“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

 

These treasured opening lines from the poem “The Dry Salvages” by T. S. Eliot convey the quintessence of Sandy Gellis’s art. Gellis (www.sandygellis.com) is one of the pioneer women artists to utilize water, earth, air, and light as her palette. She investigates 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 and add a human element to the metallurgic mix. For Gellis, the chemistry between people and basic mineral elements becomes a level of scrutiny and experimental research that harvests the shock of the wondrous.

The Artist Sandy Gellis. Photo by Grace Graupe-Pillard.The artist Sandy Gellis. (Photo by Grace Graupe-Pillard)

Sandy Gellis was born in New York City in the 1940s, and like many other children growing up in the 1950s, 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. Living in a concrete jungle surrounded by cement did not preclude a curiosity about water. Neither did the nightmarish dreams of tidal waves engulfing her that she had as a child growing up in the Bronx. She found this both terrifying and seductive. Ironically, she never learned to swim. “I can float,” she says laughingly when asked  if she could “tread” water.

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 whom 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.

EPSON scanner image“OXIDIZING HOLES – SITE I” by Sandy Gellis. (Photo by Patt Blue)

Her very first outdoor public art installation “OXIDIZING HOLES – SITE I,” in 1978, did not turn out as she expected, but it turned out to be a lesson she needed. It was located at Battery Park and sponsored by Creative Time. Holes were dug deep into the sand at the landfill (when Battery Park was a 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 have to cope physically with the changing structures, frequently moving the markers and digging new holes, and making the project visually and psychologically more eloquent and expressive. Wrestling with this task forged a powerful epiphany that strengthened her view of water.

Despite the river’s being a bit of a distance from her studio in New York City’s Noho neighborhood, Gellis has a unique aesthetic relationship with the Hudson. It is a place where she often walks, carrying a bucket on a rope; she embeds it into the water, and returns home to use it 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. As Gellis says:

I love the Hudson River . . . finding it nourishing and calming, making me feel linked to something larger. It has been my art-laboratory for more than 30 years. I feel that rivers are the earth’s veins; each has its own character imprinted by its natural surroundings and those who occupy them . . .

1.Hudson River IncubationHUDSON RIVER INCUBATION Installation. (Courtesy of Sandy Gellis)

The HUDSON RIVER INCUBATION, a gallery installation involving gestation and ripening, came out of Gellis’s insatiable curiosity about what was pullulating in the river. She hoped 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 (which acted like a petri dish). One end was 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-of-control. From this, Sandy had a visceral insight into both the beauty and chaos of natural phenomena. (Click here to watch a video on the artist’s process behind a similar project, the San Antonia River Project, 2013.)

Sandy Gellis Godavari Nepal Photo credit Michelle StuartSandy Gellis in Godavari, Nepal. (Photo by Michelle Stuart)

These collective experiences throughout the years have inspired her to make pilgrimages to rivers and oceans to feel at peace. A trip to Nepal in 1984 divulged a microcosm of life’s commonplace and deeply significant social observances. She says of traveling in Nepal in the 1980s: 

My awareness of rivers as a source of all life came into my consciousness. The river is a place where all 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 Gellis is exhibiting in WOMEN CHOOSE WOMEN AGAIN at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, NJ—through April 13 2014. She will also be exhibiting in WOMEN AND PRINT EXHIBITION AT SCRIPPS COLLEGE, Claremont, California, August 31October 19, 2014.

 

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