Sandra Ono

Bay Area, sculptor // November 2012
I read about biology and the human body for inspiration...Our bodies are so complex and I want to know about each part and its function.The body is an incredible point of intersection where the visceral and psychological meet.

Sandra doesn’t mess around— she buys in bulk. Because her work demands large quantities of single items, the Berkeley-based sculptor often finds her materials by roaming dollar stores, rather than art supply shops. Without knowing exactly what she’s looking for, she wanders down the fluorescent-lit aisles with one criterion in mind: the potential for transformation.

Sandra takes everyday objects like balloons, aluminum foil, Ziploc bags, and rubber bands and…makes them strange. She manipulates her materials—melting, twisting, and unraveling—to create biomorphic forms that recall the human body, often gleaning inspiration from anatomy, physiology, and biology. Her evocative, organic-looking sculptures are at once eerie and mysterious, yet inexplicably familiar.

When we visited Sandra this summer, she was an Artist in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts where she was awarded a two-month stint in the 1,800 square-foot Project Space, a work space offered to an ever-changing lineup of artists. There, she set up separate work stations where she methodically tended to projects incorporating such varied materials as ACE bandages, nail polish, black acrylic paint, sand, and mop heads. In the process of transforming materials, Sandra explores biological structure and functionality, but also utilizes specific tactile qualities to give physical weight and dimension to internal, psychological states. At first glance Sandra’s art appears stark and unknowable— but on closer inspection strips of dried acrylic, rolled bandages, and sea anemone-like layers of black party streamers become recognizable, unexpectedly bringing a viewer back to something familiar but through a different lens.

Sandra’s work calls to mind Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie or ‘defamiliarization.’ Shklovsky, one of the key literary figures in Russian Formalism, coined the term to describe an artistic technique in which a work forces its viewer or reader to see the familiar in a strange way, therefore putting perception into question. By delaying or disrupting our recognition of something, we have to encounter it in a new way; because our minds are surprised and unprepared they are prompted to wonder. When looking at Sandra’s work my ability to ‘know’ was suspended and this created a space where I had to reimagine my sense of reality— this isn’t necessarily a comfortable experience, my brain was over-activated, confused and scrambled for meaning. But I was shaken out of complacency, forced to reinterpret, and pushed to experience her materials and forms as if I’d never seen anything like them before.

What mediums do you work with?
I work primarily with utilitarian consumer goods.

Your sculptures are evocative of organic forms, yet they are made entirely from synthetic materials—which creates an interesting tension in the work. Can you tell us more about the interplay between organic and synthetic in your pieces?
Working with dichotomies and paradoxes is interesting to me because of the tension it creates. I find transforming something utilitarian into something non-functioning and something synthetic into an organic form appealing because through transformation I think impersonal materials with no sentiment become personalized through process. Tension is something I try to include in my work or I feel like it falls flat. It doesn’t always happen but it is something I try to work towards.

You work with various materials, how do you go about choosing them—what is your criteria?
I usually am drawn to a product based on its materiality and function. I take regular trips to the dollar store and personal hygiene aisle and usually know when I see something that has potential to become something else.

I’m drawn to products that in some way have contact with our bodies (for example ACE bandages or nail polish) and I look for a tactile component that allows me to manipulate and transform the material.

Where do you usually draw inspiration from?
I look at microscopic photography and cellular structures a lot and I read about biology and the human body for inspiration. Our bodies are so complex and I want to know about each part and its function. I’m interested in how we are held together and how our internal functionality adjusts and responds to our external conditions. The body is an incredible point of intersection where the visceral and psychological meet.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Having a studio allows me to have a place to be cut off from distractions and hear my own thoughts. I keep my studio as organized as possible because I work in a small space and there are so many different materials being used at the same time.

What risks have you taken in your work?
I try to be really conscious of taking risks and not to get too comfortable in one way of working. So much of my process is experimentation. Risks I take are investing time and money into projects that may never leave my studio and can end up in the dumpster.

I don’t bemoan this process because I think it is just part of making something. Even if it might fail, sometimes I just need to see something in person to decide if there’s a possibility that it might work.

How do you navigate the art world?
I’m still learning as I go.

You soon will be finishing up a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts—has working in the environment changed or shifted your work, and how so?
Having the opportunity to work in the Project Space at the Headlands Center for the Arts has definitely influenced my work. The encompassing nature of the Headlands in combination with the interior of the Project Space has crept into this group of work and informed turns my work has taken. It’s been such an awesome and inspiring experience.

It has been so nice having all this space to have all of my work laid out in the studio concurrently because it allows the work to be in conversation and for one project to inform the other. It’s also incredibly inspiring to be with other artists here— to eat dinner together, to have conversations, and just to be around so much talent.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m experimenting on some larger scale work that I will install at Kala Art Institute’s Addison and Milvia window and at Southern Exposure.

Do you have a motto?
Keep going to the studio.

To see more of Sandra’s work: