A Passion for the Possibilities

By Tula Holmes
Scott Sandell, an artist and printmaker from Sag Harbor, is leading the effort to bring a graduate program in visual arts to the Stony Brook Southampton campus. “The Poet Apparently Jumped,” top right, and “Bjorkvik’s Pier” are two examples of his work. W.W. Burford

   Scott Sandell grabbed one of a dozen baseballs from a tall glass vase on his desk and began rubbing the red stitching as he held the ball up for inspection. “It’s a good design,” he said, admiring the ball’s leather cover, “a beautiful thing.” The Sag Harbor artist said that the driving force in his life is his “quest to make a beautiful object.”
    The objects in his case are predominantly prints. He adopted the medium while studying for a B.F.A. at the University of Minnesota and has continued to work in it ever since, at one point sneaking back into his old school to run prints overnight and eventually buying his own 2,500-pound press.
    Now, in addition to his passion for printmaking, he will lead a new graduate-level visual arts program at Stony Brook Southampton, beginning with operating the Almost Beachfront Digital Studio, which will turn out large-scale prints at the annual Writers Conference this month. “It’s a trial balloon,” he said, “we’ll see how it goes. My feelings were that any new program had to reflect the recent changes in the world.”
    In his office at the Shinnecock Hills campus recently, the 6-foot-3 58-year-old climbed onto his chair, squatting like a little boy about to play marbles. “I can’t sit still,” he said. “I’m never satisfied with what there is.”  He punctuated his words with his long fingers as if he were molding clay, then rested his head against his hand, echoing the lines of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
    A sailing enthusiast, dressed in topsiders and jeans for his interview, he comes aboard at Stony Brook Southampton in the midst of a transition to its new identity as a graduate arts facility. Visual arts is the latest discipline to be offered at the campus, which also offers M.F.A.s in theater, film, and creative writing and literature.
    Mr. Sandell tucked his shoulder-length white hair behind one ear and continued. “Our program needed to embrace new technology, recognize traditional methods, address contemporary issues in the visual arts, and provide a solid practical business experience to help artists negotiate the art world,” he said. “I think we’ve done all of these things with the classes we’ll be hosting this summer.”
    Robert Reeves, the Stony Brook associate provost in charge of the Southampton graduate arts campus, recruited Mr. Sandell last fall to start a visual arts program as the latest component of the rapidly evolving annual Southampton Writers Conference, which has become the traditional launching point for the college’s degree programs.
    Mr. Reeves said he first came to know Mr. Sandell’s work when his art was featured in The Southampton Review, or TSR, the literary and art journal published by the creative writing and literature M.F.A. program.
    Mr. Sandell and his wife, Catherine, used to come to the campus for evening events during the summer writing conferences. “Writing and painting are all the same in an artistic venture.” He recalled walking away “absolutely inspired.”
    Mr. Reeves asked him to describe his vision for a graduate level program that could incorporate the visual arts with creative writing and literature. “To be a part of this team,” Mr. Reeves explained, “You have to be able to build something from scratch based on our model.”
    Mr. Sandell went home and built a diorama out of foam-core board, complete with tiny classrooms and miniature artist studios. He laughed as he remembered changing his diorama into a brochure, “so that Reeves wouldn’t think I’m as nuts as I am.”
    Notwithstanding an inability to sit still, there is nothing nutty about this artist, whose installations, paintings, and prints can be found in collections from Tokyo to Dubai, and from South Africa to the secure interior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Kansas City.
    Jumping down from his chair and standing at his outsize drawing board-desk, he tapped his computer keyboard with ink-stained fingers to show off a 1970s photo of his mentor at the University of Michigan, the lithography professor Zigmunds Priede, who was connected to some of the great contemporary printmakers of the time — Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and Cy Twombly, among others.
    After college, Mr. Sandell took a job as a sail maker in Peewaukee, Wisc. He picked up extra money by driving a delivery truck for a racing sailboat company. But his zeal for printmaking pulled him back in the spring of 1976 to Minneapolis, for those all-nighter printmaking sessions in the university studios. “It was me and the Mississippi river rats,” the artist joked. “I developed a technique for mono prints wherein I could print unlimited colors with one press run.” He hopped off his chair again, this time to show an image of one of his prints from that period, a large, colorful work in the shape of a kimono.
    In the 1970s, Mr. Sandell went to New York City, found a dealer to represent him, bought a black Porsche, rented a loft in the Minneapolis warehouse district, bought his 2,500-pound press, and started making prints full time. Also a musician, he formed a band called the Rods and Cones. By 1979, he had had his first art shows in New York City and Chicago. But he continued to drive the sailboat delivery truck for fun.
    After delivering three boats to Yale in 1980, Mr. Sandell continued driving down I-95 on a whim until he reached the ferry to Long Island. “I went east searching for my idols: Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, and Larry Rivers,” he said as he returned to his perch on the chair. “I felt like I needed to get out of Dodge.”
    He sold his press and his Porsche and moved to Southampton. By 1990 he had settled in Sag Harbor with his wife and two sons.
    He conceded that he has been lucky to be able to support his family with his art, noting that “artists go through cycles of commercial success.” As a visiting artist at Pierson High in Sag Harbor for the last 10 years, he has been working on an installation piece consisting of 20 very small racing sailboats, which he said the students “have been dutifully building.” 
    The Stony Brook Southampton campus has been the victim of funding issues since Long Island University ran Southampton College there. “Developing a program that publishes fine prints could underwrite much of our visual arts program here at Stony Brook Southampton,” he said. “Our program also has the potential to join with the publishing operations at three other universities, Tandem Press, Tamarind Editions, and Vermillion Editions.”
    Musing about the future, he suggested that the inclusion of a visual arts component during the summer conferences might lead eventually to an M.F.A. in visual arts, which could in turn lead to an in-house design department, book publishing and print editions connected with The Southampton Review, workshops in Florence, Italy, and a visual arts semester abroad program, which would “make our program attractive to both M.F.A. candidates and practicing artists looking to develop and expand their work.”
    He pulled one knee up to his chin. “There is much to be excited about,” he concluded with pride, “and I’d like to think the possibilities are endless.”

    Tula Holmes is an M.F.A. candidate in the creative writing and literature program at Stony Brook Southampton.