I often present Antique Road Show style events throughout the country. Last year I spent such an afternoon at my son’s business in Durham, NC. A young man brought in a bottle with small grains of sand in an elaborate deign with flowers and an American flag. I froze: “Don’t shake it! And don’t drop it!”
The 30-somethings at my son’s office thought, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a paperweight!” The ‘paperweight’ sold a few months latter at Cowan’s in Cincinnati, a good place to sell Americana, for $75,000. Thankfully, the young man didn't shake it up when her brought it to me on his skateboard.
The palette of about a dozen colors, with accent colors for shading, is completely natural. The artist gathered each grain of sand from Pictured Rock, where he had attended the Iowa Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in the 1870’s.
The artist, Andrew Clemens (1857-1894), became quite a tourist attraction on the streets of MacGregor, Iowa, making onlookers’ souvenir bottles. This one has a name inscribed, because someone who loved her paid Clemens $5-$7, not cheap in those days ($110-160).
Clemens, who never used glue, developed a set of long handled tools to work his magic inside of apothecary jars. His bottles exist, quite solidly, for over 100 years, as was this young man’s piece. Clemens sealed the bottles with stoppers coated with wax. The mind boggles at how many young fingers pried open the wax and open the stoppers to see how such pieces were composed.
In fact, this destructive, curious mind set was part of the bottles’ appeal: Clemens exhibited in St Louis, completing bottles and smashing them with a hammer to show that they were not fixed.
Fitting that the business staffed by my son and his colleague, who owned the sand art piece by Andrew Clemens, is a start-up in the age of Automated Intelligence via all things digital. Clemens composed his pieces one grain of sand at a time, upside down; similar to the creation of digital art pixel by pixel.
Some minds understand reduction to the very elements of a design, and Clemens’ mind was one of those. He died at 37, but left hundreds of what the world considers the best sand art known. A few other minds in history employed this painstaking technique, notably Tibetan monks creating wonderful dry painted sand mandalas. Unlike Clemens’, work the monks created images that were philosophically redolent of temporality. Other cultures, such as Southwest Native Americans and Australian Aborigines created two-dimensional sand paintings.
Leave it to the European sensibility to use sand paintings for the senses. People who enjoy incredible detail are drawn to this art form, such as King George III, who had a hobby of watch- making. George III (1738- 1820) observed the fashion of his day at noble houses, employing sand artists to decorate white tablecloths for banquets with site-specific paintings: around the fruit bowl, trees and monkeys, around the sweets, birds and bees. These were shaken after the meal along with the breadcrumbs.
George III hired a team of German artists to devise a way (actually long invented by the Japanese) of fixing the designs with lead and gum Arabic. So fashionable were these follies that the Duke of York commissioned a portrait of his dog Nelson.
19th century tourists on the Isle of Wight purchased sand art bottles and fixed sand paintings made by local craftswomen, who collected their palette from the cliffs at Alum Bay, although these were not up to the artistry of Andrew Clemens’ work. Once an unheard of tourist destination, after Queen Victoria planned a residence there, such souvenir craft was a cultural marker of the Victorian era as tourists began to travel by rail.
Similarly, sand carpets are created in diverse places around the globe: the Netherlands, to garner tourists, and in Latin American countries, to show the fleeting nature of life, as in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. Seattle also celebrates the Day of the Dead with sand painted streets.
Andrew Clemens would be happy to know that young artists of today paint with sand. In 2012 the Museum of Arts and Design in New York featured sand work by artists (well know Andy Goldsworthy created a ball of sand filled with bones) in an exhibit called “Swept Away”.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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