Featured Artist: Pete Sandker

Featured Artist: Pete Sandker

photo courtesy of Pete Sandker

S+H lead digital editor Brenna Lilly spoke to artist Pete Sandker about walks in the woods, childhood inspiration, and the following call of art. Find Pete’s art throughout the issue.

When did you start making art? Your paintings have a child-like wonder about them but also seem completely timeless.

I think I have been making art for as long as I could hold a pencil—my parents still have a lot of very early drawings of mine. I grew up on a goat farm in southern Wisconsin with two older brothers, and we spent almost all of our daylight hours outside in the woods. When they started school, I would wander in the woods by myself and draw. I can still remember the thrill of being the first one to find the blooming hepaticas in the spring, or just lying in my secret spot and listening to the wind in the trees. I have never stopped doing that, so I guess a childlike wonder is the only way I have ever felt about nature.

The natural features of your paintings—whales, mushrooms, cats—are all rendered beautifully in watercolor. What other media did you experiment with before settling on a majorly watercolor portfolio?

My first love was pencil drawing. I was really into comic books and was determined to be a professional comic book artist. All through my early teen years, I would practice religiously at figure drawing with pencil or copy images directly from my favorite comic books. I was still really drawn to nature though, so eventually I started drawing animals and trees and then decided to add color with paint. I did mostly acrylic painting, which I enjoyed, but there were many times when I couldn’t get the detail I wanted. I never thought of watercolor as a good medium for detail because the colors always ended up running together, but I eventually figured out how to make it work using less water. Other than that, there have been a few projects in school involving Japanese woodblock printing and one sculpture I made from scrap metal during a welding course that I would like to pursue further someday.

Your work highlights some of the beautiful natural features of Wisconsin and Maine. Do you keep a sketchbook with you when you’re outdoors?

I don’t usually carry a sketchbook with me. When I am walking in the woods, I like to carry as little as possible and just let my mind wander. When I see a beautiful meadow or an important looking tree, I will sometimes get a feeling that an image is incoming, and then it will appear in my mind, pretty much fully formed. It’s usually an image inspired by whatever I saw, but not really using that exact tree or whatever it was, so sketching it isn’t really necessary for me. The finished painting is just there in my head, ready to be painted.

That being said, I always love looking at other people’s sketchbooks, all of the ideas and rough drafts, so I kind of wish I did keep one!

For years, you worked in landscaping full-time while creating art in your off-time. How did you make room for creative practice?

Back when I was doing landscaping, I would just find the time. I sometimes feel like I even got more done then because time was so limited, so I knew I had to get to work on painting and not waste the precious hours before bed. I was living in Maine and western Massachusetts during that time as well, so working outdoors all day in some of the most beautiful parts of the country made for easy inspiration.

I get the sense that your work is deeply rooted in the spirituality of nature, from your depiction of the seasons as women to the representation of sacred animals like ravens and stags. How is your spirituality and your artistic practice linked?

I think it is hard for spirituality and creativity not to be linked somehow. The powerful impact of the changing of the seasons or the mysterious energy that certain animals seem to radiate was felt and deemed sacred by ancient cultures. I think that same energy is still just as strong today, so I think I just feel the same things they did. If you are alone and quiet in the woods and a raven is calling out to you or a deer wanders by, how can you not feel like something important is happening?

How has your artistic process impacted your wellbeing?

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for my wellbeing. I try to always have a painting that I can work on. After finishing one, I try to start a new one as soon as possible. It’s like an anchor that I know won’t let me drift into boredom or anxiety. The main thing, though, is that it makes me feel like I am somehow a part of everything.

I remember when I was younger and driving out west with my family and seeing these incredible mountains and waterfalls and groves of aspen trees in the fall and being overcome with this feeling that I wanted to somehow do something about all the beauty I was seeing. Like this feeling that I wanted to just grab a whole mountain in my hands or drink the ocean.

I know it sounds weird, but it was an almost sad feeling that I was seeing something like that and then would have to go home and just forget about it and take out the garbage and pay bills. I feel like that sometimes, even just seeing a really great tree in a city park. So now I have this painting thing to channel just a bit of that and feel satisfied that I did something about what I saw.

What advice would you give readers who feel the call to make art but don’t know where to start?

I would say: If you hear a call, follow it, and try anything and everything. I think a lot of people get hung up with preparing a lot of equipment or taking a lot of classes. I grew up digging clay out of the creek bank to make sculptures and little pottery sets. For a while, I got into carving birds out of basswood from a tree near my house. I drew endless pictures on a roll of receipt paper my mom bought me from the thrift store. I started watercolor using a tiny set I bought from a local art store. If you really want to make art, try as many things as you want; you don’t have to stick to one medium.

The call might be more of an echo in a big valley, but eventually you will hone in on where the voice is coming from, and you will find the thing you like to do that fills that gap—and then you’re set for life!

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Pete sandker

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