Theda Sandiford is a Jersey City-based mixed media artist whose work has been featured in galleries across the US, won industry awards, and mentioned in international publications. But her real goal: getting the viewer to think a little differently. The Hoboken Girl sat down with Theda at her studio on a blustery winter day to talk about art, life in Jersey City, and more. Read on for our conversation with Theda Sandiford.
Theda Sandiford has lived all over but has called Jersey City home for the past 15 years. She now lives in downtown Jersey City in a sunny live-work space. Theda also has dedicated studio space on the second floor of the building. “That’s where all the messy work happens,” she said. “Washing materials, drying fabric, things like that.”
Since Theda’s work is made with found materials, there is plenty of cleaning and tidying to do before it’s ready to be worked into art. In trash, Theda sees treasure. Her most recognizable pieces are made from items that most people would see as the flotsam and jetsam of urban living: discarded plastic bags, bottle caps, bits of fabric, and other random items.
“The first time I was inspired by garbage, I was maybe 5 years old,” Theda said. “I would see buttons and bottle caps and shells and I would drill holes in them and make necklaces for myself. They were like treasures. I have been collecting things from the time I was small.”
Theda is always on the lookout for materials. She collects things on her own, and people will ask her what she’s on the hunt for. “People say they collect a certain item and they’ll give it to me. At my shows, people will come up to me. Or I’ll post on social media or on my blog. I get a lot of DMs saying ‘I have that!’”
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Theda said, “Particularly among people who work in fashion, I like to get all their textile waste. I’ll have a courier pick those up. I get two or three boxes organized and then the courier will pick them up and deliver them to me. About 90% of my materials are donated and recycled materials.”
“I use a lot of zip ties, which are expensive,” she said. “ And RIT dye. I wish I could get sponsored by RIT Dye! I could really show people how using these dyes work!”
Even though the end result is artwork, Theda is driven by diverting things from the waste stream. “I love going to the beach, it’s my favorite place. Love to collect sea glass. 15 years ago I was in Belize, walking along the beach. There was a section of the beach that had no house but gigantic piles of trash. Plastics, old toothbrushes. It really broke my heart. In this incredibly beautiful place and seeing all this garbage on the beach, I thought, ‘Wow we need to do something – this can’t be like this.’ ”
“So then every day I went to the beach and foraged for materials. Most people come back from vacation with a carving or a t-shirt. No. I brought a bunch of plastic doodads that I decided I was going to start using in the artwork. Anywhere I travel I’m looking for that stuff,” Theda said. “I was in St. Croix USVI over the holidays and there have been a lot of high seas. There were a lot of nets, fishing lines, broken sponges, and sea fans that had been stirred up from the ocean. They were all on the beach so I collected them. It’s all at my house in St. Croix – I’m processing and cleaning everything. I will start working on those on my return trip this spring,” she said.
There are many other ways that Theda gets her materials. “When someone is cleaning out a house because there’s been a loss in the family, there’s a ton of old textiles. Or someone who started quilts and didn’t finish them. Anything that I won’t use I can pass on to another artist. I’ll collect things and then regift them to others who would. I am a conduit of things to other people,” Theda said.
Even if an item isn’t a good fit for Theda’s purposes, she makes sure that it doesn’t go to waste. “I host an art supply swap once or twice a year. It’s specifically for people who tried something, didn’t like it, and want to swap it out for something else. Lots of random things come into my life in that way,” She said. “At last year’s event, someone wanted to get rid of art glass mosaic materials. I knew a teacher who wanted to do a project like that but the school lost funding. I was able to connect them. It’s inspiring for me to talk to people who use that. There’s some artistic ghetto ingenuity when people macgyver stuff. It’s inspiring to me.”
“I see things on the street and see possibilities. Now I have people who will say ‘im not sure if Theda can use it’ but they’ll see a thing on the street and facetime me and ask if I want it,” she said. “ So other people are learning how to look differently at things.”
This year, Theda has several solo shows throughout the US. “Each of my solo shows is about microaggressions,” she said. “I’m taking things that trigger me and turning them into art, and encouraging audience participation.”
“I‘m going to document people’s contributions in each city and then overlay it with census data and chronicle that with whatever comes next with whatever inspires me,” she said. “As a social practice artist, the art I make is meant to get you thinking and talking and engaging with it. What people leave behind is what I use to further that conversation. It could be a post-it note, writing on a ribbon, or even leaving an object in the Emotional Baggage Cart.”
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Theda said, “When the work arrives in a community, that’s just the beginning. What happens next is the most interesting. I see people interact and I can use that in the next iteration of the piece. Nothing’s done. It’s done as a starting point for what’s next.”
“ Some of these pieces – you will see things that you have said, or overheard, and didn’t realize the impact. It becomes a snowball that runs down a hill. That’s where the anxiety and stress come from,” Theda said. “ We don’t process these things, but it all adds up to become a burden. I want people to have the conversation so they can do something about it. I also don’t want it to be about doing something about it. You can interact with the art and not feel anything at the moment, but everyone has something to deal with. Maybe it spurs a conversation.”
Theda and Jersey City
Theda says there’s a lot to like about living in Jersey City. “Liberty State Park is one of my favorite places. There are seals there!” she said. “I love to go sailing in the Harbor. I think people forget that we have access to that.” Additionally, some of Theda’s favorite things in Jersey City are the neighborhood-based festivals and activities. “It seems like there’s always something going on, every weekend,” she said. “I like to go to JC Fridays and walk around a new neighborhood, explore, and meet new people.”
Theda also notes Jersey City’s incredible restaurant scene. “I can get any type of food here without going into New York,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Editor’s Note: Theda welcomes messages about receiving materials. Please contact her through her website.