A Conversation With Installation Artist Blakeney Sanford

The Portals explore a deep connection to place and nature.

Growing up on a ranch in the Santa Rita Hills, and spending summers on midwestern lakes, gave Blakeney Sanford a deep connection to place and to nature. Her striking site-specific environmental installations explore and reveal both themes. Blakeney is recognized as one of Santa Barbara’s most captivating artists. Recognizable, as well, are the iconic blues she uses in her work, which has ranged from giant wave-like installations to small silhouettes of women surfing.

For the past three years, Blakeney has been producing a series called The Portals, placing a mesmeric blue square into a particular landscape, waiting for the light, and creating an image that both amazes and inspires. She photographs, videos, and digitizes it, offering the work in 2D prints, 3D sculptures, and NFTs.

Like British landscape sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, she creates works in nature that are surprising and ephemeral, but which the public mostly sees through the medium of photography. And like Christo, she takes man-made objects and juxtaposes them in nature in ways that dazzle and enchant.

Blakeney always identified as an artist. But she initially chose other paths: “I didn’t have the courage to pursue my true career until I was about 28.”

The catalyst occurred at a remote outpost of Baja, teaching sailing for the National Outdoor Leadership School, when her appendix burst. Far from medical care, she ended up with severe peritonitis, and spent a year in and out of hospitals back in Santa Barbara.

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“I was in a bed at Cottage Hospital, and I had this flash that I was 85 years old, and I hadn’t done what I was here to do. I was ignoring this gift, this part of myself, which was to be an artist. So, I changed my direction.” 

Over the next ten years, she primarily made large-scale installations with oceanic themes. “Everything that I produced after that moment was big. It just exploded out of me.”

Her recent series, The Portals, had its inception during the pandemic. Blakeney and her husband, fellow tandem surfer, and filmmaker, Bennett Williams, were living on a ranch north of Santa Barbara. She had been working with corporate clients in the surf industry, and for a massive installation at GoPro’s headquarters, she had made a number of three-and-a-half-foot-square blue panels made of epoxy bio-resin and fiberglass.

I feel like that’s part of my character: exploration and trusting and trying things that you’re inspired to do. This work that I’m creating is like that; it’s pure inspiration. I feel that I channel it — it arrives and it feels right.

– Blakeney Sanford

Then while taking a walk one day, she came upon a field of wild spring mustard. “I knew it was the moment,” she says. “I literally ran home, got Bennett, and grabbed a square.”

She recalls, “In the image, he is standing in the mustard. …You can’t see him, it’s so tall, but he’s in there holding up the square. I took the first photo, and that was it. It was everything. And then it just evolved, and I started to take it to different locations and installing it. I felt so thrilled with it, because it incorporated everything that I love: nature and time, discovery, my creative process, travel, problem solving, engineering — everything. I mean, it’s so cool. It’s such a joy to create the work.”

And why this blue? This cobalt/Persian/indigo/bluebird blue? “My connection to this particular blue is an untranslatable feeling, difficult to put to words,” Blakeney says. “It is visceral, a knowing.”

“It’s a genius color,” says Jeremy Tessmer, director of the Sullivan Goss Gallery, where Blakeney has recently shown. “It’s the color of the sky, the color of the ocean; Mary is always depicted in blue robes.” He calls her work “intelligent and beautiful and consequential.” 

A mere half an inch thick, the square can be packed in its special case and transported anywhere. Blakeney has taken it across the U.S., as well as to Mexico and shown it in Egypt. She will bring it to the UK this summer. “I can pack everything up into my backpack with my tripod and the supports that I use for the work, and I can carry it and be totally independent on the road.”

She has placed it in milieus from forests to fields, set it in landscapes covered in snow or salt, anchored it in the rippling waters of streams, lakes, and sea shores. Documenting the work with photography and videography, she also always takes a Polaroid, using an old 600 camera that belonged to her parents. She calls the image “proof of moment.” She says, “Because it is unalterable, and the Polaroid shows where I am at that moment in time.”

She has started working with landscapers in private gardens, and experimenting with architecture. “When I was in Washington, D.C, I took it to the Mall and installed it, just played with it. I feel really open to where it goes and who connects with it,” she adds. “When you experience the work, it brings you to be very present and it also invites you to consider something else. Like what would happen if we transitioned through this space?”

Her parents, Richard and Thekla, who founded Sanford Winery, were pioneer vintners and ardent practitioners of sustainable agriculture. “My parents were creative and inventive, and they built something from nothing, at a time when no one was doing it. I feel like that’s part of my character: exploration and trusting and trying things that you’re inspired to do. This work that I’m creating is like that; it’s pure inspiration. I feel that I channel it — it arrives and it feels right. It’s my purpose and direction and hope right now, considering everything that we’re going through on the planet.”

headshot of artist Blakeney Sanford.
– Courtesy of Blakeney Sanford.

For more information on the artist and her work, visit the BLAKENEY SANFORD website.

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Hilary Dole Klein
Hilary Dole Klein
Hilary Dole Klein came to Santa Barbara for the first time at the age of four. She is a memoirist, journalist, columnist, and editor. Of the eight books she has written or edited, her favorite is Tiny Game Hunting: Environmentally Healthy Ways to Eliminate Pests in Your House and Garden.
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