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In the hands of certain people, like the Savannah, Georgia, artist Katherine Sandoz, paintbrushes help us see what’s right in front of us, even if it’s invisible.


Story by Harrison Scott Key | Photographs by Kaylinn Gilstrap


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Writer Harrison Scott Key with painter Katherine Sandoz.

 
 
 
 
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The first time I saw the work of Katherine Sandoz, I knew it was, like, art. Everybody was having wine and looking at the walls, for example. One canvas, in particular, was extraordinary, nearly spanning the length of the gallery. This was no painting: This was something to be admired from an overlook. How to describe it?

I mean, look: I know about art, okay? My home is filled with many picture books. All my life, I've been looking at things and knowing pretty much what they are. Cars. Clouds. Wardrobes. Sycamores. Tattoo parlors. Everywhere I look, I see things, and my brain says: We know what that is! That's a rotisserie chicken!

But art. You look at art, and your brain is like, “What?”

Not all art. Some art. Contemporary art. Is it a crime to want to know what you're looking at? The brain is designed to assemble color, mass, line, shape into meaning. What is the thing painted? How has the artist painted the thing? Why has the artist painted the thing in this way?

These are fair questions, but they are also difficult questions because when you go to an art opening, everybody seems to skip the first two questions entirely, and the answer you give to the third doesn't matter, so long as you add an art history or color theory reference for gravitas.

 
 
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So there I am at the Savannah College of Art & Design’s Pinnacle Gallery in Savannah, Georgia, on a warm spring night in 2014, staring at an entire wall of canvas by Katherine Sandoz and stuck on the simplest question of all: What did the painting look like? I saw shapes, colors. White-blue, green-yellow, black-something. Like a vista from an alien planet.

"It's so formal," said a woman next to me.

"The lines," said another.

"The palette," said the first, gesturing with her wine.

"What do you think?" said one of the arty people, turning to me.

"Aliens," I said.

The name of the show, “Tahoe Hybrids,” gave a clue. Had Sandoz gone to the mid-century vacationland and painted it? Some shapes in the painting did look like large smooth boulders, of which Tahoe likely had plenty.

"Dad, look!" said my middle child, 5 years old. "Free rocks!"

She held a large rock in both hands, heavy and smooth as a ballast stone and not unlike the shapes in the enormous painting. The bottom of the stone was painted in the same watery mossy blue of the alien landscape before me. My daughter, who collects small objects like a raccoon at an arts colony, was elated to have been given these magic rocks. I wondered what sort of artist had the audacity to give away party favors at an art opening.

 
 
 
 
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"Where are we going, again?" I asked the photographer.

"Vernonburg," he said, which, like everything in Savannah, is both closer to the shopping mall and closer to saltwater than it seems. We were scouting for a coffee-table book on porches and drove south through town, past all the Red Lobsters and car dealerships, and then bang-whiz we were in the country, at the home of the mysterious Katherine Sandoz.

That name. How do you even say it?

Sandoz. Spanish? Czech?

You don't just go putting a Z in there and not expect it to conjure some distant notion of the Habsburg Monarchy. The sand rhymes with wand, and don't pronounce the Z.

"Sahndoe."

"It's Swiss," Katherine explained on a porch attached to the front of a small farmhouse on a dry swale of pasture. Barns scattered about. I was taken immediately by the Arcadian-ness of it all, so strange for Savannah, where so many aspire to live in a great big white house on the water under a white gabled veranda with white furniture. There was very little white in the little house in Vernonburg, beside the skulls.

 
 
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Katherine Sandoz spends time with "Mona" (her nickname for Mother Nature) at a mostly feral camellia grove near her home in Vernonburg.

 
 

They were of deer, mostly. Antlers abounded, inside the house and out. Whitetail. At least one pair from what the Shawnee nation called wapiti, what Europeans called elk. Do I remember a fox or a bobcat on a shelf? On a wall, a ring-necked pheasant, splayed in imaginary flight. A fan of turkey feathers on another wall.

"All this belongs to Hunter Dan," Katherine said.

Hunter Dan? Sounds made up. You couldn't tell with this strange artist woman in the strange farmhouse outside of town.

"Who's Hunter Dan?" I said.

"They say we're married.”  

Around the house, more skulls and animal parts. So odd. So familiar.

"We have to be friends now," I said.

"Okay," Katherine said. We shook hands.

 
 
 
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Evidence of life and death abound in and around Katherine's home and studio.

 
 
 

I walked around, took notes, pretending to be a writer, which I was, barely. At 32, I'd been trying to write a novel for four years, with little success. I wrote for others but could write nothing for me. Who was I? I didn't know, yet.

On the wall in Katherine's clean, handsome, comically gothic home, I noted a tiny framed landscape of Lowcountry marsh, water, grass, saw palms, the lines of the flora pronounced like if Monet had drawn cartoons for Warner Bros. This was my first Katherine Sandoz painting to see up close. It's hard to say why I love this strange hybrid illustrated painting (painted illustration?) — it seems funny to me, warped and weird. You can see this same warping in “Study for a Century Plant.”

She was not painting marsh the way marsh seems to look when you drive by it. She was playfully obtuse about it. In one tiny painting, she makes you look at the saw palm and see it. They're everywhere down here. You stop noticing them after a while. Then you look at this tiny painting, and you're like, "That is a saw palm." That is one definition of an artist: a person who can help you see things, even invisible ones.

 
 
 
 
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She is ageless. She is a child. She is somebody's wife and mom. Two boys live with her. Three if you count Hunter Dan, who is a man and a former Syracuse linebacker and very tall and Nordic-seeming and no-nonsense, according to all reports, whereas Katherine seems to thrive on nonsense. She is less Manic Pixie Dream Girl and more like that girl's aunt who lives in the woods and speaks like Yoda if the Jedi Master had gone to Mt. Holyoke and studied French and international relations. Where is she from? Everywhere. Nowhere. Somewhere. New Hampshirewhere. Describe that state. Rocks? Snow? Libertarians? Vermont's bellicose cousin? People requesting you not tread on them? This is where she's from.

She's also from Kentucky. There's some South Carolina and Virginia and Massachusetts in there somewhere, a parent, a grandparent, hard to say. Oh, and Switzerland. Sometime during the administration of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, a whole platoon of Sandoz brothers immigrated from Basel.

"How many?" I asked Katherine, once.

"A bunch," she said. "And we multiply."

 
 
 
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They settled in Louisiana, Texas, Nebraska, New England, a Sandozian diaspora. Her parents studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, which is weird, to have two art-school parents. It would change you. It turned Katherine into many things. She is: mural painter, public art performer. People invite her to parties just to paint in front of the guests, which she does, and it's not just weird. It's utterly weird. She designs surfaces, makes dresses, draws pictures of you when you're not looking and mails them to you. She is an art creature. She graduated from Mt. Holyoke, and like so many debs after finishing school, signed up for the Army Reserves and was a Pentagon phone call away from strafing dunes in Operation Desert Storm.

She did costume design, then advertising. Classic Sandoz.

"Tell me your story," I said.

"Which one?" she said.

 
 
 
 
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There's an entire foundation dedicated to the tracking of Sandoz migration patterns. The Sandoz Family Foundation was begun by the son of the man who founded Sandoz, today one of the world's largest generic drug companies and now a subsidiary of Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical company in Basel, whence most Sandozes spring forth.

Once, in her 20s, Katherine worked for the foundation, tracking down descendants through family Bibles at local libraries across Louisiana. She submitted her work in French and made some illustrations for a book they produced, Les Sandoz, which declared the grandeur of the Sandoz seed for all human history to note and admire. The foundation invests broadly, ecumenically, in many sectors. They nurture the Swiss watchmaking tradition, as explained on their website, which almost sounds like Katherine talking: "There is something magical about the manufacture of time," the website says. "Producing the inanimate components and assembling them to create perpetual movement is like breathing life into lifeless material; it is the creation of a pulse that will never stop beating."

Edouard Marcel Sandoz (1881-1971) was an artist of some reputation in Europe, widely celebrated as an animalist, one of those creative descendants of Albrecht Dürer whose work focused on drawing subjects from the animal kingdom. Maurice Yves Sandoz (1892-1958), according to the foundation, "was a man of many dimensions." By training, he was a chemist, although he devoted himself to music and literature. "A perpetual traveler, he lived in Burier in Switzerland, in Rome, and in Naples, in New York and Lisbon, also spending time in North Africa, India, England, Brazil, and Mexico."

In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew evicted Katherine and her family from their home for a few months, and they lived in neighbors’ houses and cars and hotels and New Hampshire and West Texas and points between. This was when she conceived of “Travelers.”

 
 
 
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“(travelers) road at clydesdale,” 36" x 36", water-based media on canvas.

 
 
 

Everything in her work, it seems, is rooted in this rootlessness. Her series titles are instructive: “Travelers,” “October,” “Tahoe Hybrids,” “Bermuda,” “Clydesdale,” “Bermuda Studies,” “Flora,” “Color Fields,” “Land.” They are places in space or time or both. They are words you'd find on a map, mostly. The words themselves are a kind of map, of her.

"What's your six-word memoir?" I asked.

"Seeking a permanent state of France," she said.

 
 
 
 
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After we'd first met in 2008, things changed. I had another daughter. She had another son. I kept writing; she kept painting. I saw her work around town, galleries, this or that commission for SCAD. Her paintings reminded me of the ancient forms of things. Every shape in a Katherine Sandoz painting feels eternal. Let's talk about a picture. Let's say what we see. This one is an oasis, from the "travelers" series exhibited recently at Spalding Nix Fine Art in Atlanta.

 
 
 
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“(travelers) oasis,” 36" x 36", water-based media on canvas.

 
 

Now, what in the hell is this? Do you see an oasis here? The green, we can reason, represents flora of some kind. More trees here. But what of the blue and the yellow? I don't see blue and yellow trees in the world. And the khaki thing, what is that, a footpath? A road? It looks like what you might see from a deer stand in summer. What of the crimson at right?

"If you see warmth," Sandoz once told me, "there's probably something alive there."

So, that's a clue. Maybe a blooming Hawthorn, then? Who knows? (She does. Ask her.)

She sketches everything, all the time, everywhere. If you've ever seen Katherine at a party, there's probably a picture of you in one of those boxes.

Savannah's a small town, and after we first met, I started seeing her everywhere: lectures, gallery openings, exhibitions, parties, readings, at the YMCA pool with her boys. One does not typically see painters at panel discussions on magazine writing, but you have the feeling Katherine would attend a talk on Interstate driving conditions. All through the panel, I noticed Katherine taking notes. The next day, she emailed me a photo of these notes, which weren't notes at all, but an illustration of me looking bewildered, which I was, for much of the panel.

 
 
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In the early years of my friendship with Katherine, I could see her trying to understand things by drawing them, which was instructive to me, as a confused and bookless writer.

"The work is representational, yet swims the surface of abstract minimalism without diving in," says writer Bunny Byrne, of Katherine's painting. "The sketches are more recognizable, while the paintings strip away an element of orientation, inviting the viewer to tumble through the work."

Sometimes, looking at Katherine's paintings is like looking at the world through a rainwashed windshield at night. There's a prismatic effect. I mean, do you understand everything you see when you drive at night in the rain? Not really. You know what you need to know to negotiate the landscape. You might not know that the crimson represents an oasis, but she does. Do you need to know? Not really. Do you want to know? You could ask. Nobody said you couldn't.

"What's the red thing there?" I asked.

"Ants," she said.

 
 
 
 
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When you look at camellia, the mind explodes in cataleptic wonder: a flower! I see a flower! Of course, yes, a gorgeous pink camellia, which grows in abundance from Virginia to Texas and throughout Savannah, an old flowering shrub carried over here from Japan at some point in history, like the azalea, like so many beautiful things. A pilgrim flower.

 
 
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“(travelers) camellia,” 36" x 36", water-based media on canvas.

 
 
 

The most striking feature of this painting, a feature one finds in so much of Katherine's work, is that the image is, well, how do I say it? Pretty. Is it okay for a painting to be that? I remember when it wasn't okay. In graduate school, I learned from my painter friends that saying a work of art is pretty is like saying the ham has turned. (It is instructive to note all these painters now work in retail.)

Back then, I felt the same way about plays. I remember how, in my early 20s, I stood outside a production of Neil Simon's “Rumors” after the show and listened in horror as an older patron exclaimed, as she left the theater, "I thought it was adorable!" I knew that adorable was a great insult to a serious writer. I also knew that many writers whose work was described as adorable often lived in grand mansions on historic rivers. Those two facts are not unrelated.

Katherine's paintings please a part of the eye that desires beauty in the room. Lush, colorful, a spray of flowers from the garden, a party dress draped over a chair, a basket of fruit, the sorts of things painters once painted in abundance. Katherine still paints these things. You put a Katherine Sandoz painting in your living room, people say, "Pretty."

They might not know what they're looking at, but they like it. That's rare.

"If you think it's just a pretty picture with a flower, that's fine with me," she said.

But if you want to study it, to stare at it for an hour upside down and transverse, then you will be rewarded, is what she means.

Look at the lines of camellia. Look at the use of blues and greens. The node of dark green at the bottom right is the true color of camellia leaves, in my brain. At the top, though, that pallid, dirty blue-green is exactly what sunlight and pollen do to the dark waxy leaves of a camellia.

"Yes," my brain says. "Pollen-dusted leaves in the sunlight look precisely like this."

Which means, like a great metaphor, I am no longer looking at a painting of a camellia but in fact at the camellia itself. I am inside the painting, which is quite possibly where Katherine wants us.

 
 
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On a cold fall day last year, I visited Katherine in her studio, which exists in the dogtrot of a small barn out beyond the farmhouse where we'd first met years before. A scuttle of wind coming straight down from New Hampshire could fly right through her studio unfettered, all the way to the Yucatan.

"Why do you like painting outside?" I said.

"Meteorology," she said.

Where the huffing heads of horses and mules and cattle once jutted and nodded now rest works in progress. No more livestock on the property, these days, save the burros.

A few blank canvases, 36-inch squares all, stretched and waiting for paint, stacked on the floor. A few works-in-progress rested along the wall at various attitudes and heights. Also, on the wall, a clue to her process: photographs.

One photo, of her oldest son, 11, fishing along a small clear streambed under what looks like a slim fir. It looks like a small vista you might see in one of her paintings. The narrow trunk of the fir-like tree is naked and black and extends from the bottom to the top of the photograph. You could see that in a Sandoz painting. Another photo next to it with another clue: this one of a long heavy branch extending out and away from the lens and over a lake, the angle torqued a little, as though she's about to climb out onto the branch and jump in. No human figures. Next to the limb-lake photo, a handmade collage imitating the forms of the picture, using what appears to be magazine offal. She has deconstructed the original image into something weird and Jungian.

"I'm trying to see it," she said.

 
 
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What happens when you see a painting? Do you feel something? What to make of the folks who sit in the Rothko Chapel and break down weeping as they sit in front of brute fields of color?  

Maybe if you look for long enough, the painting will make you see things in you? Couldn't staring at a blank wall work just as well, then? Not long ago, I drove to Laney Contemporary across town and stared at “(October) Squash Blossoms” for an hour, to see if it worked. I hadn't seen a squash blossom since 20 years ago on my grandfather's farm, but half an hour with this 4-by-5-foot painting and I'm almost embarrassed to say I felt like a man looking at his life in a mirror.

"I'm always surprised when the work cues somebody emotionally," Katherine told me. "Pang-making is weird. Sometimes, work makes a pang. Pangs are all different."

The dripping effect, prominent throughout her work over the last few years, definitely makes a pang. What is that? The watery paint, listening to gravity? Weeping, raining, bleeding, water running down toward the earth? It's pang-filled.

 
 
 
 
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Can you understand a human being by looking at the distances their art has traveled, from before to now? I look at my old stories and wonder somebody didn't try to drown me. I see a young man, burning to know and become. I look at Katherine's work over the years and see something, too.

 
 
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“study for magnolia” (5.75" x 7", water-based media on panel, 2015); “magnolia” (24" x 24", water-based media on panel, 2015-2016).

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"How are these images different?" I asked my 7-year-old daughter, who sat on my lap and stared at the screen. "They're not," she said, then: "Wait. One has water on it.”

Nearly a decade ago, her work was recognizably impressionist, a kind of illustrated painting, as in “Lacoste Mist” (3" x 3", water-based media on birch, 2010), a three-inch square of a Provencal landscape that feels to the heart like a painted cel from a cartoon, like if Beatrix Potter drank mescal. Around the same time, though, Katherine was experimenting with big Fauvist gestures of color, as in “Raccoon Key” (4" x 5 5/8", acrylic on panel, 2009), where you can see the imprint of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, an early and ongoing influence. Somewhere, the mad-hatter illustrating and color-mad painting came together. I can see this marriage all through the “Travelers” series.

 
 
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“(travelers) sea island,” 36" x 36", water-based media on canvas.

 
 

What I think I see, when I look at her work over time, is a deconstruction and reconstitution of what the eye sees, a reducing of shapes and colors to their most essential. What does God see when he sees a magnolia? Maybe he sees the abstraction because it is more fundamental.

"One day, I'll be a minimalist," Katherine said, "if I'm lucky."

I don't know if I'll ever understand Katherine Sandoz. We are both different people than when we met 10 years ago. I am no longer confused and bookless, only confused, and her work is highly regarded and widely coveted, as is her brain. People call her work pretty. And they call mine adorable. I'm fine with it, as I'm sure Katherine is, because we have mortgages.

 
 
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Katherine Sandoz paints in a barn in Vernonburg, Georgia.

 
 

That cold afternoon last fall, we walked around the studio as our children played together in the pasture out beyond the studio, pretending to run from the burros. We stopped under a sycamore, its fat leaves all or mostly gone, some hanging on and shivering in the dusky air.  She looked up, and I looked up. The tree hummed with movement.

"Look," she said. "Look at the shapes."

I looked up into the branches and tried to see.

 
 

Katherine Sandoz is currently exhibiting at Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (through May 18, 2019), Spalding Nix Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia (through June 7, 2019), and Laney Contemporary in Savannah, Georgia (through June 18, 2019).
Harrison Scott Key is the author of Congratulations, Who Are You Again? (Harper Perennial) and The World's Largest Man (Harper), winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. He is the executive dean of SCAD in Savannah, Georgia, where he lives with his family.