Fine Art

Grace Visits: Artist Sandra Payne


“I fall into a world that I am pulled into; a world of depth, a world of shine.” — Sandra Payne


In an East Village walk-up situated in a neighborhood, which despite gentrification still has an edge of desperation, I followed the artist Sandra Payne to her studio, pulling myself by the railings, up five flights of stairs, unprepared for what I would encounter when we arrived breathless at our destination. When Payne opened the door, radiant objects flooded the room with a veiled light that was both ethereal and unearthly. I have never experienced an apartment where every inch of space was conceived as a beautifully composed art installation. It was a respite from the realities of the outside world; a sanctuary built on a love of acquiring unnoticed materials and transforming them into objets d’art by endowing them with a  splendor and uniqueness through a poetic dislocation of expectation.

Childhood memories of growing up as an African-American girl in a close-knit family in the West End of St. Louis, Missouri with many of her relatives living nearby, had an enduring impact on Sandra Payne’s future as an artist. She recalls the appearances of the women in her family being  dramatically transformed when they put on feminine “adornments” retrieved from mysterious boxes filled with gleaming stones. Her mother, a registered nurse and a graduate of an historically black nursing school, owned a “nice plump jewelry box” packed with curiosities, including a black cameo (a relief of a woman of color) and other ornaments. One day when she was in second grade, she tells me, Payne bedecked her schoolgirl body with her mother’s “costume” jewelry, an iridescent necklace and bracelet, and left for school. When she arrived, her teacher took one look at the bespangled seven-year-old who believed she was wearing the world’s most precious “crown jewels” and contacted Payne’s mother. It resulted in little Sandra getting “her ass whopped.”

Payne particularly admired her Aunt Verna, who was not only an amazing cook but “fully accessorized” with a well- categorized assortment of jewelry encompassing rhinestones, trinkets in glistening colors, and compilations of perfume bottles, hats and scarves. “Women love beauty and this is a way of expressing that appreciation,” she says. After attending Washington University and getting a degree in multi-media arts, Payne too began collecting things that were both extraordinary and mundane, including aprons, pearls, African beads, jewels, twigs, crochet potholders, baskets, records, and postcards/photographs of the sensational entertainer/activist Josephine Baker. “She was very sparkly,” Payne whispered to me with a smile.

“When I was a little girl, about eight years old, Ebony Magazine had a spread on Josephine Baker. I remember her fabulous outfits, and eye makeup. She was from St. Louis [and that was] interesting to me. . .that you could do something and be a creative person,  a rebel and become known for doing what you love. I have collected her ever since.”

Today Payne’s studio is her home and her home is the studio, which she has aptly named “Sandralandia” — a lived-in environment made up of residue from the past and aspirations for the future. She is an artist who passionately mutates in various media the “familiar” into the fantastical, often using elements that reference her own personal history — a biography that is both intimate and irreverent, inexplicable and recognizable. She combines seemingly incompatible materials, which ultimately dissolve into one another, and are bewitchingly reborn.


Sandra Payne, “Property of a Lady,” collage, 20″ x 16 “, paper and glue on museum board.

The inspiration and source material for her “Property of a Lady” collages comes from imagery she finds at The Strand Book Store in downtown Manhattan, where Payne is always on the lookout for jewelry and auction catalogues, design and fashion magazines. She proceeds to cut out images that intuitively attract her, and with no preconceptions, glues them onto Museum Board. “Today, I think I will only use sapphires or work mostly with pearls and diamonds. It is like opening the jewelry box of an insane Royal,” she muses.  Each artwork has a singular presence invoking desire with an elegance that is both temptingly seductive and exquisitely delicate. Pictures of gigantic rubies, sapphires, emeralds, opals and aquamarines float together with changes of scale and dizzyingly arabesque patterns. And, yet they are all beautifully structured as if the “hand of reason” plucked down into chaos and inscribed the divine.

As I walk around the apartment, my eyes are never at rest. Every inch of space is crammed with another surreal congregation of disparate jars, containers, glasses teeming with “matter,” reconstituted and transmuted from its original embodiment into a phantasmagorical new entity. Every niche of the studio, every closet contains ingredients that have been, or will be metamorphosed into the “totally feminine” enchantment that is “Sandralandia.” Opening her flat files, I see drawer upon drawer of jars brimming with dazzling, seductive, fine grained sand, crushed stones, crystals and jewels all arranged by colors. On shelves are vitrines with peacock feathers with a jewel hidden somewhere in the plumage; smashed pine cones situated in snow white glitter; larger canisters of opalescent shells with pearls; wrapped driftwood with gilded paper and rhinestones; twisted wires poking out of bottles flecked with beads, glitter, and pearls, which periodically fall off and drop into the bottom of the container; and branches imported from Japan with attached rhinestones disconcertingly displayed upside-down in glass bottles. Sandra Payne, with cryptic interventions, unearths the lyricism of the unseen. She allows us to view what was once considered commonplace, anew.


Flat files filled with mirrored jars of glitter. 

I stop to look at the sides, tops, and bottoms of containers that catch my eye, boxes covered with mirrors creating an infinite space, and I am told that many hold secrets including Aunt Verna’s cooking recipes: face down file cards with a jewel placed on top of the pile,  indicating the preciousness and redolence of lingering memories. Payne shows me another group of white  boxes. Their lids are tightly closed, which contain more of her Aunt’s belongings: folded aprons, peignoirs and nightgowns from the 1960s, and containers that are private, replete with tags recording the words “Property of a Lady.” Payne describes them as “A room of stacked locked boxes . . . a library of unopened secrets . . . a world of intimacy.”

In the studio are also gold and pink aluminum wrapping paper. Twisted over wine bottles they evoke a gallery of “presences” — some reminiscent of Greek statues, i.e. Nike/Winged Victory or attendees at a Royal Ball in France. Congregating in expressive, animated groupings, they populate the studio like cavorting sentinels, protectors of the rarified universe they inhabit.

Sandra Payne’s other persona was as a much respected young adult librarian for the New York Public Library where she worked for 28 years in different branches all over the city. Subsequently she was promoted to coordinator of young adult services for Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island, charged with collection development and training the staff to serve and advocate for the particular needs of NYC’s teens. “Most of my job involved assisting other librarians in planning programming opportunities for teens in their neighborhood libraries i.e. setting up “meet the author” programs and writing, art and photography workshops.”

Sandra Payne’s inner and outer cosmos meet in a cocoon of beauty, where the objects she loves live and breathe freely, nurtured by her sense of touch and tender care—an environs I was  privileged to enter.

“I love arranging,” she beams. “My favorite place is The Container Store.”

An installation of  silver-covered branches and photo frames.


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  • Judith Corona September 25, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Another friend Judith Corona, also from the Whiney ISP days and also from Chambers street, congratulates Sandra Payne on her work and career. Terrific article.

  • Barbara Wilson Bishop September 16, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    Please tell Sandra that an acquaintance from her Whitney ISP days is pleased to know she continues her artistic pursuits. And congratulations on becoming a NYPL librarian in the meantime. – – Barbara Wilson Bishop, once from Chambers Street.

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 21, 2017 at 8:45 am

      I will do that- thanx

  • Mickey M. September 16, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    So, have you visited Nicole Hollander in Chicago? Thank you, Grace. Love your name.

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 21, 2017 at 8:44 am

      Thank you for your comment!

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard September 15, 2017 at 9:15 am

    Honored that my article Grace Visits: Sandra Payne has been published. Thank you to all who made this possible.

    • Kate Rushin July 20, 2021 at 3:44 pm

      Forever grateful for Sandra’s support of my poetry.
      Thank you for showing us a bit of Sandra’s artistry.
      Much appreciated in this sad moment.