We had the good fortune of connecting with Sandra Luehrsen and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sandra, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking.
I’ve never thought of myself as a risk taker. I’m a fraidy cat — not a bungee jumper or deep-sea diver. But I took a whopper of a risk when I left a well-paying position as an assistant dean at Arizona State University to make ceramic art for a living. I like to think my risk was calculated. Truth be told, I followed my heart more than my head. At the time, I was reading books like “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow” by Marsha Sinetar. I also listened to audio tapes by Joseph Campbell, a professor of at Sarah Lawrence College. Campbell researched mythologies and religions of the world. He said on one of those tapes, “When you are on the right path, invisible hands will come to your aid.” I listened. My move to change careers didn’t feel like a decision. It felt like those invisible hands Campbell talked about pushing me forward. Even in those times when bills mounted, I never regretted leaving my administrative position. I am an artist – not a hobbyist or art tourist – this is who I am. When I left ASU, I committed to do both the enjoyable and the hard work of art.
There’s also risk in the art itself. Shouldn’t I make what sells or is currently in vogue? After all, the art will have to get accepted into exhibits and fairs and, ultimately, it must sell. But for me, art that sells or trends isn’t often what I want to make. So, what does a working artist who needs to make a living do? I follow my heart and let those invisible hands push. If I’m not excited during the making processes, viewers will be bored looking at my sculpture or wall works. I’ve sought to find my own voice and to make the best art that only I can make.
In 2016, I felt the need to get out of my comfort zone. It was time to take another risk. I learned basic mono-printing and revisited collage – an art form in which I engaged years earlier. I took a class from Ron Bimrose who enrolled in my ceramics class when I was a graduate teaching assistant. Ron, a fine artist himself, teaches printmaking at the Mesa Arts Center (https://www.ronbimrose.com). After making ceramic sculpture for so long, it felt strange and uncomfortable using paper and stinky ink. The printing press operates a little like a clay slab roller but setting the pressure is still mystifying to me. I make monoprints using mixed media. I found a way to come back to my comfort zone somewhat (see photo with 1 ceramic wall work and 2 prints). I manipulate digital images of my ceramic art and incorporate the resulting archival printouts into my mixed media art using a process called Chine Colle.
Some art media processes are riskier than others. With ceramics and printmaking, what you see while making is not what you get. You need strong powers of visualization. Also, you’re at the mercy of the laws of physics in a way that painters are not (i.e., fire, pressure, movement, and more). The rewards? Opening a kiln or uncovering a freshly pulled print is like getting a gift. Sometimes you get what you want. Sometimes you don’t. But every now and then, you get something far better than even you imagined!
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
My art explores the cycles of life here on Earth and life in the hereafter — if there is one. Nature shows us that there must be something bigger than us out there. I find that both humbling and hopeful. I left the green Midwest to live in the wild khaki colored desert. I wanted a new beginning. The exotic desert flora fascinated me from the start. Inspired by desert plants, the colors of the land and sky, a greener past, I use clay sculpture and mixed media prints to create my art. I build trees of life, gardens, skies, and purely sculptural vessels. Some sprout flowers, cacti, planets, and stars.
How I got here from there. I was born on the south side of Chicago, and raised in Blue Island, IL, on Artesian Street. ‘Blue Island’ and ‘Artesian’ are two beautiful names for modest surroundings. On Artesian Street, I loved playing street baseball with my brother Ken, my best friend Jan, and the other kids in the neighborhood. I became an enthusiastic White Sox fan and can still recall the names of most players on the 1959 pennant winning team. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Comiskey Park where my Dad occasionally got free tickets behind first or third bases.
I studied at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. After that, I entered a small liberal arts school, Elmhurst College in Elmhurst IL, where I loved art, chemistry and psychology. One of my most vivid memories of my 2 years at Elmhurst College was the reading of Viet Nam war dead. It took all day.
In my junior year, I transferred to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL, where I earned Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees in art. Without a job or money, I moved to Carbondale, IL to live with friends. Jim’s Pizza hired me to waitress and tend bar. Missing ceramics, I took a class as an unclassified student at Southern Illinois University (SIU). My professor encouraged me to pursue an MFA. He invited me to stay at SIU and take a teaching assistantship but I wanted to move west.
Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, AZ, accepted me into their Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program and gave me a tuition scholarship to study ceramics. So, with my brother, I drove a rusted Datsun station wagon to Tempe. In graduate school I learned a lot about art and a little about cars (e.g., how to start one without a key).
I got my MFA degree in August. It was too late in the season to apply for college teaching jobs so I looked for jobs in the area. My mother laughed when she heard that the ASU Graduate College hired me to work as an administrative assistant. No one hated paperwork more than me and I didn’t own a skirt. Sometime later I learned that I wasn’t the College’s first (or even second!) choice for the job. But they were desperate and so was I. After a few months, I pushed paper like a pro so the dean gave me more interesting duties. He promoted me in 1982 to assistant to the dean and 9 years after that I became an assistant dean.
In 1992, I had exploratory abdominal surgery. The surgeons told me to get my affairs in order ‘just in case’. For a week before surgery I contemplated my mortality. The curious mass in the pictures turned out to be an infection from a perforated appendix. It was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to me. My medical scare made me realize, in a profound way, that my life could end at any time. Making art during evenings and weekends was no longer enough. While I wasn’t financially prepared to leave my administrative position, I began taking unpaid summer leave to work in my studio, build a portfolio, and make plans. Finally, I left ASU to start my own business — my big risk!
Although I still sometimes miss my university colleagues, I enjoy my life much more now. I make ceramic sculpture and prints and give workshops. For 18 years, I taught 3D Design at Mesa Community College. For exercise and relaxation, I walk and swim lap. Given a lifelong fear of the water, I will occasionally get a panic attack, even in shallow water. I swim anyway. Swimming has given me a great challenge and reward. My personal best is an almost continuous swim for 63 minutes! Believe it or not, swimming is the thing I’m most proud of doing.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
“Mesa Contemporary Arts (MCA) Museum is the exciting visual art exhibition space at Mesa Arts Center. In five stunning galleries, MCA Museum showcases curated and juried exhibitions of contemporary art by emerging and internationally recognized artists. MCA Museum also offers lectures by significant artists and arts professionals, art workshops and a volunteer Docent program.” Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum was recognized as Best Museum in Phoenix New Times 2019 Best of Phoenix issue. https://mesaartscenter.com 1 E Main St, Mesa, AZ 85201
Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center “houses and displays the museum’s extensive ceramic collection of close to 4,000 pieces.” https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/
House of Tricks “The award-winning House of Tricks Restaurant, nestled in the heart of downtown Tempe near popular Mill Avenue, Gammage Auditorium and the ASU campus. Perfect for a getaway lunch, intimate gathering, private business meeting, romantic dinner or happy hour celebration, House of Tricks has been a favorite treasure of locals and visitors alike for over 30 years.” https://www.houseoftricks.com House of Tricks, 114 East 7th Street, Tempe, AZ 85281, around the corner from the Ceramics Research Center.
Art Intersection “This is a motivating, inspiring, educating, reaching, creating showing space.” http://artintersection.com 207 North Gilbert Road, Suite 201, Gilbert, Arizona 85234 Romeo’s Euro Café. “For a quick bite or a sit-down meal, Romeo’s Euro Café is a welcoming and inviting establishment. Open for lunch and dinner, the menu (Mediterranean influenced) is seemingly endless, cooked after the order has been placed in the kitchen, NO microwaves or heat lamps.” https://www.eurocafe.com 207 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, Arizona 85234, downstairs from Art Intersection.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Arizona Clay Association is, “An association of clay artists dedicated to fellowship, the arts, and supporting local causes.” This association is a great organization for those of us who are professional artists, students, and hobbyists to meet and exchange art and technical information. The Board of Directors and other volunteers work to offer exciting programming including technique demonstrations, tours of Arizona ceramics studios, show and tell sessions where members can get constructive feedback on their work, and Empty Bowls, a fundraiser for WasteNot, a local food resource (https://www.wastenotaz.org). I thoroughly enjoyed an all-day trip to Reitz Ranch and another clay studio, and galleries in downtown Jerome. I was honored to present a demo on Zoom for members in May of 2020 (see photo). Membership is a bargain at $35 per year! Learn more about Arizona Clay Association at: https://www.arizonaclay.net or firstname.lastname@example.org
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sandyluehrsen/ or @sandyluehrsen
Photo of Sandy Luehrsen: Arizona Clay Association Photos of art: Artist