ARTIST, EDUCATOR AND YOGI Karen Arp-Sandel is on a mixed-media mission. Whether “getting gluey” constructing collage and assemblage pieces, sketching and painting landscapes, or instructing students in the finer points of downward dog and sun salutations, Karen wants everyone she encounters through her art to embrace her mantra: “Art is NOT separate.”
Art, for Karen, is daily, and in particular, it is the warp and weave of the various sisterhood experiences she’s come to treasure.
The second of five children, Karen is the eldest (by five years) of two sisters. As a girl, Karen says, “my relationship with my sister, Mary, always seemed very special to me. We shared a bedroom for our entire childhood….As the baby of the family, she was a natural showoff, very smart, a joker and always laughing.”
Both sisters were artistic early on, and Karen remembers treasuring her first box of Crayolas, but it took Mary’s urging to bring Karen’s love of creativity to the center of her life.
Though they now live on opposite sides of the country, Karen, Mary and the brothers they married (!!) spent years living together, communally, in their youth, and during this close time, Mary urged Karen to follow her into a graphic design career. To Karen’s delight, the two became business partners.
“I cannot describe the sheer joy in sharing so much of my life with my sister, who I considered to be my wildest, funniest, most brilliant and inspiring companion. As graphic designers, we developed a style that was seamless, often both working on the same illustration or graphic to bring it completion.”
Karen’s devotion to sisterhood was inspired not just by her close relationship with Mary, but also with her seven aunts, in particular, her father’s younger sister, a teacher and artist.
“She and I shared interests like soul-mates. She served to mentor me as a young adult in the ways that my own parents could not. Her open-mindedness eased me through my wildest years of rebellion.”
Meanwhile, sister Mary nurtured Karen through her early years as a mother, first to a daughter and then a son. When he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, Mary, who was living about 250 miles away, suggested an unusual therapy for Karen: an artistic collaboration.
Mary suggested they embark on a year-long mail art project, each sending the other a postcard every week. The recipient would alter the postcard, somehow putting her creative stamp on it, and send it back.
Says Karen: “We agreed to allow each post card one of us sent to be altered and returned by the other, in a rhythmic ‘call and response’ collaboration of visual dialogue…During this year, I learned something new about my process as a visual artist. I gained the courage to begin my life as an Artist Educator… I confronted my fears about my son’s cancer with a courage I never knew I possessed.
“Mary was the ‘wind beneath my wings”, helping me from afar with humor, grace and deep compassion…What I learned was a new habit, a new approach to creative work in my studio. I learned that making art on a daily basis, with daily materials and my own daily feelings was the way to my authentic voice as an artist.”
Inspired by her collaboration with Mary, in 2007, Karen embarked on another mail art project with fellow artist and soul sister Suzi Banks Baum. Soul sister means something specific to Karen.
“A soul sister is a sister by choice, who is willing to commit to the sustaining nurture of sisterhood without the complications of genetics! In this case, Suzi and I met and began bonding in mid-life. Before long we also committed to the bond of gluing & our mutual passion for collage art.”
Over three years, the pair collaborated on hundreds of pieces of art. A portion of their collaboration is currently on display at the Berkshire Art Kitchen in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in a show entitled “FE-MAIL.”
We asked Karen to complete our TSP sisterhood questionnaire, and her answers leave little doubt about the prominent place of sisterhood in this inspiring and inspired artist’s daily, creative life.
The TSP Interview with Karen Arp-Sandel
Q: Fill in the blank: You know you’re a sister when…?
A: “Whether related or unrelated, the quality of sisterhood is very present in my relationships with women. Since my biological sister experience brings me joy and creative collaboration, my attitude about sister-friends carries this same quality toward the potential in a woman-to-woman bond. My heart leaps forward hopefully, to embrace the possibility of a loving relationship that builds mutual support and empowerment. I know I am a sister when I feel that this spark ignites and the sister chemistry begins.”
Q: What does the word “sister” mean to you?
A: “The word sister to me means sustaining relationship. My sisters are the women who with me explore the Divine Feminine found in all aspects of living as a multi-dimensional female. In the web of life that enables us to raise families, support our creativity, earn an income, partner with a beloved, my sister is the one who will always support me from her heart. The word sister is infused with willingness and compassion. I strive to be the kind of sister I hope to see in my world.”
Q: Are there any pop culture or cultural references that make you think of your sister/sibling/sister-friend(s)?
A: “When we were little girls, Mary and I loved to spend Sunday morning’s side-by-side reading the colorful Sunday comics from our local newspaper. A pop culture icon for me is the strip Nancy and Sluggo featuring the brilliant, beloved & Brillo-haired Nancy. Our precocious comic friend Nancy’s logic mirrored the quality of our own sister-logic; both funny (in an 8 year old way) and filled with in-jokes. Sluggo was the prototype of “ brother”, that other type of (boy) being in our lives- who acted as both co-conspirator and pest. And then there was Auntie Fritz, who looked just like in one of our Aunties with her perm and great legs!
“We also adored Pee Wee Herman in the 80s, as adult sisters with my preschool age daughter Molly Rose. We scheduled Saturday mornings around aerobics class and Pee Wee’s Play House, which reminded me of an updated version of ‘The Howdy Doody Show’ we loved a kids. Who wanted to watch the show most, the big girls or the little girl? We loved the garish 50’s style sets and the bizarre characters like Globey, Chairy and Jambi. One of Pee Wee’s famous quotes we still use to this day is “ If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”
“Pee Wee’s fancy dance shows up in the Curious Tourist Project post cards. Nancy shows up as a reference to the influence of POP Art on our post cards aesthetic. We used the Nancy panels out of context to infer hidden meaning through the little girl with all the moxie.”
Q: Are there any worst-of/best-of sisters tales you want to share?
A: “Mary was a legend in her own time. She dreamed of owning a 1960’s era Mercury Comet, and she found one, bought and drove it with style! It was so much fun to cruise around the city with her in the Mercury listening to our favorite tunes like souls sisters with a sound track by the likes of Sam Cooke, Al Green or Sly and the Family Stone. In the retro-mobile we were all about our own worldview, laughing and leaving our worries behind for the time it took to go out for a drive. The theme of driving and cars is another thread running through the Curious post cards iconography.”
Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your “sister” experience?
A: “Learning to trust in a loving relationship, no matter how far apart, how much time passes between visits and no matter what hardships surface in the course of living, is the lesson learned through sisterhood for me. Being a sister invites me to look within myself to see who I am in relationship to this other feminine being sharing my family history like no other person in my life.
“My sister has showed up for me, without fail, at the major milestones of my life. She witnessed the birth of our daughter and supported the process of adopting our son with a deep abiding love. When I had surgery, her comforting care for me in my first days of recovery accelerated my healing. She assuaged my fears with our son’s cancer and held my hand metaphorically over the miles with the Curious Tourist Project post cards mail art correspondence.
“Together we ushered in our parents and our husbands’ parents’ old age. And together we ushered my father’s spirit out of his body witnessing death, just as bravely as we witnessed birth together 27 years ago.
“I’ve learned that my sister relationship is a sustaining aspect of my own divine feminine nature. In seeing myself as a sister, I see myself as not separate, rather as related to all beings, as part of a whole that embodies the sacred balance of male and female within the expansive human experience.”
THE TSP GALLERY OF KAREN ARP-SANDEL
For more on Karen and her work, visit her website or explore the Curious Tourist Project online. Soul sister and collaborator Suzi Banks Baum, also a gifted and inspiring artist, is online at her own site, Laundry Line Divine. If you live in Karen’s area (the Massachusetts Berkshires), visit “FE-MAIL” at the Berkshire Art Kitchen, or check out one of Karen’s inspiring (and FUN!) mixed-media classes at local art school IS 183.