In good form
Profile by Jane Ledwell
Every morning, artist Sandy Kowalik wakes up to read a quotation from Jeanette Winterson painted on her bedroom wall: “Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough.”
Sandy says, “I have always had a more diffuse focus than a burning focus on what I do. I like to move into different circles and see what’s going on. I’ve always been following different paths.” The Ontario College of Art and Design–trained sculptor and painter and longtime feminist social activist is in her sixth season managing the Island Art Gallery at The Dunes in Brackley.
It’s a path she loves. “I love to support working artists and give them a venue,” she says. “Mostly what I want to show is what I think are really good paintings and sculpture and artwork.” To Sandy, creating a “real Island gallery” is not about “the need to represent a cliché of what PEI is,” but rather a chance to do “whatever we can do to help people continue” living as artists on the Island. The gallery represents more than 50 artists in a variety of mediums, and Sandy says, “I see more fullness of what’s going on here, the variety of styles and approaches.”
She reflects, “A lot of people don’t want to see themselves in relation to what’s going on. For artists not to look and see what’s going on (in art)—they’re just making their job a little harder.” Hanging and rehanging new artworks every day in new relationships so they each “sizzle a bit more,” Sandy says, “It’s more than just a solo—you’re playing in a band.”
Sandy says admiringly, “The Dunes is a stopping place for so many visitors. They’re amazed by the size, the objects that are there, the gardens, the food. I’ve never been to any place like it, anywhere in the world.” She says, “The world is coming to us, and they are receptive to showing our provincial art.”
More than that, Sandy says, “It’s given me a great opportunity to meet and talk to artists all the time, so I’m not isolated… Creative people always bring something else (to the conversation)—humour or ideas or new sorts of intelligence. These are the people I want to be around.”
Time developing the gallery is time away from Sandy’s own art practice—“There’s a big chunk of time I can’t do anything but maintain life,” she admits—but last winter she was able to devote all her time to writing (a memoir) and sculpting. It’s fulfilling, she says, “to spend a good part of your day or week focused on something that’s just your own.” She has been working on a series of heads in clay—“working with really abstracted form,” she says. An extended time for art-making lets you “delve deeper and deeper into what you’re searching for.”
Finding form in clay is her greatest calling. “I always work in clay—even just to knead it and make sure it’s still pliable,” she says. “It just feels right. In clay, even though I work with tools, my hands are right into it. It’s like baking bread compared to baking a cake… I like it because it is a physical thing. I like the gallery that way too—I’m physically swinging a hammer.
Shaping the physical makes way for the ideal. “The way the world evolves, how you make change—art and social change—it’s all part and parcel, I think,” Sandy says. “I’ve always been a social activist. I was really aware of women’s inequalities in art school—who was represented in galleries, who was paid more… Inequalities still exist in who is spending time and making money on art. Across the board in almost every discipline, men are making more,” she says.
After working for many different women’s organizations, “work in the gallery was a step out into a different world—commercial gallery and retail,” Sandy says. This is still, Sandy believes, “choosing what kind of world you want to participate in,” an aestheticized world of art-making, appreciation, and ideal form.