On June 22, 2007, the Artist Trust announces that Elizabeth Sandvig (b. 1937) has been selected as a recipient of the Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. The award is given annually to a female visual artist in Washington State, age 60 or older, in recognition of creative excellence, professional accomplishment, and dedication to the visual arts. Sandvig, a sculptor, painter, and printmaker, is lauded as "an explorer" who has "created an outstanding, curiosity-driven body of work" (Artist Trust).
Sandvig was born in Seattle but raised in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City. She was in her sophomore year at Pomona College in Claremont, California, when she met Michael Spafford (1935-2022), a fellow art student. The two married in 1959. After earning master's degrees from, respectively, Radcliffe College and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, they spent three years in Mexico City. Their son, Michael A. Spafford (now known professionally as photographer Spike Mafford), was born in Mexico in 1963. They moved to Seattle later that year, when Spafford was offered a position teaching art at the University of Washington. The family received a Mayor's Arts Award in 2006 in recognition of their collective contributions to the city's cultural life.
Sandvig had her first solo show in Seattle at the Otto Seligman Gallery in 1967. She exhibited 22 exuberant abstracts created with polyester resins in brilliant colors: reds, oranges, pinks, greens, yellows, and blues. She mixed the pigments herself, working them into the resins rather than brushing them on. The result was almost three-dimensional, an effect that was enhanced in some cases by molded figures, made from clay or wax, embedded in the work. The method had been used by some artists in New York but was new to Seattle audiences.
Not everyone liked it. "Some people are repulsed," Sandvig said. "They regard them as too organic" (Gilje). But critics were impressed. "At a time when much innovation in the arts is moving away from painting, Elizabeth Sandvig must be identified as one of the most adventuresome painters in the region," wrote one (Stehman).
Sandvig moved further into three-dimensional art by making sculptures in various forms, using cast resin, aluminum, mesh screens, nylon netting, and other materials. She found inspiration in the ephemera of daily life. She became interested in screens after repairing a screen door, and in bricks after replacing mortar on a brick wall. She made clouds out of wire mesh; waterfalls out of polyester resin; wall hangings out of copper screening. Her goal, she said, was "to create a shifting visual energy affected by light and position" (Sandvig, 7).
In one series of sculptures, she reproduced the oblong shape of bricks with wire mesh. She then stitched the "bricks" together with fishing line, creating structures that suggested both solidity and fragility. In another series, she daubed silicone or acrylic gels onto fine mesh screens or clear Plexiglass panels -- sometimes spelling out words, sometimes just creating squiggles that reminded some viewers of amoebae. Light filtered through the screens or panels and cast shadows on the walls behind them.
The reaction from critics was generally polite. John Voorhees thought Sandvig's polyester waterfalls "look like those plastic cooking bags filled with frozen food," but with colors that were "as bright and cheerful as rock candy" ("Acrylics, Sculpture"). Deloris Tarzan referred to a series of screen sculptures as "constructions which display an unusual spatial intelligence" ("Meitzler, Sandvig"). But the average public response may have been reflected in the fate of Sandvig's three-by-five-foot "Shadow Wall," constructed of aluminum and polyester screening and purchased by the Seattle Arts Commission for installation in the Municipal Building in 1975. Workers remodeling offices in the building in 1981 confused the sculpture with construction debris, and sent it to the dump.
Sandvig returned to painting in 1979, during a nine-month sojourn in Mexico with Spafford while he was on sabbatical. She re-embraced the vivid colors she had been introduced to while living in Mexico City as a teenager and young adult. "I want to project energy, and color is one of the best ways," she said in a 1988 interview. "I got enough of the subtle colors during the years I was working with the grayness of aluminum and polyester screening" ("Sandvig Show").
She gained increasing attention and praise for her painting in the 1980s and beyond. Her themes ranged from horses to gardens to turtles. In one series she depicted the contrast between dreamers and dreams; in another, between birds and the sounds they make. She painted artists' palettes, nuclear cooling towers, animals in utopian kingdoms, and women in circuses, among other subjects. She used oil stick, oil paint, pastels, acrylics, and watercolor. She made a career out of being unpredictable.
She also returned to monoprints and monotypes, a technique that involves painting an image onto a plate, which is then pressed (usually with a printing press) onto paper. Sandvig had learned the process and produced her first monoprints while living in Mexico in the early 1960s. She began exhibiting new monoprints in the Northwest in the 1980s, and was one of 17 artists included in an exhibition titled "First Impressions: Northwest Monotypes" at the Seattle Art Museum in 1989. One of her works, combining the images of a rabbit and a dreamer, was chosen as the cover of the exhibit catalog.
Writer Regina Hackett once described Sandvig as being "constitutionally experimental," with "the magpie habit of seizing bright particulars and working them into her own thematic generalities." (Sandvig, 14). Some critics took the breadth of her artistic interests as evidence of dilettantism. Sandvig faced the issue head-on with a show at the Francine Seders Gallery (previously the Otto Seligman Gallery) in 1983. She packed the room with waterfalls in various incarnations: acrylic gel, polyester resin, watercolor, oil stick, painted steel, wooden cutouts, and aluminum. "The exhibit makes a good case for personal pluralism," Hackett wrote, "and defiantly answers her critics by telling them the media-hopping is entirely intentional" ("Waterfalls Flow").
Pioneer, Advocate, Mentor
In selecting Sandvig for the Twining Humber Award, the Artist Trust noted her longstanding support of the regional art community. As a member of The Artist's Group (TAG) in the 1970s, she was actively involved in the "1 Percent for Art" campaign, which resulted first in a city ordinance and then in a state law requiring that 1 percent of capital expenditures for public buildings be used to finance public art. Over the years, she mentored, taught, inspired, encouraged, and befriended countless local artists, and developed a relationship with virtually every museum, arts organization, and cultural institution in the Northwest.
"A pioneer in the advent of public-art legislation and a leader on behalf of women, Sandvig is recognized as a central creative figure in Washington State," wrote Peggy Weiss, director of the art program at Harborview Medical Center, in a tribute published in connection with the award. "Her slight frame and gentle demeanor disguise a fearlessness that permeates her approach to life and to the art she makes." In the seventh decade of a long career, "her work continues to be fresh, vital and relevant" (Art Source).
The award, an unrestricted prize of $10,000, was endowed by Yvonne Twining Humber (1907-2004), a New York-born painter who moved to Seattle in 1943 with her husband, Irving Humber, a wholesaler and businessman. Sandvig was the seventh recipient. A reception in her honor was held at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle on September 7, 2007, in connection with a centennial exhibition of Twining Humber's art.