Sandra Dal Poggetto and I spoke over the phone for this interview, me on the urban Chicago end and Sandra from the wilds of Montana on the other. She is a landscape artist with a different understanding of landscape paintings—her landscapes cross temporal and spatial scales, creating an amazing array of pulsing and colorful canvases. The Center has been gifted with a few of her pieces, which you will see throughout this interview. Sandra’s artwork and accompanying essays have been published in academic and literary journals. She has been awarded the Helene Wurlitzer Painting Fellowship, a Pouch Cove Foundation Residency, a PLAYA Fellowship Residency, and—twice—a Ucross Foundation Fellowship.
Sandra Dal Poggetto (SDP): I’m uncertain about this interview because first of all, I write much better than I speak, and so this will be a challenge for you and me as I feel I have said everything—at least for now—in my essays. Maybe you can find a different angle or draw something out that I haven’t said or thought of before.
Anja Claus (AC): Okay, well let’s give it a try and see how it goes. You know I’ve read several of your pieces online, and you are an amazing writer.
SDP: Well, thank you.
AC: Your essays are very smart and poetic and thoughtful, and your words just flow so gracefully. Do you ever think about doing more writing versus the art of painting and creating canvases?
SDP: The reason I started writing was because I felt people really didn’t understand what I was expressing in my work. People in the art world for the most part didn’t understand what I was doing and why I was doing it. Writing out the why behind my pieces was kind of a defense. The process was also a way to help me understand what I was doing, because as you know, as you write, you are bringing into the light and articulating reflections that perhaps have not been articulated before or even formed. The first piece I wrote was for a solo show. I’m not a good public speaker so I had to write down my thoughts in preparation and read it at the opening. It was very well received, and later published—actually, it was published in two places. So I continued this process.
AC: In terms of expressing your thoughts and experiences, on canvas, how do you feel each time you create a new piece, a visual piece? Does each piece express a new thought, feeling, or experience? You’re not saying something over and over again? I ask this because I’m thinking about what you said regarding writing, that you’ve said everything you need to say. How is painting different for you?
SDP: Well that’s a good question. I think because I’m not a writer primarily, my creative work is in my painting. Writing only confirms what’s going on in my painting, or what I am aware of. My writing makes my painting more accessible, or at least offers people a way to enter and think about the paintings because it seems that most people have difficulty understanding or appreciating abstract art. In my paintings, no, I never feel like I repeat myself, every painting is difficult. You hear many painters say that when you start painting, you feel as if you’ve never painted before. I feel this way. There is always a new challenge to overcome, and if you look over the body of my work, you can see there is always a movement forward and a different way of trying to capture what it is I feel and think. As you know, the natural world is a profound place. It really is a place that never ends. And if you’re truly engaged in your art and if your artwork or your painting is about landscape, it is a never-ending discovery.
AC: So you’re giving voice to your feelings as well as your experiences within the landscape when you go outside the door in your neck of the woods. From reading some of your written pieces and listening to your interviews online, you seem to be concerned about this concept of landscape. I’m wondering, because I think it’s a very important point. Would you unpack what this term means for you?
SDP: Well, I think the term originates out of a certain way of thinking and experiencing the landscape or the natural world, and to me, the common use of the term denotes a safe place from which humans experience nature. You are at a remove from it. You’re at a distance. A traditional landscape painter maintains that distance, but it’s not what I want to do. It’s not my experience of the natural world. I am interested in bringing a different perception to this art historical term landscape.
AC: What term do you use instead? I struggled with what word to use besides landscape as I was forming questions for this interview—like the Montana Landscape. Do you have an alternative term you use?
SDP: No, I don’t. We come up with different terms like environment and ecosystem, which are science based and accurate and certainly reflect our growing knowledge about the natural world and how it operates. But I am focused on art, a discipline that addresses our human awareness of the world in which we live. A process that is about personal experience, felt experience. (So, the scientific term ecosystem doesn’t quite fit.)
AC: I want to go back in time a little bit, it’s something you’ve spoken about before, but I think it’s also a very interesting, key part of your paintings and who you have become as a painter. I was listening to the YouTube presentation you gave, I believe it was in 2014 at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Wyoming?
SDP: Oh, yes.
AC: You shared a story about how you had a powerful moment in your teens when you realized that you were beginning to feel a disconnect from nature, and I’d like to hear about that moment, how it felt and how it changed you? Because it seems like earlier on, before your teens, you were quite connected with nature.
SDP: Why it happened—well, you never know why those things happen but yes, before I reached puberty, yes, I was connected. I played in the outdoors, but then I reached puberty and my attention shifted to the opposite sex, and all of a sudden I got caught up in the socialization that happens around that shift. Historically for me, it was mid-century America and post-war—the 1960s. Our culture was all about consumerism. It was about living a kind of unconscious life of consuming and enjoying it. I was in California so it was really a time of enjoyment without much reflection. You know, it was kind of a mindless period, which now we’re all paying for. In a tragic way.
The experience I had was one of separation from nature. I was off trail at Jack London State Park in the mixed oak forest not far from my home. While sitting in the grass, I perceived a sheet of glass between me and the trees, shrubs, and grass. At that moment I realized that I had lost my prior childhood connection to nature, and I wanted it back. This was classic alienation.
And I wonder, do enough people really want to reconnect to nature after a century-long disassociation? At Jack London State Park, I realized that I had been kidnapped by this juggernaut and I wanted out. Art was a way to get in touch with things deep.
AC: I appreciate hearing these political and social perspectives from an artist’s point of view. You hear these kinds of ideas coming out of some academic disciplines and certain media outlets, but not often enough from the perspective of an artist, especially one who turns to art to help reconnect to nature. This is an important story.
SDP: Yes. As a young painter I learned that within Modernism, in broad terms, there was a division between the painters like Matisse, Picasso, and Mondrian, and the conceptualists like Duchamp and his descendent, Warhol—the ironists. The painters, while addressing the changes the modern world brought, continued to use the “live” medium of oil paint. As the century wore on, this traditional medium gave way to industrial materials, and now digital technology. It was important to me to stay with the traditional materials derived from plants, animals, and minerals.
AC: How do you see art in general in fighting the good fight of the environmental conservation movement? There has been a connection between artists and this ideal of nature being a special place that should be protected and cared for. I see more and more environmental organizations inviting artists to come and share their voice in this. How do you see yourself, your art, in terms of helping this conversation along?
SDP: They can be allies of sorts, but art is not illustration. I am interested in aesthetics. If an artist arrives at an image that is strong, that can be powerful. I mean, that’s very difficult to do.
AC: Aesthetics, as you say, is powerful. It’s a powerful influencer.
SDP: Yeah, that’s right. Someone told me once that art, great art, is rare, and that’s just a sad fact. It’s rare because it’s difficult to achieve. It’s hard work. You have to be honest with yourself.
There are many forms of visual expression and I’m just in the little corner of painting, which has been marginalized over the last fifty years while other art forms have gone in new directions. That’s okay. I’m still trying to use the traditional means of painting to arrive at an image about immersive experience in nature over time. That means walking into the wild and not keeping a safe distance. Being in it, and not from behind the lens of a camera or recording device gathering data. Interacting with it, looking, listening, touching, tasting, and smelling—participating.
Through this process I arrive at an image on a two-dimensional surface that hopefully expresses that immersive experience. It’s a private experience, condensed and formalized into an image that hopefully communicates to the viewer the depth and breadth of that experience. That’s the quest.
AC: When I look at your paintings and your other pieces—granted, I’ve only viewed them online or printed from a copier—but they’re very much alive and active. I can’t quite describe it, but my eyes light up and then I’m drawn in by this dance of shapes and colors. I also find that they have this quiet, calming effect, I think from the repetition of the objects and shapes you use. There’s this interesting dynamic when I look at your pieces. I’m wondering, once you’ve created your pieces, what is your experience when you look back on your canvas?
SDP: Well, I’m forever the critic. What’s wrong or what could have been better, or this should’ve been different. The things you described that you experience when looking at my painting, it’s very nice to hear, because I think that’s the experience when you’re out there in landscape.
When you’re in it, it is an active place. A lot is going on around you that you’re aware of and also that you’re not aware of. Things happening under the ground, in the grass you can’t see, overhead in the trees and sky. It’s also a calming place to be. So, nature’s both intensely active but calming at the same time. As you know, science tells us why being out in nature is calming. The beneficial chemical effects it has on us can actually be measured.
What I get out of it? I think that the pleasure in one’s own art comes in hearing someone like you say what they get out of the work. It makes me feel like I’ve done something, I’ve achieved something. If, as an artist, you can make an image that feels complete, that has an aliveness, that’s a wonderful thing.
AC: Thank you for that. As I listened and read about you and your work it seems to me that there’s this special connection you have with space. You compose with the space in mind, and there’s so much of it in Montana. It’s a grassland area with hills and mountains. And then there’s these pockets of life that expose themselves to you. I’m wondering, how is this landscape expressed in your work?
SDP: My pieces are very much about being in a place, a region, but while they’re particular to a region, they are no different from any other place in the sense of that every place has sky and earth, insects and animals. Different places just have different variations of these things.
Space encompasses all things that are happening biologically, geologically, atmospherically, including me. My marks are a kind of record of my time in space.
AC: For this issue of Minding Nature you’ve generously shared some new pieces that you’ve been working on recently. Could you give us a brief story about these new paintings? What is different about them? What was your motivation to create these pieces? And perhaps give us some insight into what direction you might be heading, toward what new artistic adventures?
SDP: Well, these that I sent you, they’re organized around the horizontal line.
AC: Is the line the landscape? Does the line represent the Earth?
SDP: It’s both and neither. I’ve done a lot of works on paper with feathers. They’re formally and visually organized around the shape and color of the feather. Fifteen years ago I focused on the structure of the feather—its line. I’ve come back to this, but with a difference.
If you look at the feather it has a spine. Each is a line. I’m keying into that line and extending it across the paper or across the canvas. The line is in pastel, a soft pastel, of the very finest pigments for vibrancy of color. They’re a color that complements or works with the color of the feather, and that’s an aesthetic decision.
What have I done differently? Well, these feathers, rather than being sewn into the canvas as in my early feather pieces or tied on with a wire, these are woven into the paper. It’s very satisfying to me to weave them in because this draws upon the long tradition of weaving in American tribal cultures and also European cultures. The process allows for more of an integration into the paper. The weaving connects the feather to the paper, and the line connects the feathers to each other. They’re deceptively simple looking. The difficulty lies in the creation of the lines, which must be spontaneously drawn. They have to be of a certain width. They can’t be too narrow. They can’t be too thin. They have to be the right length and distance between in order to sustain the tension. For my purposes, the lines can’t be equidistant.
AC: What is this tension? Where does this tension arise from? In the actual landscape, or in your mind? And why is showing this tension so important?
SDP: Oh, well, it’s very important. That’s a good question. It’s very important in art because that’s what creates a dynamism.
AC: That sense of aliveness?
SDP: The aliveness you speak of, it’s a sort of a contained movement. It’s a vibration. It operates in Movement Theater and dance. It’s the potential of actual movement held. It’s like a deer or mountain lion just before it springs. That’s a tension, and it’s in nature. It’s in everything . . . when you’re out there, it’s all held together by tension because it’s all about relationships. Everything is interacting with everything else, the insects, water, the soil and plants, sunrays, weather patterns. Everything is growing and decaying and growing again. They’re all engaged. It’s just totally alive; nothing is still. There’s a buzz that’s happening all around you. It’s the buzz of life.
AC: Wow. I love this phrase, “the buzz of life.” What a dynamic way to end our conversation. Thank you so much for your time. And for sharing your sacred artistic space with us. It was such a pleasure learning from you, Sandra. Thank you.