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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sand Painting

As in many types of art, the line between painting and                                
                           sculpture sometimes gets blurred.                                    
My first encounter with sand art came when I was about ten years old. My dad worked for a sand and gravel company. He used to take me to work with him once or twice a year--father-son bonding, that sort of thing. I loved it. I got to play for an entire day in what seemed at the time like the biggest sandbox in the world. The place had a high pressure "garden" hose which allowed me to sculpt the sun-baked sand. I also delighted in creating designs in the sand using gravel of various sizes and colors. Okay, it wasn't exactly sand "painting" but it was fun anyhow. The incredible sand castle above with it's painted courtyards, greenery, and stream reminded me of some of my first artistic endeavors.

Jim Deveran's sand drawing utilizes a natural beach environment.
Sand artist Jim Deveran's creations (above) don't exactly fit the definition of sand painting any more than my childhood efforts. They lack other than natural colors. However, the ease of execution and the economies of scale more than make up for this loss. Colored sand is, for the most part, man made and expensive, especially when use on the scale which Deveran's art demands. Consider too, that virtually all his art is temporary (until the next high tide). Sand drawing (using a rake) would seem to be the way to go.
Sand painting behind glass.
During the 1960s, when so many new art forms were being "discovered," sand painting came to mean colored sand deftly poured into some sort of glass bottle, jar, or beaker so as to create an abstract design (usually horizontal layers) or, at a more difficult level, a scene similar to those seen below. For years we had sitting on a bookshelf a desert scene in a brandy snifter similar to the much more complex works seen below. I think it got spilled.
Abstract Expressionism?
Colored sand painting behind glass in later years took on sculptural elements. Scene painters, irked by the inherent limitations of such art, found it difficult to do much besides landscapes. They moved on to other, flatter means of making pictures, leaving the hobbyists to recycle oddly shaped bottles into layered creations of colored sand much like those at left. The result of this simplification brought such art to the realm of children as a virtually failure-proof project arts and crafts teachers adore (below).
Sand art for children.
Child's play.
Down through history, sand painting has more commonly and correctly been termed "dry" painting. Although various beaches around the world have been known for their colored sands--green, pink, black, white, even red--the vast majority of colored sand comes as the result of finely powdered pigments being intermixed with the silicon particles, staining them to the desired hues. The sand simply serves as a vehicle much like linseed oil or polymers. Such works on flat surfaces can be divided into fixed and unfixed dry painting, fixed meaning a form of fixative being used to make the work permanent and less fragile.
Tibetan Mandala Painting
Tibetan Monks--not child's play.
At least three major cultures embrace dry painting as part of their religious/artistic heritage--central Asian (Tibetan), Navajo (native American), and Japanese. The mandala (above) is unfixed, created over an extended period of time by specially trained religious zealots. Their floor painting style is a part of Tibetan Tantric Art tradition. The Tibetans call it dul-tson-kyil-khor, which literally means "mandala of colored powders." Millions of grains of sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks. Perhaps the strangest element in their art is not just that it is never intended to be preserved. Part of their ritual is that after days of determined hard work and perseverance, the same monks who work on these paintings have to destroy them.
Navajo Sand Painter
Home of the Bears, Navajo sand painting.
Navajo dry paintings are created by medicine men solely for healing purposes. Drawing from a tradition of between six-hundred and a thousand designs, the medicine man may use as many as thirty different designs in a single ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, the one being healed sits on the drawing as the medicine man continues his healing chant, using the sand painting to channel the healing power to the patient. Thus, like the art of the Tibetan monks, the Navajo sand paintings are, in the end, destroyed.
Bonseki artist at work
Mrs. Thatcher, Brian Pike, 1985
Beginning around the 15th century in Japan, Buddhist artists practiced the craft of bonseki by sprinkling dry colored sand and pebbles onto the surface of black lacquered trays. They used feathers as brushes to paint the sandy surface into landscapes and seascapes. Such tray pictures were used in religious ceremonies. Japanese Buddhism originally derived from East Central Asia sometime after the 8th century. Therefore these Japanese Buddhist sand paintings may share earlier historical roots with the more intricate brightly colored Buddhist sand mandalas. This would likely make those Buddhist sand paintings the earliest example of such art.
In England, portrait artist Brian Pike uses sand and dry, naturally occurring, oxidized, mineral-charged colored sands, perhaps with the addition of powdered charcoal. Sands are sprinkled through a sieve or 'drawn' with a paper funnel onto the various areas of the painting, and then blended with a feather 'brush' or gently blown into position with a drinking straw. At that point, the sands are permanently fixed to plywood which is used as a 'canvas'. Once dry, the sand painter continues to another portion of the painting. Minor adjustments are made before the work is given a final coat of varnish, which intensifies the depth of color while avoiding surface reflections.

Joe Mangrum sand painting in Union Square (Manhattan).
At first glance, New York artist, Joe Mangrum (above), appears to be drawing with chalk on the pavement as he creates his highly decorative work. In the tradition of the Tibetans and the Navajo, his work is also temporary, lasting only until the next downpour or the next perpetrator of art vandalism happens by. Joe is as much entertainer as artist as he "paints" with sand in public places, posing for photos and accepting tips, both artistic and monetary.

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