest reactions to the images in a positive way. They hopefully can see themselves in the paintings I have made; the body shared is not their own, but they can identify with it personally. I often hear ‘thank you’ and just gratitude for feeling like large bodies are being shared with love and affection."
My first experience with Erin's Sandmark's artwork was when I installed one of her giant self-portraits at The Southern Theater in Minneapolis. I was volunteering with Altered Esthetics at the time. Erin's piece was part of a group show that we were curating in the lobbies of the theater. We placed Erin's painting in the upstairs lobby. We purposely hung it in a way that as people walked up the staircase and they made their way to the theater entrance they would be exposed to her self-portrait. I watched so many people engage with that painting, from children to older adults. People gravitated towards her image and presence.
Erin's art is usually large-scale and nude. The portraits are bold, memorable, and powerful. The work is an experience, inviting you to explore the agency of embracing one's body.
Erin Sandsmark is a Minneapolis based artist. Sandsmark received her Bachelors of Fine Art degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the spring of 2017, she received her Masters of Fine Art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Sandsmark has been the recipient of the Brown-Makenzie Arts Scholarship and the Sally-Spencer Scholarship. She has been exhibited at the Regis Center for Arts Quarter Gallery, West Gallery, the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, the MFA Whittier Gallery, MCAD MFA Gallery, Co Exhibitions Gallery, New Bohemian Gallery, Gallery 148, Red Garage Studio, Altered Esthetics, Artspace Jackson Flats, Studio 427, Griffin and Archer, and the Freeborn County Arts Initiative with her latest solo exhibition “Ourselves”.
Sandsmark is also the board of the Freeborn County Arts Initiative in Albert Lea, MN, has participated in Art-A-Whirl and the annual MCAD Art Sale. She is an art instructor with ArtiCulture, a non-profit providing art to the community through classes and public art projects, and she is a Continuing Education instructor with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
In this interview, Erin discusses audience responses to her art, goals she has for 2020, and her recent solo show in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She also talks a little bit about teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Enjoy getting to know Erin, an artist I admire for her strength, talent, and commitment to body positivity!
Jes: I first saw your work when I was volunteering with Altered Esthetics. We were exhibiting your paintings. I was blown away by the power and boldness I saw in your self-portraits. When and why did you start painting yourself?
Erin: I started to paint myself when I was 21 years old, in my senior year at the University of Minnesota in the BFA program. I had been in love with painting portraits for a long time, and had experimented with creating abstracted nude figures. But it took me realizing how much I needed to make a true nude self-portrait after I just felt like I was keeping things too safe and easy. I had to confront myself and my body. My sexuality, and all that comes with it. I was scared to expose myself in that way, but it changed my life to move in that direction. The classes I took at the same time in gender politics and the discussions we on feminine power really laid the groundwork for me to be able to create the paintings I do to this day.
I have heard you describe your art as unapologetic and confrontational. What about your art makes it so?
I think what makes my work confrontational is the scale I use. The viewer has to see a figure that’s larger than life, and it might cause discomfort. I want to envelop the viewer and make them feel a part of the flesh and the painting. If you step close enough, you really can’t see beyond the image. I want each painting to have a strong presence and power. My body is large, fat, and full of rolls. The large scale allows me to carve out a space for myself in a room. Instead of shrinking back, I share myself and the bodies of the other models I’ve been working with boldly. I aim to give them the space and power they deserve.
Who do you find most relates to your art and feels empowered by your images. What have those folks said about your art?
I find that women and femme folx tend to have the strongest reactions to the images in a positive way. They hopefully can see themselves in the paintings I have made; the body shared is not their own, but they can identify with it personally. I often hear ‘thank you’ and just gratitude for feeling like large bodies are being shared with love and affection.
I really wanted to see your show Ourselves. Can you tell me more about that show: how you landed that opportunity and the art you had on display? It expanded beyond self-portraits, right?
It was a really exciting show, and the beginning of a long-term project of really exploring bodies outside of my own experience. For a long time, I wanted to paint other subjects, but this show gave me the opportunity to really start that journey. The Freeborn County Arts Initiative is a small arts nonprofit and gallery out of Albert Lea, MN and the president Marla Klein reached out to me about showing my work there. Marla knows me through personal connections, but I was excited that the board agreed to show my paintings. Through planning the exhibition, I actually got involved in the organization itself and joined the board in January 2019. “Ourselves” was a way for me to finally make major changes in what I had been creating, and finding a new way to work using models. All of the women in the show are colleagues, friends, family, and people I admire. Their abilities and jobs were all over the spectrum, but that’s what made it so amazing to have them all in a space together. Each model had the choice to share their faces or not, so that varied in each of the paintings. My goal for each individual was to make their experience positive, and capture their genuine power and presence.
I also saw earlier this year you taught a summer course at MCAD called Gender, Sex, and Society through Drawing and Painting. Please tell me about how it went! Will you be teaching it again?
I am hoping to teach this course again in the summer! But we will see, Continuing Education at MCAD varies. However, the course was a complete success and it’s the kind of class I have always wanted to teach. I love discussing critical theory on gender, bodies, and how those things can relate to artistic practices, so it was amazing really being able to dig deep into these issues. We are hoping to offer it again, and I have so many ideas and readings I want to incorporate into a new session. The paintings and drawings created in response to the theories were amazing, and had so much depth. It felt like a community, not just a standard studio class.
The new year is upon us! Can you share some 2019 reflections you have on your art and practice? What are your goals for 2020?
This year has been extremely busy, but I have realized I have not spent enough time on my personal artistic practice. That is the major thing I am hoping to improve for 2020.
What are some challenges or barriers you face as an artist? What do you need?
I think all artists are facing difficulty in finding a work life balance that benefits them in their creative process. I am so fortunate to have a community that strongly supports what I’m doing, but it’s hard to balance all of what I want to accomplish and create. Being financially set and creatively fulfilled is a hard balance to find.
What do you love most about being an artist?
I love being able to connect with people through my work. There is nothing like creating something, and seeing someone respond to it. It's really empowering and a truly incredible feeling.
Where can we find you online?
My website erinsandsmark.com
my instagram @erinsandsmark
Or email me for any inquiries! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What artists do you admire?
Here are some artists I continually look up to:
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Thank you for answering my questions, Erin! Readers, please go Google these artists to learn more!
All images/art courtesy of the artist Erin Sandsmark.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.