studio life

Art As Therapy

This post marks the first in a series of interviews that I will be doing about artists who came to art later in life. I was inspired to do this by my own life as well as many questions I've been asked in my studio and after artist talks. I believe that many people are looking for encouragement in pursuing an encore career in art. Hopefully these stories will encourage people to explore their own creativity.


Sande Waters

Choosing a career in art was simple for Sande Waters. Art is something that she must have in her daily life. In her lovely water-view home in North Vancouver, she has not one but two studios. The upstairs studio is a wide desk crammed with art supplies located beside her kitchen in the place where most would install a breakfast nook. Sande has trouble passing this spot without adding something to the many paper works she has on the go. On the day that I visited, she had two ink abstractions drying there.

Her other studio is in a converted garage (shown above). She  shares this workspace with two of her sons; her three sons are artistic as well. Sande confesses that this studio can get cold in the winter, but it gives her a place to work on larger art. She has a big canvas laid out with a beautiful splotch of ink absorbed into the surface in a way that reminds me of colour field artist Helen Frankenthaler. This studio is also full of: artwork, art books, art supplies, and canvases. If the studio illustrates the brain, Sande is an artist overflowing with ideas.

Sande’s current work is abstract and energetic. Ink is her current obsession, and she uses it on Yupo paper, canvas, and even on the small paper boxes she constructs. Her favourite subject is overviews, the kind of images that you get from airplanes. The loose flow of the spread of acrylic ink can be converted into imaginary topographic maps.

And Sande’s artwork isn’t confined to the studio. She serves on the board of directors of the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver, and is in charge of awarding prizes to cutting edge artists. Sande and I meet most often at Seymour Art Gallery openings where she serves on the board there as well.

The Turning Point

Despite all this creative activity, Sande wasn’t always an artist. Her life followed a more traditional path: office work, marriage, and bookkeeping for the family business. Then at 42 years of age, there was a turning point in her life: her marriage ended.

At that point, with three young children, she had decisions to make. On one hand, she could take courses in accounting and continue her career in bookkeeping. But the other path—her love of art—was the one that appealed to her. She took a job with the school board as a special needs aide that would allow her summers with her kids. And she began part-time art studies at Emily Carr.

Although Sande has no complaints about the turn her life took, she fully realizes that art became therapy for her. She loved all her classes at Emily Carr. For Sande, art was an escape: a place where she could be creative and maintain a sense of self. Every mother knows how draining children can be, regardless of how much we love our kids, we become so-and-so’s mother instead of ourselves. Art is a way of declaring our creative identity. 

Sande’s determination shows in her art education. She graduated with her BFA from Emily Carr, a feat that took fourteen years! And then she went on to get her MFA at a low residency art program at the San Francisco Art Institute. The low residency component meant she could remain in Vancouver with her family and attend only summer classes in San Francisco.

What artists can learn from Sande

I was impressed by Sande’s inner calm and confidence. Perhaps because of her art degrees, she has never had any trouble identifying as an artist and continuing her art practice throughout her work, parenting, and studies. She would like to make more money in art sales, but draws a distinction between “décor art” and “core art” that may be less commercial.

Regarding art as personal therapy, Sande said she can both “lose herself in art, and find herself in art.” Art cannot be understated as a way of expressing ourselves and working out our emotions. I have written before about the times when I’ve used art to escape my personal problems, and Sande’s experience underlines this idea for me. She sees art as a form of self-expression and has identified therapy as a consistent theme in her work.

Finally, I asked Sande if she has any advice for aspiring artists. In particular, what should mature artists do to make current, cutting edge works? Her suggestions:

  •  Be true to yourself. Don’t worry about what people buy or like.
  •  Use play and experimentation to extend your art practice. Sometimes finding your expertise is a process of elimination.
  •  Educate yourself about art. Take an art degree or quality art courses.

To learn more about Sande Waters’s art, please check out her website.

How To Be Great

Work in progress is progressing


Recently I went to see a movie about a piano virtuoso: Seymour: An Introduction. It’s a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, an 85 year-old pianist who gave up performing and now concentrates on teaching high-level students. Bernstein is truly fascinating and even after an entire film, I wanted to know more about him

Two qualities of his personality really stood out for me. First, as a teacher, he was able to make subtle tweaks in his students’ piano technique that made the music infinitely better and more moving. It’s a level of knowledge and sensitivity that even someone like me, who knows nothing about classical music, could appreciate.

Second, he has this huge love for classical piano music—an obsession so enormous that it blinds him to normal perceptions. For example, when he was drafted into the army, it was a complete mismatch for a sensitive boy who had never left home. But he found himself able to march for hours while others fell away, and he attributed that to the mental concentration he had learned from music. And when he found that there was a classical strings player in his troop in Europe, he suggested to his commanding officer that they could do performances. The C.O. scoffed that nobody would listen to classical music. But when Bernstein prevailed, the troops loved the concert. “They wouldn’t let us go,” he remembered happily.

When I saw the movie, about a month ago, I was going through a slump in my work. I had been painting, but I seemed to be stuck. The work for my big exhibition in May was well underway, but nowhere near completion. Therefore, one thing that Bernstein said made an especially big impact on me. He said that on the days when the music went well he was happy. Conversely, he was frustrated on those days when the music didn’t go well. His solution was to practise more, from two hours to three, right up to eight hours of practising.

This solution seems so logical, yet it’s contrary to the laziness inherent in many of us. If the painting isn’t going well, it’s easy to take a break and do something else—check Instagram, have a snack, go for a walk, cook dinner. Perhaps these distractions are even good or useful, but they move us away from the main purpose of our lives. If you want to excel at an art, it will never be easy. An artist will have to put long hours of work into their craft. Sometimes there will be setbacks and screw-ups, but you will keep moving forward. And as Bernstein said, on those good days, you will be happy. The best kind of happy, when you are satisfied with your important life's work.

Thanks, Seymour! The next day, I went into the studio and began working harder. I locked my smarthphone in the car, stopped puttering, and just got down to painting. And you know what? I was able to push my paintings into completed stages immediately. And now I’m happy.