Interview With Sandy Blass

Article by Michelle Heslop. Paintings by Sandy Blass.

In Sandy Blass‘s watercolour painting “For Opa — Death Is Swallowed Up In Victory,” Blass paints a black and white portrait of her grandparents and aunt prior to the onset of WWII. Smiles and a light-heartedness almost neutralize the cold reality of the barbed wire fencing and crosses on a distant hill, paying homage to her grandfather who was later murdered by the Nazis. Capturing complex memories, feelings or the more deceptively simple essence of place in her colour-saturated landscapes, one thing is certain, Blass paints from the heart.

Visually communicating both external and internal landscapes with deep personal meaning, Blass describes her process as a means of spiritual expression. Though her artistic path wasn’t always linear, she is now equally assured in her process as she is in her choice of medium. While having painted with oils and acrylics historically, watercolours are her first love and the chosen medium for her visual language. Evoking the natural beauty of her surroundings, whether exploring her Jewish roots in Israel or the rugged seascapes of British Columbia, Blass taps into the spiritual connection to place while shining a light on her ascent to self-actualization.

 Give us a brief history of your life as an artist. 
 I grew up in Calgary, Alberta and have been making art since I was a child. I really don’t remember a time when I wasn’t creating. My fascination with watercolours started in high school when I was first introduced to the medium; it was love at first sight. That led to an art degree from the University of Calgary and further watercolour instruction at the Alberta College of Art & Design. I’ve tried other media but I always return to watercolours. I’m at a point in my career now that I am sticking with my first love.
Any key moments or people that have played a significant role in your artistic journey?

The most significant moment in my artistic journey took place at the turn of the millennium. My parents were WWII and Holocaust survivors. These topics were off-limits in our home. Whispered conversations between my parents were the most I heard spoken of that time in their lives. Our home was secular and full of anxiety. My father repeatedly told me not to let anyone find out I am a Jew. Given his concentration camp experience as a young boy, his fear was justified and I never questioned it. I grew up associating my Judaism with one thing only — fear — making it an identity that was easy for me to walk away from.

Painting with bright, vibrant colours has always been an antidote to the black and white quality of my family history. In the early 2000s, my creative process became much more conscious and I began to use art to recover my identity. I painted a series of works that addressed the subject matter I was never allowed to talk about as a child. I had been reading a series of essays written by Jewish theologians during and after the Holocaust and came across the stunning parallel many of them made between the crucifixion (the execution of one Jew 2000 years ago) and the murder of 6,000,000 Jews in the 20th century. Coupled with my fascination with Marc Chagall’s work and his paintings of the crucifixion that make the same association, my own paintings were born.

Since the beginning of that journey, my faith deeply affects my approach and how I express myself through painting. As an artist who painted the vast Canadian landscape, reconnecting with my identity as a Jew meant the discovery of another landscape in Israel. The land has always been a spiritual touchstone for me.

Describe your journey to becoming a professional artist. How did you find your direction and place as a fine artist in Vancouver?
I am a full-time artist, though I do still have a part-time job on the side. I’ve been told by many artists in various fields of expression not to quit the day job too quickly! The adjustments made to my lifestyle to pursue my artistic journey have been well worth it. There is no looking back.

You are prolific in both abstract interpretations of your natural surroundings and landscape realism. What inspires you to move between these different styles?
Growing up in Calgary, I was surrounded by an overwhelmingly beautiful landscape, from the giant Rocky Mountains to the endless flow of the prairies. Fully embracing who I was meant spending time in Israel and painting its landscape as well. Having lived on Vancouver Island and now in Vancouver, the Canadian west coast has been my muse as well. There is something about these lands that all speak deeply to my soul and contribute to my expression.

It is only in the last couple of years that I have ventured into abstract expression, though I’ve been told by other artists that my landscapes are just abstractions with a horizon line. But I wanted to explore being more “automatic” in my art, and paint in such a way that I was drawing from a deeper core, less reasoned and more intuitive. This to me is what defines the continuance of my art journey. I love painting reflections, whether the ocean, a mountain lake, the Sea of Galilee, or just a puddle. The water of the medium itself and the subject of water and reflections has always held significant spiritual meaning for me.

How did you connect with The Gallery at Matticks Farm? 
I connected on LinkedIn with Charles Vanderwilt and Liz MacKay of Fabulous Home Staging in Victoria. They are wonderful people with whom I have developed a great friendship. They are also avid art collectors. Liz reached out to Dawn Casson at The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm on my behalf and I started showing there in May, 2016.
What are you currently working on and what does the future hold for Sandy Blass?
I’ve just finished my last painting for a solo show opening at the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre on November 24, 2016. I’m exhibiting landscape paintings from Canada and Israel that are intended to speak to the push-pull of Diaspora Jews who call two countries home and what that means for me in particular. I have a feature coming up at the Gallery at Mattick’s Farm in March, 2017 — the show will largely consist of coastal landscapes.