“Many people relate to the obvious metaphor about the ephemeral quality of life, but that’s an idea trapped in a box – a soundbite answer to describe a shape with limitless metaphors I’ve studied and created over 20 years now.”
Stumbling upon a unique method of installation after an opportunity while traveling forced him to improvise, sand painter Joe Mangrum never turned back. Years later, and after over 1,000 ephemeral installations complete, the American artist is now commissioned to travel the world, leaving his beautiful, vibrant designs on the ground for the public to engage with and enjoy. We caught up with Joe for an insight into his philosophies and his process.
How did your creative career begin?
I knew in Kindergarten I would be an artist. I always loved drawing and painting, and always participated in extracurricular art projects, from stop motion and animation in grade school, to oil painting lessons from local artists at age 8.
How did you stumble upon this medium and method?
After school I went traveling for four and a half years around Europe. Without a way to paint or carry a canvas I started making installations from found flowers, seeds and berries. I started expanding mediums: using auto and computer parts and a variety of recycled waste materials. I was offered a solo show in NYC and I couldn’t take all the materials with me, so I improvised with colored sand.
How do you choose the site for your sand pieces?
I usually work in Washington Square or Union Square. For me it’s about having enough space so I am not blocking the sidewalks, where I can engage with people and give them a surprise in their day. Some are commissioned around the world, most recently in the Netherlands and Dubai.
How long does it typically take to complete one piece?
Outdoors it depends on the season and the amount of daylight, but typically 4-5 hours in winter and 6-8 hours in summer. If I work indoors, it’s possible to spend days on a single artwork.
What are some of the challenges that arise?
If wind exceeds 15mph it’s really problematic and can whisk away any painting in seconds. A light, misty rain is quite enjoyable to work in as it saturates the colors and adds contrast. If rain becomes drops it quickly deteriorates and washes away.
Probably the most frequent challenge is the disconnected people that walk by with no awareness of their presence in the world. People walk through distracted by their phone or other device, in conversation or simply oblivious to the 20ft, brightly colored painting on the ground in front of them. I can easily excuse toddlers who are fascinated by the colors and want to run in, but I would hope adults would be more aware.
What has been your most significant moment as an artist?
It’s an accumulation of experiences of people who are inspired and sharing their insights that I enjoy most. I love it when people get past the pretty colors and connect to a deeper philosophy and share those experiences.
Is there a overarching message or feeling you hope to inspire with your work?
It’s a contrast of the world we have designed and experienced on a grid system, with that of the expansiveness of an organic shape made from grains of colored sand. Many people relate to the obvious metaphor about the ephemeral quality of life, but that’s an idea trapped in a box – a soundbite answer to describe a shape with limitless metaphors I’ve studied and created over 20 years now.
Metaphors abound if we examine the destructive forces of both nature and human intervention. Different colors work together to make things beautiful. You can let your mind wander from there.
Follow Joe on Instagram.
Check out the timelapses of his work coming together on his Vimeo page.