The work of Sandra Sheehy has evolved from a deep sense of the colours, shapes and structures of the natural world around her. The densely detailed sculptural forms that she creates emerge from a need to express her wonder and fascination with life and existence:
‘My work begins with strong inner urges and impulses. They surge and require my hands to express it with objects I am drawn to, stones, shells, threads, paper, all grabbed together. I bind up details, tuck away and conceal, bury things deep into folds. I am secretive and open at the same time. Sometimes I feel the need to burn them open again. The threads and material shrivel away under the flame and expose the things I worked so long to hide. I feel the fire clears away the surface just as in nature to allow new life to spring up. My fingers move quickly, there is no need to stop and appraise, no more than a spider would or a bird building a nest, I know what needs to be done. They are complete when I am sated.’
Though abstract, her work is deeply inspired by natural forms. She is absorbed by intricate cell-like formations linked to body, flora, fauna and minerals. One of her most inspirational places is the Mineral Gallery at The Natural History Museum in London. Whilst not landscape in any traditional sense, her work absorbs the natural world into its making. The obsessive nature of her working process creates an almost visionary intensity in her art. Her work is an expression of how she feels within this physical world that we are entirely a part of. She absorbs the textures of stones, shells, cobwebs, insect eggs and lichen and melds this sensual experience of the natural world into her art:
‘My work is deeply personal and intuitive. I use a myriad of different materials in my art, many taken from the landscape; stones, shells or feathers. Although my work is not an obvious representation, the landscape and nature that surrounds me is a very powerful influence. I absorb it and then express it through a very personal, distinct language. Found objects form a very important part in my creative process. I see other lives in so many things. For example, a tea strainer mesh is a fly’s eye, a fragment of lace is a piece of dead coral. The possibilities are endless and endlessly compelling. The reshaping, reusing and giving new context to discarded things whether natural or man-made has always been at the very core of my work and my artistic vision’.
Despite the fact that that she is from Norfolk and has worked for many years in Suffolk, Sandra Sheehy’s work is much better known in the USA than here in Britain. She has had three solo shows at the Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York.
Her work was described by renowned art critic Roberta Smith in the New York Times as ‘an extravagant, compressed world unto itself, at once beautiful and grotesque, natural and wilfully made’. Edward Gomez has written in Raw Vision magazine that her works ‘..evoke a primordial, unstoppable urge to grow…captured and communicating something unmistakeable about the urgency and exhilaration of a life-affirming force to which art-making itself bears witness.’
In 2015, a major exhibition at The John Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin brought together the work of the famous Czech outsider artist Anna Zemankova (1908-1986) and Sandra Sheehy in an exhibition titled ‘Botanical’ which explored both artists’ obsession with natural forms. In 2016, she featured in an exhibition at The American Folk Art Museum in New York called ‘Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die’ where the curator Valerie Rousseau wrote about her work: ‘They possess both the resilience of vital organs and the fragility of butterfly wings or layers of skin disfigured by fire.’
Whilst her work is held in important international collections such as the abcd Collection in Paris and The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, it remains rare for UK museum visitors to see her work. Landscape Rebels at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich represents a unique opportunity for British audiences to experience her powerful and intimate work at first hand.