Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Theda Sandiford, an artist and the creator of Wonder Women, 2018 mixed media on fabric.
During a recent visit to the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, members of VTLO and I were thrilled to view Wonder Women, 2018 by Theda Sandiford, displayed in the Stair-gazing exhibition space. It is a 10 x 8 feet self-portrait printed on fabric and embellished with embroidery and found objects. We had just concluded the publication of a series of seven blogs that we had entitled Wonder Women. Coincidence? Yes, and like-mindedness for sure. We decided we had to get acquainted with the woman who not only created a gigantic and vibrant artwork, but also shared our penchant for alliteration. Listen in to our conversation with the multi-talented artist and accomplished businesswoman.
Q: How did you make the decision to become a professional artist?
A: I came to art via art therapy. I had a therapist who felt that traditional talk therapy wasn’t enough for me because I could talk myself out of my breakthroughs. When I found myself with a pen in my hand and I was drawing, the things I was creating were from my subconscious self, separate from what my brain was trying to control. I realized I had access to a tool that wasn’t just for my mental health; it was a necessity for me for processing any challenges I was facing in my life. Now my artwork has evolved to a tool that allows me to pick up the things that bother me and put them somewhere. It becomes even more special when someone else can see themselves in the piece and they can connect to it because they see something similar in their own life. They get that same relief as well! It’s not just for me; it’s for other people.
Q: You created Wonder Women, 2018 in collaboration with others. How did you have the vision for this beautiful piece of work and how did you convince others to help you create the piece?
A: Well, social networking is an amazing thing. Many people use it as a one-way communication, but, that’s not what I’m using it for. I’m using it for looking at what issues matter to me that also matter to other people, identifying those individuals, engaging with them, and then finding ways to have them contribute. I often source my materials through Instagram. I will literally post on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, saying that I am collecting something like a pull top from milk cartons or the mesh bags from oranges. I make a post about what it looks like and how I use it. People send materials to my office and my studio. I also place postcards around my community with notes of what I am looking for and the dates that I’m in my studio, and I invite people to drop in. I have a chalkboard outside my studio saying “Come in” and people drop by and bring in buttons, old t-shirts, fabric, or yarn. I am collecting and receiving things and input from the community at all times.
For Wonder Women, 2018, I decided I was going to do a series of sewing circles. It is print on fabric, two dimensional, and I wanted to put 3-D into the piece. I realized there was no way I was going to be able to finish my vision by myself. So for four weeks I invited people to come into the studio and 20 people showed up! Men showed up! I definitely wasn’t expecting that. There were people who showed up that had ideas of how the piece could be brought to life that were different from my own. I really felt that in the communication as we worked together, and in the community we were building in the process of the sewing circle because it became a very fluid conversation. People began to take ownership of the piece and bring their own personal expertise. All I had to do was allow for that to happen. In so many ways we want to control the outcome. We know what we want and we want to control how to get to A to Z. I knew what I wanted for Z, but I just allowed for all of the letters in between to happen in whatever way with the skill sets of the people that were available to me. And we got there!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am always working on multiple things! I am working on a series of prints and mixed media works called Big Mouth. It is all the things I want to say, but can’t say in certain environments for fear of being labeled as too aggressive. So, this series is about all the things I wish I could say unfiltered. I’m having fun with it! I am also working on some fiber projects right now, wrapping ropes with different yarns and then sewing in beads and toys. Basically it’s an allegory for hair and my relationship to hair — there’s politics around hair.
Q: When did you first realize you were doing your life’s work?
A: I’ve always known I was an artist even though I wasn’t always practicing art. I feel like my life’s work is creating an opportunity for people to be heard, including myself.
Q: What’s the one word you would use to describe you and why?
A: Curious. In my head, everything is always: “What if?” What if I said this? What if I tried something I’d never done before? What if they’re not responding to me? Is it really something going on with them? What would happen if I tried? And what if I didn’t? I think curiosity drives those questions. Literally everyday my to-do list is “what’s going to happen when I try something?”
Q: What’s the one daily practice that energizes you the most?
A: I make art everyday. Even if it’s journaling, sketching or some days I just pin things on Pinterest. The collection of those ideas, for me, is thinking about imagery and thinking about how it makes me feel and how it makes others feel. If I put an hour into it in the morning before I get to my corporate job then I’ve already done something good for myself before I’m in service to others.
Q: What can women do to realize their ambitions?
A: Go for it! I know it sounds simple but I think a lot of women wait to be allowed. We don’t ask for the promotion, we wait for when we think someone will grant it to us. I say forget it; just go for it!
Q: How has being an effective communicator enabled you to be an effective leader in your field?
A: A lot of people have ideas, but don’t know how to get them across. Because I think of communication as being so important, I’m thinking, what am I communicating in my visual art? What do I want people to know about how I see the world well after I’m gone? I’m not doing this because I think I’m going to be famous, but after I’m gone I want that moment in time of how I view the world to be there. A lot of communication is listening. I don’t think a lot of people do that. In many conversations you are waiting for your turn to speak and therefore you’re not really present and you’re not really communicating. I try to listen and engage people. That creates an opportunity for other people to take ownership and achieve goals. Communication allows you to have a team rather than being a lone wolf.
Q: Who is the most interesting influencer for you right now?
A: My mom. The reason I say my mom is that my dad is 89 and has Alzheimer’s and my mom’s 83 and they live at home. I don’t know how she does it. I see strength in her as my dad’s primary caregiver — in how the relationship has shifted from husband and wife to caregiver and receiver. I wonder if I’m strong enough to do that when the time comes for me. That inspires me and that frightens me at the same time.
Q: What motivates you?
A: Beauty. I see beauty in everything. There was a snow a couple weeks ago and I was with some people and they were complaining about the slush and snow and I was like, “Well don’t you see how the snow sparkles with the light and makes everything look like fairy dust?” And everyone looked at me like I was crazy! They said, “I gotta shovel it!” And the snow became this horrible thing and all I saw was the sparkle. I am inspired by beauty and I can see it everywhere. Especially the things that other people find ugly. It’s probably the reason I use recycled materials that people think are garbage. I pick up things off the street because they’re beautiful to me.