In Conversation With…
Sanford Biggers, Artist
“People need to be able to understand blackness in a more nuanced way. It doesn’t look any one type of way and it doesn’t sound any one type of way. It is myriad”
…an interdisciplinary artist, meaning I create through various mediums: film, video, installation, sculpture, drawing, original music and performance. I started drawing and taking art seriously in high school when I did a series of portraits: Miles Davis, Ray Charles, and Mahalia Jackson using pencil drawings and Grandfather’s Hands experimenting with oils. I was really excited about them and showed them in class. My art teachers—Mrs. Nichols and Mr. Drew—championed my works so my high school put them on display and that resonated deeply with me. No more was I just ‘drawing.’ I began to see the impact that my art could have on people and that was deep. Shortly thereafter, LYLE SUTER, a black artist who taught at Beverly Hills High School became an important mentor and early guide. It was important to have someone who looked like me, not counting family, encouraging and shaping my ambitions.
I did not have the normal pressures or concerns in sharing with my parents that I wanted to be an artist. I was fortunate to have a cousin, JOHN BIGGERS, who was a renowned realism painter who had achieved some level of success, so there was an example somewhere within our family, in our universe, of what the lifestyle in success could look like. It wasn’t a completely abstract idea, and to my father and my mom’s credit they both knew that I was the kind of child and student that was easily distracted and bored in school. They saw that I really had an inkling for making art and seemed to say, “he has found this for himself and is invested. Let him do it and see where it goes.’
At present, I am in-residence here in Rome at the American Academy. What that means is that I am given unfettered time to research and create new work. It’s an incredible opportunity to study objects and motifs from antiquity but to also collaborate with other scholars, artists, historians and composers. I will be here until the end of August. On completion before returning to Columbia where I teach, I will deliver some type of workshop and participate in an exhibition of a solo work or a piece done in collaboration with one of the other Academic Fellows here.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
My dad is a doctor—a brain surgeon—so when I was teenager and told him that I wanted to become an artist he had a, “okay if that is what you think you want to do then you should know the requirements.” It is like how an engineer becomes an Engineer or a physicist would become a Physicist; “Don’t just think about it, do it. Give it everything you got. Know the ins and outs of your craft. Know the history. Know the lineage of your field.” I took that to heart and worked to be very knowledgeable.
A lot of people use the verbiage mining to canvas a number of things. Any idea I have, I can create something fairly easily, but I like to mine through that creation and say to myself each time, “the first idea was good, maybe the second and third idea could be great,” so I can continue to push myself. I am never easily satisfied. I keep pushing further and further into an idea, a concept, you name it.
7:30AM - 9:30AM First part of the day is when I typically do things for myself, such as a little bit of workout. My exercise routine is really simple. I have adapted it to accommodate wherever I am. I focus on body weight, push-ups, yoga, and sun salutations (i.e., really basic stuff). I find right now at my age that consistency is more important than intensity some times. I am gradually getting back into mediation and found that does wonders for me. I lived in Japan for 3 years, so I started to get into it in the mid-90s. I really got into it when I started going to Vipassana, 10-day silent yoga meditation retreats. Very intense, meditating ten hours per day. The mind is powerful. When I finish one of these retreats I literally feel like I can see people’s energy and aura without speaking to them. You become hyper-sensitive to noise, sounds, and vibrations.
Coming out of Vipassana in the early 2000s, I have found myself doing very labor-intensive works like PRAYER RUG (pictured below) a 20ft x40ft sand mandala made out of colored sand. More than 300 hours were required to pour colored sand on the floor with no adhesive and no drawing for reference, so if you moved to fast or sneezed you could ruin the whole thing. When I lived in Japan, I watched Buddhist monks create these. It is about impermanence and meditation. That was the importance of making the piece: knowing that it would live for a moment in a museum, in people’s memory, and then it is gone—released to the East River.
If I am on the East coast, then I start the day with a few calls and emails. Now here in Rome I find myself waking up even earlier with the baby.
10:00AM I may take a little nap until my bio-rhythms adjust. No small feat considering within the course of one week I can be in New York, Boston, London and then back to Rome. See why I need a nap?
1:00PM Around this time I am starting to get out of the apartment and into the library, the archives, and the city. The library here is world-class, intimate, and private with a rare book section filled with Plato and ancient illuminated manuscripts. It is amazing to go into this temperature-controlled room and read these books. They even let you touch the pages, clean hands of course! The thing with Rome is that you can walk out in any direction and you will find something that is several hundred of years old. That is my approach to research: making it tactile. Sometimes I head out with the baby strapped to my chest.
I lived in Italy for a year when I was an undergrad at Morehouse, but was not to in tuned to the food as I am now. I mean I knew it was good, but I wasn’t into the particulars. The thing about the Italian menu is that there is so much that does not get imported to the US. Recently, I have been having a lot of pasta with fennel, eggplant, and artichoke. My beverage of choice is a Negroni Sbagliato. Legend has it that a bartender at Milan’s famous Bar Basso ran out of gin—requisite for a traditional Negroni—and substituted with prosecco. It was a hit and the Negroni Sbagliato was born.
4:00 – 5:00PM Around this time I start to head home so I can get the baby settled down before we have dinner.
7:00PM It’s dinner time. The American Academy of Rome is all-inclusive so the apartment is there, the studio is right there across the parking lot, and we have a chef. Alice Waters, the mother of organic California cuisine, developed the food program here. Everything we have is farm to table, locally grown.
As my wife and daughter start to wind down their day, my serious workday is just beginning.
9:00PM to 4:00AM This is my preferred time to work because there is less distraction, less phone calls, less emails, and less demands on my time. I don’t require much sleep. I am a night owl. A definite positive is that this makes me perfect for our daughter’s late-night feedings.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
I have been thinking about this pretty consistently lately. There are some personal goals and some community-related goals. I want to create some type of platform or residency that will be able to support the development of young interdiscplinary artists, like myself, who work somewhere between visual art, performance, music, and public speaking; those who are not easily defined in one specific category. I find that for artists like us there is no one who understands what we do and everyone is quick to put us into categories. The artist(s) who can transverse these categories find it hard to get their first shows and exhibitions. Those who are outside of the box create the most interesting stuff. I have come up against the type of exclusion and restriction many times in my career. I know what the terrain is out there so I want to be able to help those artists.
There are two books that are always with me albeit in more travel friendly versions while the larger hardcovers I keep at home. Both books I picked up during my time in Japan. The first is WABI-SABI (Leonard Koren), a Japanese Shinto and Buddhist idea that real beauty and real perfection is imperfection. The title is a term that came out of the tea ceremony. The second is DAO DE JING or TAO TE CHING (Lao-Tzu), which speaks to the way of life and virtue. Wabi-Sabi teaches you that the perfection of life is in the things that you perceive to have gone wrong. Did they really go wrong or did they present an opportunity for you to correct?
Beyond that aggregates seem to be the way right now. I read news aggregates NY Times, WSJ, Fox, Art News, which drives me nuts, but they do the job. When I travel I often pick up The New Yorker, Art Forum or sometimes GQ or Esquire. I am really into the Stitcher podcasts. It is an aggregate also. Right now, for obvious reasons, I am listening to a 25-episode series about the fall of the Roman Empire. I see the connections right now between it and America.
Prince – all day, all night. My favorite songs are ancient bootlegs and back sidetracks that still have not come out even after his passing. When I was a kid, Prince and my dad shared the same accountant. Every time Prince would come in he would give this accountant a set of whatever he had worked on, but that accountant was not a big Prince music fan so he would give everything to my dad because he knew that I was. As a result, I had The Black Album way before it was even mentioned in Rolling Stone. I learned to play piano from all of those studio outtakes and am inspired by him and Thelonious Monk still to this day with my band MOON MEDICIN.
· ‘The God’, a 13-minute instrumental
· ‘Don’t Play Me’ an acoustic guitar
· ‘17 Days’ - not the one everyone knows. I have the original version of him working the song out on the piano in the studio
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
iPhone - I hate to admit, but it is a necessity to control my NYC studio when I am away. I have a studio manager who I send sketches and mock-ups, and throughout the day we are working digitally.
Earbuds – Noise cancelling headphones that I can put on when I am out and about, on a plane or even just walking. Many times music is not even playing, but they allow me to be in my zone without interruption.
Sunglasses – I have a whole roster. I collect them; I am never without.
A Good Attitude – Gets me through all of the congestion of life. It keeps me sane. It is a holdover from my time in Japan and Buddhist teachings. I find that as I get older I need to flex less. A good attitude is better than charm.
Black Geography - My network. It’s partially because I went to an HBCU. I know the importance of a solid network and how far reaching we are; there is always a Morehouse man, a Spellman woman, a Howard alum etc.. Forget six degrees of separation, if you are Black with a degree then there is one-degree of separation. Anywhere I go I make certain I establish at least one contact so there is always an open door. I think this is essential for Black folks. We have to have each other’s back like that.
“For artists and creators it is important to consider not only what an artwork means or how it operates in society today, but what will it tell future generations after us.” - In relation to his 2018 commission of BAM (For Michael) at the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum