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Meet Vintage Watercolorist Sandy Langford: Artist in Community

BEGINNINGS

Sandy Langford grew up on Queen Anne Hill, Seattle. Her early inspiration for painting was her sister who was six years older than Sandy.  Sandy would watch over her shoulder as she drew horses. I would say, “wow, that looks like fun.” Sandy believes that she fell in love with art not because she herself was especially gifted in art, but because of her sister’s artistic gift. 

Her parents encouraged her in art in an indirect way too, through their support of her siblings proclivities. Wanting to encourage Sandy’s older sister in her artistic development, the family toured the Seattle Art Museum many a Sunday. Wanting to encourage Sandy’s older brother in his engineering bent, every summer when they drove to California they stopped at all the bridges along the way, taking pictures of them. Sandy laughs and says, “by the time I came along, they were done.” Still these early immersions in art and man-made objects against the backdrop of nature, undoubtedly registered in Sandy’s heart and mind.

As Sandy found her own way, she took as much art as I could take at school. At Queen Anne High School, her art teacher, Ms. Sears, was very strong on rules. She taught her students how to stretch the paper on a board, wet it, then wait a day for it to dry. Sandy remember, “then you had one shot at getting the sky right. Otherwise you started over again.” In later years, when Sandy found Arches watercolor paper it opened up new possibilities. Unlike the thin watercolor paper they used in art class, it was so hardy. If you didn’t like one area, you could scrub it out with a toothbrush. If you wanted to change a painting you could soak it in the bathtub. “It’s so tough and versatile,” Sandy comments. Under Ms. Sears tutelage, the restrictions of watercolor were emphasized, not it’s freedom. Sandy would discover that later. 

After high school, Sandy attended Seattle Pacific College for two years. They didn’t have much art school at the time. So she transferred to the University of Washington where she graduated with a degree in art. She enjoyed the variety of art classes she took there, even though she didn’t click with the political bent of one of her teachers. She took some watercolor classes there; she loved the wood class, and working with throwing clay pots on the wheel, and taking sculpture from George Tsutakawa. For Sandy it was a real neat all-around experience. 

Even though she majored in art, Sandy did not aspire to make a living through art. For Sandy, art was more something that she wanted to have as a part of her whole life through.  Perhaps in the back of her mind she may have figured that she would get married, and wouldn’t have to make a living through art. She did meet a young man, an engineer named Fred. They got married and made their home in Redmond, WA. There Sandy settled in as a housewife, and soon mom of their two daughters which has now grown to two awesome son-in-laws and three grandsons. 

PATH INTO ART

Sandy’s path into watercolor is through community. As a mom, she was busy raising her kids. While she dabbled in stained glass and pottery, but they were only hobbies; her energies were given to her family. As her children left home, she could have become lonely and aimless. But she didn’t for this is when her passion for art was rekindled. 

Sandy was forty-seven, when she signed up for a class from Jeanne Marie Price in Bellevue. Jeanne was good at teaching adults because they’re restricted and scared, in contrast to kids who are so free and will fill the whole page with color. Sandy had a positive experience with her. Not only did she teach her students how to paint watercolor a freer way, but in a very short time she helped them display and sell their art in Bellevue at the senior center. At the first sale, Sandy sold three out of five paintings. She said to herself, “I want to do this the rest of my life.” Sandy isn’t sure if the turning point for her was that someone else liked her work, or that she just loved doing it. She does know that from that point on, she painted every moment she could. It was her passion. “I would get up in the morning and before I ate breakfast, or got dressed, I was painting,” she reflects. “I want that passion again. But life gets in the way.”

One friend that Sandy made in that first class was Sonja Ravet. Sandy and Sonja were really good at mentoring each other. At the time, they were both painting flowers. But they did them very differently. Sonja went on to teach art classes herself. Sandy did teach one class, but it was a long way north, and she didn’t get home till 11pm at night, exhausted. She realized that teaching isn’t her thing; she’s better with one on one friendships or smaller communities.  Sandy’s passion for art was rekindled in community, and it was nourished by the rich artistic community in the Puget Sound region. 

COMMUNITY OF ARTISTS

Sandy’s story is woven into the threads of the incredibly rich watercolor community in Washington. She’s taken classes from artists outside the Puget Sound region, like Gerald Brommer, who is from Carmel, CA. Sandy liked his work and when she met him she was thrilled that his personality matched his art. But for the most part, her instructors and artistic friends read like a veritable Who’s Who of Washington watercolorists. 

Sandy likes to take classes from people whose artwork she loves. She’s taken a couple of classes in Coupeville. One of those was taught by Glen Oberg. Sandy remembers the class had a great time painting outside every day and that it was packed with really good artists: John Ringen, himself a watercolor legend and a lifelong friend of Glen; Marty Rogers who became a beloved friend of Sandy; and Nancy Fulton, Glen Oberg’s cousin.   

She took a week-long class taught by Jerry Stitt on Camano Island. This was amazing for her because as a child, from 6 months to 18 years, her family came to Camano every August for one or two weeks at Madrona Beach Resort  on the West side of the Island.  At the end of the holiday, when the kids piled into the back seat to go home to Seattle, there would be a tear in Sandy’s eyes. So the class tied together two of Sandy’s loves: for painting and Camano. The class painted at many of the same places Sandy remembered as a child. In that class, Sandy also met April Nelson, daughter of northwest artist Jack Dorsey, and she became a precious art friend. 

A number of art communities have nourished Sandy in her art journey. Sandy got involved in Art League North. They met at the Fire Station Mount Vernon.  After the official meeting they would  go out to lunch afterwards. This is where her friendship with Marty Rogers deepened. Marty’s husband Earl Jorgensen was a part of that group. So were Glen Oberg and Nancy Fulton. She remembers “magic moments” painting plein air with them. That was her first artist group. 

Sandy also was also part of a wonderful critique group with Betty Dorotik. Members of this group grew together, ate together, and enjoyed each other’s company. All Bellevue gals, they now live on Camano Island, Whidbey Island, Idaho, and Montana, with one, Pia Messina, passing on. She remembers those as being “rich times.” 

Another small community is a couple of friends who have been painting weekly for over twenty years. Sandy and Genny Rees began painting on Mercer Island in the late 1990’s. When the first building that they met in got torn down, they moved to the community center. Sandy says that she and Genny had become so close that they were going to meet or else. A few years later Seiko Konya come along. Sandy remembers that Seiko was obviously gifted with painting, but was kind of struggling with painting flowers and backgrounds. “And then she subtly did this little portrait and our mouths just dropped open,” Sandy remembers.  “The portraits are so easy for her to do. Particularly if she does family.” Sandy and Genny encouraged her to try for a show. Seiko entered a painting of a violinist in the Northwest Watercolor Society show. So the first time of trying, Seiko got in the show, got an award, and sold the painting. Seiko was off and running. 

Like Seiko, Sandy has been encouraged by the community of artists. Being in this community is very humbling for her because she sees their paintings, and aspires to paint like that. But Sandy realizes that each artist comes with their own inward voice, a style that will be their painting voice. It’s going to be different for every person. “I can’t paint like Seiko. I can’t do those portraits,” she points out. But she feels very lucky about the friendships that she’s made through art. So much of her artistic journey has been about the friendships she’s made and being around artists outside of just painting. “There’s something very common in all of us,” Sandy says, “we love the beauty around us, we have much in common in how we see life and what’s really important to you. We’re not really money grabbers. If we had to pay to paint, we would do that. 

JOYS AND STRUGGLES OF ART

For Sandy, the joys came so much at first. “You were taking a while piece of paper, and then there’s a flower (painted on it) and I was thinking, ‘Boy, I’m pretty good.’ She continues, “You start out by being amazed at what you can do. And the longer you are at it, the more you ask of yourself, the harder it becomes. I would want to be painting better at this time than I am.” Sandy points out that though artists usually paint alone, “We can’t live as a recluse. We’ve got to be engaged in life to be painting life.” So while Sandy doesn’t like to be interrupted when she’s painting, she knows that’s unrealistic when you have children and grandchildren.

Sandy has set up a small studio in their home, just off the dining room. It’s part of the house, not an isolated room. The studio has windows on two sides, and so has wonderful light. Sandy has finally gotten shades for the windows so that she can close it off at night, keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Sandy’s studio – a designated place to paint next to the kitchen/dining room, the hub of the home – ties together two of her passions: her people and her painting.  But how to hold the two together is a conundrum for Sandy. 

ON WATERCOLOR

Sandy loves how with watercolor you can be painting and your brush runs through a a little puddle of water and the paint color just – woosh – magically and spontaneously color the clear water and spread over the paper. She is fascinated by how you can paint layer upon layer of watercolor, letting the transparent colors build on each other.

When Sandy paints flowers she would put in a wash of a little yellow, then red. From the outset the painting had a glow and this became a kind of trademark. Her friends would walk into a gallery and see a painting and know it was her work before they saw her name on the painting. Sandy remembers being struck by how you can erase the pencil marks from watercolor paper after you paint on it. She likes Arches Watercolor paper, and is loyal to Windsor Newton paints. She enjoys how it takes very little for an artist to go off to class or paint with friends: “When I go off to class I have to have paper, paints and brushes. That’s it. It’s pretty simple.” 

She also knows that watercolor is not easy. You have to keep yourself going, keep growing, keep learning. There’s always the danger of getting the painting to tight. You have to know when to walk away from a painting and try a new subject matter. You need to know when to push yourself and try something uncomfortable, or meet a new teacher along the way. For example, she’ll take a class from Eric Weigart, when she has to “loosen up” her paintings. 

Watercolor is a challenging medium. But less challenging when the artist is walking with the encouragement and wisdom of the community of artists. 

LESSONS ALONG THE WAY

A wise old artist, Chuck Webster, once told Sandy that she would have to do her painting by herself. “That’s where you’re going to do your successful painting,” he said. Then added, “make sure once a week you’re in community.” Sandy has taken his guidance seriously. She paints in her studio and each week tries to connect with other artists on a weekly basis, whether through a class or the small communities of artists she is involved in. 

She took one class from Gerald Brommer on integrating collage and acrylic in a more abstract way. She remembers that he was a phenomenal teacher, but was actually more impressed by the fact that even though he was in his 70’s, had recently had a hip replacement, and was jurying the Northwest Watercolor Society show, and was out every night, he was still so energetic. Sandy asked herself, “where did he get his energy?” And she concluded, “from painting.”

Many of the lessons we learn in the context of community is not so much what people say, but it is how people live. 

LEGACY

When asked about her legacy, Sandy is very humble. She hopes her family enjoys her paintings. She laughs and says her art legacy is very simple: “just anything other than they used the painting in the birdcage.” She would like to hear from the grandchild saying, “I loved it when she painted me playing baseball.” She adds that when an artist gets rid of a piece of work, we don’t know if it’s treasured. “Every once-in-a-while I’ll hear from a person who bought a painting long ago and they’ll say, ‘Oh we love our painting.’” That means a lot to her. 

Sandy remembers how once a lady came into the “Art Barn” hosted by Art League North at the Tulip Festival. She wanted Sandy to match her bedspread, and the painting was going to go over the bed. Sandy chuckles and points out that “It was a nightmare…you don’t want that.” But still she did it. And it was worth it! This woman and her husband have since bought 6 paintings. They have visited Sandy and Fred, and send Christmas cards every year.  They have become part of Sandy’s artistic community too!

Sandy is just satisfied “If she’s given any joy along the way.” 

EPILOGUE

This article has been especially fun since I got to know Sandy all the way back in 1992-1993. Jenny and I were married in June of 1992. We spent the following year living on Camano Island where I served a one year pastoral internship at Camano Chapel. During this time I got involved in a watercolor class that was taught at the senior center on Camano Island through Skagit Valley College. Part way through the year our teacher left, and I assumed the role of teaching the class in her place. One of the students was Nancy Axell, who was featured in our 2018 Vintage Show. Another was Sandy Langford who is, of course, in the 2019 show. This was a very fruitful year of painting for me. I entered a number of national and international shows and got accepted in many, and even won a few prizes. At that time I even considered going into art as a career. In the end, I decided to put my paintbrushes away and finished up my seminary studies and went into full-time ministry. What a joy it has been, in returning to Washington State, and living in Redmond, to reconnect with Sandy and to be neighbors. And what a joy it is to feature her beautiful artwork in our Vintage show.

Author: Jason Dorsey

2019 VINTAGE WATERCOLORISTS OF WASHINGTON

  • Saturdays, March 9, 16, 23 and 30, 10am-5pm
  • Artist Reception: March 9, 3-5pm
  • At Sunnyshore Studio: 2803 SE Camano Drive, Camano Island, WA
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