Faculty Spotlight on: David Sandlin
Talking to our thesis coordinator, David Sandlin:
You have been teaching at SVA for many years now but have a very diverse background. Would you briefly describe your “formative years”?
I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and lived there until I was about 15. As the Troubles in Northern Ireland got worse and worse, my father, an American, decided to move us back to his home state of Alabama. Going from a cosmopolitan European city to a rural town in the deep South was quite a shock…Art-wise, I spent a lot of time drawing bulldog posters for the football team and backdrops for beauty pageants.
I graduated at 16 and moved to Birmingham, where I eventually put myself through school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. My favorite teacher there was John Dillon, who taught drawing and printmaking. The forced constraints of printmaking—the limited color and precision of separations—appealed to me more than the overwhelming freedom of painting.
As soon as I graduated, I moved to New York, mainly for the music scene and punk culture. My first job in NYC was at Styria Studio, where I learned about lithography and silkscreen working on prints by Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz, Buckminster Fuller, and others. A colleague there who’d left to work in SVA’s printmaking department recruited me as a part-time printmaking assistant around the end of 1981 or early ’82. In addition to making prints, I was also do a lot of drawing and painting, and I was fortunate enough to land my first show with the legendary East Village gallery Gracie Mansion in 1983. My first book project, Land of 1000 Beers, which SVA helped me print, was exhibited at Gracie Mansion in 1988.
You have been the thesis coordinator for the MFA Illustration program since 2000. You have the daunting task of keeping second year students on track with their thesis projects. How is the class run so that the widely different interests of students are engaged ?
To me, the most interesting aspect of the program is the diversity of the students and the wide range of their interests and projects—everything from straightforward illustration and children’s books to gallery work to animation and interactive projects. Before the second year even starts, I start thinking about the group when Marshall and I look at their first-year book projects and work with each student to try to come up with the ideal thesis advisor—who acts as their mentor throughout the second year. In September, I spend the first few weeks getting to know everyone through individual meetings and class presentations on their influences, which is always a lot of fun.
After we’ve gotten to know each other, I assess their thesis projects. In weeks five and six, everyone makes a thesis presentation that they’ve been preparing for since the beginning of the semester.
I stress to the students that it’s the quality of their work and the strength of their individual voices that matter, not a kind of hierarchy of art. For me a great painting, a great kid’s book, a great comic, and a great illustration are all on the same footing. I talk about narrative in relation to story, single image, books, and comics. I talk about planning ambitious projects from sketch to finish. I discuss style, form, and content in relation to the student’s work, and in particular, the thesis project.
Then, through group crits, guest critiques, and individual meetings, we refine the show proposals. I make scale drawings of the gallery walls and the students’ proposals and plan in advance the most cohesive hanging of the work. Then we gather together to actually hang the show. After deliberations, discussions, and a lot of negotiations, the show goes up… always better than originally planned.
Second Year Students all work with an individual thesis advisor as well attending the thesis workshop class. Can you talk a little about the role of an advisor and the impact it has on a student.
I believe the role of the thesis advisor is the most important in the program. This aspect of the process gives students access to an amazing variety of illustrators, painters, animators, and comics artists, including Brian Cronin, Peter Sis, Maira Kalman, Ruth Marten, Lauren Redniss, David Mazzucchelli, Mirko Ilic, Sam Weber, and Jillian Tamaki. They work closely with the students, meeting 9 to 15 times a semester. At the exit interview, in which the student meets with his/her advisor, Marshall, and me, it’s great to see how nurturing and close their working relationship has become. Many times it leads to lasting friendships.
We are approaching the end of the spring semester. You are the curator of the upcoming thesis show. How to you make sense out of 20 vastly different thesis projects so the exhibit works as a whole unit? What can we expect to see this April on the walls of the Visual Arts Gallery?
The great part about the show is that everyone is in it, and the greatest challenge of the show is that everyone is in it. My biggest job is to curate it to everyone’s advantage while making it coherent as an exhibit. I aim to have the quality of the work hold the show together, and it works as a great tool to help the students produce their best pieces. The students should be thinking about it all year, but the process gains momentum about six weeks in advance of the show, when I ask students to draw up and present in class their thesis show proposal. At this point it becomes a collaborative project, with me as the moderator as well as curator.
In addition to teaching several different types of classes you are a printmaker, painter and illustrator. What kinds of projects are you currently working on?
What I’m working on now:
• Illustration and comics for various mass market magazines as well as periodical anthologies and publishers, including La Cucina Italiana, Strapazin, and Le Dernier Cri.
• Paintings and drawings for a group show in Memphis.
• Belfaust, a graphic novel that I began working on in 2009, when I was a Cullman Fellow at NYPL.
• 76 Manifestations of the American Spirit, a print, drawing, and painting project, currently in the planning stages.
• A book with Re:Surgo! in Berlin, also in the planning stages.
Thank you David!