A version of this article first appeared in Women's Voices for Change
“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god-sullen, untamed and intractable. . . ”
—T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets
The artist Sandy Gellis is one of the pioneer women artists to utilize water, earth, air and light as her palette, investigating the indispensable primary elements of life by transforming the mysterious “unseen” to the germinating “seen.” This poetic process often involves collaborating with people from all over the world who contribute specimens and life stories to her projects adding the human element to the metallurgic mix. Chemistry between people and the chemistry among basic mineral elements become a level of scrutiny and experimental research that harvest the shock of the wondrous.
The lack of final control can be liberating. How can we capture time in a timeless universe? How can we monitor the minutiae of burgeoning growth where the artist becomes nature’s architect – raining water on collected soil at her discretion; gathering hair from friends for HAIR PORTRAITS placing the tufts /thatches of locks into individualized hand-blown glass bowls filled with water, bubbles adhering to the floating strands as we observe fusion and adulteration beginning. Decay and ripening are often conjoined. The ever-moving clock will astonish us with what might occur - that is the awe-inspiring mystery the apprehensive dread of “art” constructed out of the capriciousness of earth’s materials. Like life itself we cannot corral change.
|Hair Portrait - Grace|
|Hair Portrait - James|
Sandy Gellis was born in New York City in the 1940s, and like many other children growing up in the1950s, she spent hours exploring and traipsing the streets of this magical city, playing gritty urban sports on the concrete sidewalks of the Bronx—a mainstay for most kids raised during that period. Her apartment rooftop was her observatory where the seeds for examining rainfall, clouds and rivers were sowed. A determinedly independent woman, Gellis began to pursue an interest in art, starting at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and continuing at the School of Visual Arts. She eventually connected with Jack Sonenberg, an inspiring and encouraging teacher, who she affectionately calls her “art daddy.” She credits Sonenberg as the person who gave her the courage to step out into the world and call herself an artist.
|Oxidizing Holes - Photos: Patt Blue|
Living in a concrete jungle surrounded by cement did not preclude a curiosity about water that goes back to her childhood in the Bronx when she would have nightmarish dreams of tidal waves engulfing her being, both terrifying and seductive. Ironically she never learned to swim – she can float – she says laughingly. Her very first outdoor public art installation sited at ON THE BEACH – BATTERY PARK, 1978 sponsored by Creative Time was titled OXIDIZING HOLES – SITE I. Holes were dug deep into the sand at the landfill and were coated with iron oxide powder. Clear plexiglass sheets sat atop welded iron frames covering the voids allowing for the cycle of condensation and evaporation to occur and function as markers defining the space. Fortunately her well-thought out plans went askew, as often happens when dealing with “Mother Nature,” and the power of the tides caused the holes to fill up and disappear (like her ever-recurring dream) causing Sandy to physically have to cope with the changing structures, frequently moving the markers and digging new holes making the project visually and psychologically more eloquent and expressive. Wrestling with this task forged a powerful epiphany strengthening her view of the water to the point that she often makes pilgrimages to rivers and oceans - like a wave washing over her – to feel at peace.
|Sandy in Nepal - Photo: Michelle Stuart|
A trip to Nepal, while standing on a bridge overlooking a fairly dry river basin containing a trickle of water from the Himalayas, which in the Spring becomes a racing torrent of water, was “life changing” in its revelation of a microcosm of life’s commonplace and deeply significant social observances.
“While traveling in Nepal in the 1980’s my awareness of rivers as a source of all life came into my consciousness. The river is a place where things happen: birth, death and cremation, sending ashes on in ritual, washing, bathing, feeding animals, digging up sand as mortar in building houses, a place to play and a place to wander...I was horrified and stimulated, sowing the seeds of a lifelong study…”
Sandy in Nepal - Photo: Michelle Stuart
|River Project - Arno|
|Hudson River in May|
Despite being a distance from her studio Sandy Gellis has a unique aesthetic relationship with the Hudson River. It is a place where she often walks, carrying a bucket on a rope, which she imbeds into the water, and returns home to use in her artwork, mixing the river water (and whatever sludge remains,) with basic metals such as copper, bronze, cadmiums and iron powder, etc. The microscopic elements that we cannot see – the abundant evanescent organisms that swarm and multiply and are constantly flitting around us – are exposed over time, so we too can partake in the secret journey of living.
|Hudson River Incubaton|
|Detail: Hudson River Installation|
HUDSON RIVER INCUBATION – a gallery installation involving gestation and ripening, came out of her insatiable curiosity about what was pullulating in the river, and hoping that the resulting formations could be made visible. Sandy found a private dock along Lower Manhattan’s Hudson River, and got permission from the proprietor to drop into the river several clear snakelike tubes stuffed with cotton (acting like a petri dish)- one end nailed to the dock and the other end placed under the water for a period of two months. Once she removed the tubes from the water, they were sealed with wax and placed on the floor of the gallery. The artist placed lights slightly above the winding, circular tubes creating a constant source of heat so things nourished and propagated. But the work had a life of its own – growing very quickly and seemingly out-or-control, and Sandy had a visceral insight into both the beauty and chaos of natural phenomena.
|Spring In The Northern Hemisphere|
In the spring of 1987, Gellis in her desire to perceptibly capture atmospheric occurrences mailed twelve brass plates coated with water soluble ground to twelve individuals living at various locations above the equator with instructions that the plates be altered by the seasonal precipitation, and returned by early summer. The results became SPRING IN THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE, an etching project. She then collaborated with Master Printers, who executed her wild and chimerical visions creating prints that are exquisitely elegant and subtly washed with color.
|Mapping Thermals - Photo: Terry Sanders|
It is not only the rivers that Sandy explores but she also looks up to the skies. I asked about photographs of soaring turkey vultures, and am told that these birds depend on the rising pockets of sun-heated air (thermals) to effortlessly drift in flight, as they do not flap their wings. Sandy has spent many hypnotic hours regarding them with awe and admiration, tracing their patterns in the sky on etching plates - like automatic drawing – not looking down - her hand never leaves the plates, resulting in abstract diagrams of their gliding movements, which became the MAPPING THERMALS series made up of 12 intaglio, digital images with the actual plates adhered to the work.
|Turkey Vultures in Flight|
Visiting the loft I am stunned by the “cabinet of curiosities” I see on the walls, tables and floor. Glass cylinders of all sizes, fossil fragments, feathers, bowls of hair, pine needles, jars of collected rainfall, wires, colored pigments, and other materials that are a mystery to the uninitiated, but to Sandy Gellis they are the alchemy with which she conjures her art. One might mistake some of the images we see in her photographs, prints, and books for the cosmos, but I realized that everything was interconnected. Our interior and exterior perspectives are aligned - time and space in Sandy's art range from the deepest oceans to the stars.