IN CONVERSATION: SANDRA ALLEN AND JOSEPH CARROLL
Joseph Carroll: Let me start our conversation by saying how much I have enjoyed getting to know you and your work over the past year and how pleased I am with your first exhibition with the gallery.
To begin, let’s start with the basics: how long has your practice centered around working in graphite on paper? And to follow that, at what point did tree images become a focus of your work?
Sandra Allen: Graphite on paper is the first medium I have used that feels like a second language to me. It was well after getting my BFA and MFA that I found drawing to be my medium of choice. That has been true for over ten years, now. Up until 1997, trees had been part of the background, the landscape environments for figurative painting that I was doing at the time. There was an event in my life in 1997 that made me stop, slow down and reassess the direction my life was going in. At that point, I began to see the trees as a metaphor for everything that was happening at the time.
JC: The images in the drawings are based on actual trees that
you have some relation to. Can you talk a bit about why and how
that selection happens? I guess that I am asking what is it in a
particular tree that you find compelling?
SA: I’m attracted to many different trees for many different
reasons. Sometimes it is a specific tree that I want to work
with. I find myself going back, looking at the tree and
searching for the most interesting composition. More often
the trees in the works come into my life in fleeting moments –
something I see when I’m out on a walk or driving down a street.
It’s a very intuitive reaction and attraction. I try not to
rationalize the process until after I have the photographs back
and study them for a while.
JC: Once you have selected an image that you want to explore
in a drawing, do you have a set method or process for the
SA: Scale is my first consideration for a piece. The question
is how large or how intimate the piece wants to be. I like to
play with the scale, to mix it up a bit. If I have just worked
on a delicate, detailed piece that took three months, then I
will probably want to try something on a larger scale, something
more aggressive. Once I have a sense of the scale, I grid up the
photograph and the paper and go to work.
JC: You have spoken about using the grid as a tool for
transferring the photographic image. The grid has been a
reliable tool for scaling up images and transferring them onto
other surfaces from Renaissance cartoons to Chuck Close’s
practice. In some cases, like with Close, the grid remains
visible in the final work. In your work there is little evidence
of the grid when the drawing is complete. In this show, Ballast
is an exception to that but that is because there are fifteen
sheets that make up the drawing. How do you see the role of the
grid in your work?
SA: I use the grid as a tool, a way to get into a drawing but
not as an end in itself. The grid allows me to organize the
visual information in the photograph, to systematically and
incrementally break down the image and rebuild it piece by
piece. It slows down the process of looking so that I can focus
and make sense of all that is going on in the photograph.
Ballast is the first piece that I’ve made where the grid is
still apparent. I’m just getting used to seeing the grid in the
final work and I don’t think I mind it being there. I actually
think that it adds to the dialogue of the drawing so that the
process of building the work is readily apparent.
JC: There are many choices that are part of your process of
working from photo-based imagery. I think of your drawings as
cropped as much as they are composed. In my mind “crop” is a
term that comes out of the photographic process rather than
originating in drawing. How does that seem to you?
SA: I take many photographs in the process of making my work but
I am definitely not a photographer. As with the grid, I use the
photograph as a tool to start the process of making a drawing
and it would be impossible to see what I see without it. The
photograph captures a second in time that allows me months to
think about and create a drawing.
As for the idea of cropping my images, I’m not sure that I
agree. Maybe the term is part of the language of photography
but when I view a tree outside my window, it is cropped by the
frame of the window. As I mentioned earlier, I often am looking
at trees when I’m driving around, so they are cropped by the
windows of my car. It is much more rare that I see a whole tree.
JC: We should also talk about the editing and enhancement that
takes place in the transformation from photograph to drawing. I
have seen a few of the photographs that you work from and they
are very different, and I might add not terribly interesting,
compared to the final drawing. It is interesting to me that
you see something or project something into the photograph that
isn’t visible to others but that you are able to reveal through
SA: The editing process is one of removing and eliminating
photographic information while I am interpreting and translating
it into the drawing. I edit out quite a bit in the transition
from the photograph to the drawing, keeping only the elements
that are essential to my initial idea for the work, to the
composition and to what the drawing becomes along the way.
It is important to me that the drawings not be seen in the
context of landscape or place. That is partly why I choose to
have the image sit in a white field of the page rather than
within a landscape context. My focus is on the sculptural form
and the surface of the tree and the story that can tell. When I
begin a drawing, I have a narrative in mind that I use to guide
the form, composition, scale and mark making throughout the
drawing process. The narrative guides my process of editing and
enhancing the drawing.
JC: Scale is one thing that visitors to the show will be aware
of immediately. Ballast measures 10.5 x 18.5’ and covers the
majority of one large wall in the gallery. Although not all of
your drawings are quite that large many are not of a diminutive
scale either. The scale is an integral part of the drawings. How
does the size of the work relate perhaps to the physical scale
of the actual trees? And how does the size guide the way you
want the work and viewer to interact?
SA: Scale has it’s own power, whether large or small, and it is
one of the most important decisions that I make when I begin a
drawing. I make my work within a series of restrictions, working
mostly in graphite on paper and images of trees. Scale is one
aspect that I can explore while maintaining the medium and
imagery, so it is the drawing decision that I can experiment
and play around with the most. Scale can shift the viewer’s
perception, creating a sense of far and near at the same time.
At a large scale, the drawing projects into the room and grabs
you and invites you in for a closer look, turning this simple
and ancient medium into a very physical as well as visual
experience. With Ballast, it is exciting to be working at the
scale of a billboard with an image that you don’t expect to see
on a billboard.
JC: For many of the drawings there is a viewing distance
from which the image is recognizable and that speaks to the
photographic source material. When viewed from a closer distance
the image breaks down into a series of strokes and marks on
paper, the medium and your hand become more of the subject. With
Ballast, your touch and the graphite mark are more obvious; the
viewer has to stand far back from the drawing to read the image
as a whole.
SA: Drawing is a very physical medium. The action and process of
making a drawing is evident in the work, readable at any scale.
When I was thinking about making Ballast, I wanted the finished
drawing to have a visceral effect on the viewer and almost a
sculptural presence. It made sense to have the physicality of
the marks much more apparent, much more aggressive than in
previous work. With Ballast, the subject is as much about the
process and the marks as it is about the image.
Trees range from being very delicate and graceful to being
imposing and monumental and almost threatening. I want the
viewer to have a similar reaction standing in front of the
JC: That brings us to the topic of abstraction. We’ve talked
before about how with some of your drawings, Ballast being the
most recent example, that you work in segments of the drawing
at a time and may never see the full work until all the parts
are completed and it is out of the studio. I think that you have
said that the process of drawing takes over and that the image
isn’t as important as the movement of pencil on paper and the
abstract mark on the page. At that point, the image becomes just
the place of entry into your drawing process.
SA: Realistic imagery is a buildup of many abstract marks on a
surface. As the scale of my drawings increase, the marks can
become more apparent and visible. When I make a drawing, whether
large or small, I break up the image into smaller segments that
are essentially abstracted from the whole image. Working on the
segments, I am more attuned to the individual marks and small
passages than to the overall image. The final image is built
from many small parts and is revealed as the drawing takes
form. In this way, I am continually going back and forth from
figuration to abstraction and back again. There is really no
distinction for me; it is just a matter of scale.
JC: The show really looks great. It has been great fun working getting to know you and the work and I look forward to seeing what comes next.