Collaborative Arts: Sandow Birk & Elyse Pignolet

Husband and wife team Sandow Birk (NAP #73) and Elyse Pignolet are solo artists in their own right, but they also form a dynamic collaborative art aesthetic in ambitious projects ranging anywhere from large-scale woodblock print series, to painted ceramic murals, to hand-drawn maps. - Ellen Caldwell, LA Contributor

Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet

Working in conjunction with master printer Paul Mullowney, they took inspiration from Jacques Callot’s 17th century “Miseries of War” in creating their “Depravities of War” series, designing monumental yet portable prints.  The very scale of the inking and printing process alone is noteworthy:

In collaboration, they brainstorm and create unique pieces, often with a political message and humorous flare. As their home studio revealed, they have a lot of balls in the air and projects on the drawing boards. One of their first collaborative pieces, two murals for the city of Long Beach, are nestled in the heart of the city just down the street from them. From Sandow’s series “The Great War of the Californians” to Elyse’s “Temporary Permanence,” both explore and supply inspiring art in their very own backyard.

Birk | San Francisco on the Ruins of Her City from The Great War of the Californians, 1996, oil on canvas, 54" x 43"

Pignolet | Temporary Permanence #1, 2007, inkjet print, 12" x 17"

Ellen Caldwell: Both of you use Los Angeles and California as a jumping off point for your collaborations and solo pieces.  I appreciate how this is materialized in different ways…

Sandow Birk: We both spend a lot of time visiting museums and traveling and being involved in the contemporary art scene in L.A. I think I get inspired at everything I see, but lately I've been really concentrating on ancient book illuminations and going out of my way to see them whenever I can.

Elyse Pignolet:  I am inspired by my landscape. I'm originally from the Bay Area and when I moved to Southern California there was a lot from my new urban environment that stood out to me and I think is still interesting. I guess I have considered many things interesting what others might consider mundane. Perhaps I'm drawn to dichotomies: futility to utility, urban to nature, male to female... temporary to permanent.

EC:  Elyse, I love how you use ceramics to make a fleeting and transient art like graffiti more permanent -- in addition to being three-dimensional, heavier, and cumbersome. How do you decide what words, language, or forms you want to focus on and make more lasting?  

EP: My sculptures in clay don't say anything (like graffiti would), they have the essence of graffiti, but there were many influences incorporated in the sculptures. I'm not exactly sure how I decided; I believe a lot came organically—you can't control clay, like you can a drawing or painting. I was interested in looking closer at the forms of the city, freeways, buildings, languages, graffiti, all the density and history a city has. Like in my drawings, I to try to collapse time, space, and place in one, creating layers or forms on top of each other.

EC: With your projects such as "Dante's Inferno" and "American Mihrab" (that runs in conjunction with Birk’s “American Qur’an,”  you both worked together to create pieces for the shows.  How do you negotiate the ins and outs of working together and collaborating?

SB: We've done a lot of collaborations and I think that the first one was a big public mural project we did for the City of Long Beach. But in general, we work together really well and it’s a total team effort, from the initial ideas and discussions about concepts, to the fabrication and installation of works.

The Discovery of the City of Long Beach In collaboration with artists Thomas Barter and Elyse Pignolet, Two large-scale murals, hand-painted on hand-made ceramic tiles. Commissioned by the Long Beach Public Corp. for the Arts, 2002. Installed at City Place Shopping Center, 5th Street between Long Beach Blvd. and Pine Street, Long Beach, CA

As for the film project "Dante's Inferno,” which is a feature film all done with paper puppets, it was a project involving lots of people from the initial script writing to the building of the sets and filming and through editing. Elyse built and designed all the puppets, based on drawings of mine. We would figure out what a character needed to do, then I would draw the image and Elyse would build it into a puppet and figure out how to make it move and moveable.

In the "American Mihrab" works, we both discussed the concept and came up with ideas for the work, then built an armature and Elyse used her ceramic knowledge to figure out how to make all of the unique tiles for the pieces, then how to fire them and how to handle them and keep track of them and how to attach them to the armature. So our collaboration was along every step of the way.

In general though, we work together pretty well. We both bring different ideas to a project and we work through them; then it’s more a team effort in fabrication, as opposed to one person being in charge. Unless it’s using ceramics, and then Elyse is in charge.

EC: It is interesting to see Elyse’s art and ceramic calligraphic creations interact and interplay with Sandow's painted pieces (such as they did in the fourth installation of the "American Qur'an" and "American Mihrab" at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco).  On the one hand, Sandow is illuminating text with imagery, but simultaneously, Elyse is using text and calligraphy to morph her ceramic creations.  

Installation shot from the Catherine Clark Gallery, in San Francisco.

I even loved how one of the Qur’an pages illustrates a surveillance camera which is then mimicked in the gallery space above with the hanging ceramic surveillance camera.  And how by virtue of its medium, the camera is made de-utilitarian and is disguised in decorative and ornate designs, mimicking the colors, shapes, and tiles from a mosque.  I’d love to hear more about this interaction and interplay?

Sandow Birk in collaboration with Elyse Pignolet | CCTV, 2011, ceramic and mixed media. 14" x 14" x 12".

EP: In the beginning, before any art show of his work on the Qur'an, we knew we wanted to include our version of a Mihrab.  We had seen them in mosques and museums and felt it was an important element to include. Also, it was a natural collaboration with my background in ceramics.

Each show has been a bit of a different undertaking. The show at Katie's gallery in SF, had the ceramic surveillance camera and yes, it does speak to my interest in futility (utility). I would guess when people think of a "ceramic artist" they could think about pottery, function, and utility, and I suppose I have a tendency to make things that have no real use.

EC:  I really think that’s great.  I like how both of you work mixes traditional and modern in a seamless fashion.  Sandow, in your earlier work "Incarcerated: Visions of California in the 21st Century," you visited prisons all over California and painted them from the outdoor, idyllic settings, using a painterly landscape tradition, style, and composition.  Although this and "American Qur'an" are not explicitly tied, I see similarities in the way you take something familiar (such as landscape painting or the Qur'an) and you make it unfamiliar, modern, and even somewhat haunting.  How do you come up with these ideas?

SB: I guess I would say that all my work and projects start conceptually as ponderings about art history and about painting and about how painting might be relevant in the world today. Living in Los Angeles I'm always sort of distraught at the fact that I'm making things in this centuries old way in the 21st century, and I'm always thinking about why and what that means and how it can be relevant.

American Qur'an/Sura 64,
2010, gouache and ink on paper, 19 x 27 1/2 inches

In the case of the prison project, I was looking back at classical landscape paintings of the West from the mid-1800s and I was taken with how optimistic and thrilling they were, how they saw the West as an American Eden full of promise and riches. And then I heard it mentioned that California has the highest percentage of its population in prison of anywhere on Earth, and it really struck me that California had gone from this place of opportunity and hope to a place of incarceration in 150 years, and it struck me that I should go and see these prisons that I hadn't really thought about before. So the project to me was about the history of landscape painting, the history of California, the evolution of Californian society, and other things.

In the “American Qur'an” project, I again started thinking about artworks in the 21st century, and I was wondering, "What can an artist do or make that no one else can make, not a computer or a video or anything, but something that only an artist can do?” And that thinking led me to illuminated manuscripts and hand-transcribed books - things entirely made by hand in very slow, painstaking processes. And that led me to the Qur'an, eventually.

Birk and Pignolet studio in Long Beach, CA

Elyse Pignolet in studio.

Sandow Birk in studio.

Work references in Birk and Pignolet studio in Long Beach, CA

Work in progress.

Birk and Pignolet studio in Long Beach, CA

Work in progress, detail


Birk is approximately 60% of the way through with transcribing and illuminating the Qur’an in its entirety. “American Qur’an” has been exhibited in partial form in several venues, with the next showing in Los Angeles at the Koplin del Rio Gallery in February of 2012.  You can view Sandow and Elyse’s work on Sandow Birk’s website and on Elyse Pignolet’s website.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.