Sandra Sell was looking in 2016 for something she didn't have in her creative life.
"I really missed having people to talk to about processes, ideas, collaboration," says Sell, an artist who creates expressive wood sculptures. "In the Army, you always had a group of people around you. Even if you were the boss, you had the option of getting input. An art career is self-driven. I wanted to make sure I was moving in the right direction. I wanted to make myself stronger, drive forward stronger. But I couldn't do it on my own."
The answer came during a workout at the gym with sculptor Robyn Horn.
"Because we both do sculpture, we have to keep our muscles flexible to handle the material and the tools. We were talking about how, in the past, groups of artists got together to eat, drink and argue about art. To me, that's the turning of energy; I told Robyn I wish we had that.
"She looked at me and said, 'Well, do it.' And I said, 'You know, I am going to do that.'"
And do it she did.
Sell connected with four other accomplished artists -- Elizabeth Weber, Barbara Satterfield, Mia Hall and Dolores Justus. Works by the six women are featured in the group's first show, the superlative "Part to Whole: The Making of Art, the Artist and the Artist Group" in the Galleries at Library Square, on the main library campus in downtown Little Rock through June 29.
How did Sell get an artists' group from the talking stage to an exhibition?
The retired Army sergeant first class, who moved to Arkansas in 2005 to pursue her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said she started by thinking about the people she admired.
"First, I looked at the people I was already friends with, those I've gone to and discussed things with. You've seen their growth and potential for knowing something you don't know ... it's looking for like-minded people willing to share what they know."
The Group of Artist Professionals (G.A.P. for short) started with Sell and Horn.
"I approached Elizabeth Weber next. She is a well-known painter who teaches creative crafts to children at Arkansas Children's Hospital and has good knowledge on connecting with people. Barbara Satterfield has great knowledge about packaging and planning. She ran an art gallery for a long time. She knows so much about organizing and has strong connections to Arkansas. Mia Hall was my teacher at UALR; her strength is academia and business. I felt we needed those backgrounds."
Hall left UALR in 2017 to become director of the Penland School of Craft in Penland, N.C., but she visits Arkansas regularly and the group also has met using teleconferencing.
"I met Dolores Justus when I helped Robyn deliver art to Dolores' gallery in Hot Springs. She's a brilliant painter, has gallery knowledge and does a lot of design work.
"When you want to strengthen the group, you want people who have their own specialties. Mine is people skills involved with being a soldier." When Sell, 57, retired after 21 years in the Army, she was chief of the Chemical Training Department at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
The first year, the artists met once a month, excepting July and December.
"It helped us bond," Sell says. "Last year, we had six meetings. This year, we're down to four because people need more studio time." They rotate among the members' homes so they can see one another's work.
"We have a light lunch; someone might suggest a conversational topic. We critique each other's work and talk about everything from finishes to mechanisms to [hanging] something on the wall. The artistic lines are really blurred among us. Robyn is a sculptor who also paints. Elizabeth is a painter who is doing sculpture; Barbara is painting on her ceramics with encaustic; Dolores and Robyn are collaborating; and Mia, who has worked in concrete and wood, is doing nature-based photo transfers on wood."
Respect and support
Hot Springs gallerist Justus says she has "the greatest" respect for the members of the group.
"As an artist, so much of what you do is solitary. It is wonderful to have this group ... to be able to discuss ideas, challenges and even fears related to my own practice of making art. They offer additional perspective and aren't in competition with you, but are supportive friends."
Little Rock resident Weber says she feels supported personally and professionally.
The group, she says, "pushes me to stretch beyond my corners and keep experimenting. It has given me a new sense of wonder ... Being a part of this group allowed me the courage to make the jump and purchase my home so I could have real space to work as an artist. I have never really had others in my corner telling me that what I create is important, even if it's just for my own personal and professional growth as an artist."
Conway-based Satterfield says this group of artists "confirms the value of the artistic process, a cyclical routine of thinking, making, exploring, developing, rethinking, remaking and mastering ways to give form to an idea. Our mutual conversations help temper frustrations, suggest solutions, applaud efforts and affirm successes."
The interactions and inspirations among the six are revealed in the works displayed in "Part to Whole."
"The show is very much about nature," Sell says. "At our third or fourth meeting, we were encouraged to bring something that inspired us. We were all inspired by the nuances that nature provides, what it can do to an object, such as causing the patina on metal to change."
Setting a goal
At her studio in the Woodyardville neighborhood south of the Little Rock city limits, Sell fires up her chainsaw. Sawdust flies as she carefully shapes a piece of wood. She has several works in progress, usually working from a drawing only a few inches in size that she uses as a reference.
A second building houses her gallery, office and space for drawing and painting.
"I've been really focused on developing my sculpture," she says. "I am trying to set myself a goal to create enough work so I can represent myself to a museum and have a show." Sell is represented by M2 Gallery in Little Rock and Justus Fine Art in Hot Springs.
Through her art, Sell says she is documenting how she experiences things.
"Typically, I'll start with a reaction or a response to an event and sit with that. I try to visualize what I'm feeling, to translate that into a visual language. Then I'll sit down with my sketchbook until I come up with something that would replicate what I think it might look like in physical form. Then I find wood that fits that design. Some types of wood speak closer to what you are trying to express."
Sell cites hickory wood as an example.
"When you think about hickory, what comes to mind? To me, strength. I have a piece about a relationship titled Compromise. There are two forms, which appear to lean against each other and support each other; the compromise is they are separated except for a small part that stays connected. I did a follow-up piece, Continued Compromise, made of red cedar. It is very splintery, not bonded like hickory. The wood communicates that the relationship is splintering and barely holding together."
Drawing and painting are also part of her creative output, but Sell says she understands wood best.
"I think it has a lot to do with the tools, the hands. I understand wood. I'm comfortable drawing, but when I paint, at the end of a day, I'm a wreck. I can't accept a painting that's calm; I have to get rid of it. The other day I burned about 20 paintings. With sculpture, I just understand it. I don't know why, but I do.
"I know how important it is at this point in my life to use the vitality of my muscles to make sculpture. I know there will come a time when I can't do sculpture."
An exhibition is born
Sell, who jokingly calls herself "the pusher" in the group, began advocating a group show in 2017.
"I enter a lot of competitions online. One day I got a call seeking entries for group exhibitions and I presented it to the others. We applied, but didn't get in. Rejection is the second thing you learn in art, after learning how to make art," she says, laughing.
After that rejection, Sell approached the Galleries at Library Square (formerly known as Butler Center Galleries).
That's when Rachel Golden, who curated "Part to Whole" came in.
"I felt we needed somebody who wasn't us to curate this," Sell says. "Rachel made the selections for the exhibit for the most part; some pieces were made especially for it. We didn't have the vision, we didn't pick out what elements made us connected even though we work so differently. Rachel did."
Golden, who curated Horn's 2018 exhibit "Shifting Gears" at Justus Fine Art, has a master's degree in art history from UALR. She and Sell met while there in graduate school.
"I felt the only way I could make it work was to get to know each of them and get familiar with their work," Golden says. "I went to each artist's studio and talked with them, looking for connections among them." Golden also attended some of their meetings.
Several artists worked on pieces right up to the show's deadline.
"I didn't know what some of the works looked like until I installed them at the gallery," she says. Golden also wrote the essay for the show's catalog, which was designed by Justus.
Despite the challenges, "Part to Whole" -- as its full title suggests -- gives insight to the process of making art and how collaboration influences creativity.
Golden cites Sell's sculpture Blue as an example.
"It is made as an honorific to Robyn and [acclaimed wood sculptor] Stoney Lamar. It might appear to be about form or texture, but there is much more to it."
Other examples: Justus painted a scene on a wood piece carved by Horn, and Weber made a major departure from earlier work with the group's encouragement.
After spending about a year on the exhibit, Golden says she's happy.
"The artists were very pleased with the installation and that's what matters to me. They deserve a lot of praise for their work. They are such generous spirits ... supportive, not threatened, no ego. There's no competition among these women, they support each other and that deserves to be celebrated."
Style on 04/14/2019
Print Headline: Drawn together: Artists connect to find support, share knowledge