Friday, October 21, 2011

Andrew Clemens: He Found a Voice in Sand

Among American folk artists the work of Andrew Clemens stands out as an amazing story of creativity while working under severe handicaps. Clemons, shown here, was born in 1852 in McGregor, Iowa. As the result of a severe illness at the age of five, diagnosed as “brain fever,” he was rendered deaf and mute for the rest of his life.

At age 13 Clemens was sent to the Iowa State School of for the Deaf and Dumb in Council Bluffs. The school was located in along the drainage of the Bridal Veil Falls near an area of exposed cliffs called “Pictured Rocks.” The sandstone exposed there has acquired a variety of colors from the minerals that have seeped from overhanging rocks and permeated the sandstone.

Clemens saw these sands as an outlet for his artistic talents. As one guide to his work explains it: “Clemens collected the sand from ‘Pictured Rocks’ and allowed the sand to dry. He separated the dry sand into piles of uniform grains of each color. These naturally colored grains formed the basis for Clemens’ sand paintings. To create his sand paintings, Clemens used only a few tools: brushes made from hickory sticks, a curved fish hook stick, and a tiny tin scoop to hold sand.” His simple tools are shown here.

Selecting the appropriate color, he tediously inserted the sand using the fish hook stick, grain by grain, into empty apothecary bottles, The brushes helped keep the picture straight. No glue was used. The sand was held in place only by pressure from the sand layered on top of it. When the picture was finished and the bottle full, it was sealed with a stopper.

His sand paintings included both original designs and reproductions of other images. Some, as three shown here, were created from bottom to top. Some had separate pictures on back and front. Even more amazing were those bottles that required he create his designs upside down. After completion these were sealed, turned over, and stood up on their openings. Few better uses have been found for empty bottles.

Clemens sold his creations in a McGregor grocery store. A small bottle was $1; more elaborate creations might go for as much as $8. He established a customer base among both locals and travelers looking for unusual souvenirs. It is estimated that during his brief lifetime, Andrew created hundreds of sand art bottles of which only about 50 are estimated to have survived. He is said to have created most of them in the six years between 1880 to 1886. Today they can fetch as much as $30,000 at auction. A number are in museums.

Clemens' efforts have never been duplicated. He both invented the art form and is likely its sole practitioner. I have seen sand paintings by American Indians, South Asian holy men, and folk artists. None can compare with the beauty and ingenuity of the designs this artist produced. Thus it is with a certain poignancy that we contemplate the label that was attached to the bottom each sand painting: “Put up by A. Clemens, Deaf Mute.”

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