“I kind of just follow what I’m feeling for the day,” Amanda Sandlin tells me, sipping kombucha across a tall bar table. She’s an artist, so I’m not surprised.
“But, I mean, I work a lot,” she adds, keeping eye contact that’s both soft and striking, like the busy brown curls framing her face. “It’s just constant. I see no real separation between who I am and my business and my art. It’s just all me. Creativity and art is… life.”
It’s been two years since Sandlin landed in Colorado, thinking she’d just outstay the winter before moving on in her ’97 Toyota van, in which she’d been living and making art. But “the mountains,” she says with a glance over her shoulder to the west-facing window, they’re why she never left.
Flip through Sandlin’s portfolio and the mountains are everywhere, alongside oceans and coastlines and fog-drenched forests. And there’s the woman who’s everywhere, too — at once pensive and peaceful, somber and moody. She’s a series of black or sometimes white lines that altogether create her varied entities, drawn atop Sandlin’s photographs so that nature’s ridgelines and waves and trees permeate her being. Sandlin calls her the “At Wild Woman.”
These drawings-on-photos are Sandlin’s signature style; being comfortable with that, though, wasn’t an easy process for the 28-year-old creative. For a while, Sandlin obsessed over how she was stacking up against the conventional image of “a true artist.” Often, she’d think: “I’m just drawing and drawing these stupid illustrations, I want to do something more profound.”
But, the further Sandlin tried to escape the At Wild Woman, the more she felt pulled back, to understand where it all began. In 2015, when she’d started to take her art more seriously and quit her job as a designer for Danielle Laporte, working remotely in San Francisco at the time, she moved to New Zealand with a then-boyfriend. From there, Sandlin launched a “Year of Making,” where — surprise — she made a creative thing every day for an entire year.
This Year of Making was an extension of Sandlin’s philosophy at the time: hustle, hustle, hustle and it’ll pay off. As a homeschooled kid following her mom around the world on cruise ships or hanging out at the family farm in Pennsylvania, Sandlin has always been one to learn via the actual doing of things. “You can only learn to an extent from your mind,” she says, lifting her hands from the kombucha glass and cocking them side to side as though she was trying to solve an invisible Rubik’s Cube. “But then there comes a point where you have to put it into action.”
So she started that year of creative hustle making web graphics, then digital collages, shifting to typography and some photography, painting, drawing, even a little sewing — all of which she’d taught herself by watching YouTube videos. New Zealand provided a natural transition for Sandlin’s new life as a self-employed artist; but the island also changed Sandlin’s relationship with the outdoors. Before moving across the Pacific, her exposure to mountains and nature had been through camping with her dad and climbing with her old boyfriend, “mostly shaped by men,” she says. “So when I moved to New Zealand … I started climbing with this woman who was probably 10 years older than me. She was just amazing, very Zen, Buddhist-like.”
The experience with her mentor reframed the way Sandlin related to the outdoors, revealing new perspectives that quickly imbued her art. “She had such a calm and strong presence,” Sandlin recalls. “Like she really knew who she was. And was strong and bold without being the way that we typically see [reflected] in society. Like the feminine strength, the feminine side of strength. I was like, I want to be her so bad.”
A few months into island life, Sandlin rode a rusty bike to the Wellington Library, and as she sipped a flat white, she considered how different, how powerful it was to experience the outdoors with a strong woman. An illustration popped into her mind. A woman. A photo. “I was like, I wonder if I put this woman on top of the photo? And I did.”
The At Wild Woman was born, and a series of drawings-on-photos flooded her workspace. “At first, art was coming pretty quickly,” she remembers. When Sandlin moved back to the U.S. after splitting up with her boyfriend, she bought a van, built a bed in the back and drove around North America, seeking deeper connections with the land and with other women. “I get a lot of my inspiration from my time in the mountains and climbing with other women and seeing how strong they are; it’s really inspiring in what I do to depict women in my art.”
After a few months on the road, in January 2016, Sandlin wrote a blog post announcing the Year of Making’s close. “I can honestly say this project has changed my life,” she wrote. “I quit my job, started a business, sold a few pieces of art, and have an entirely different vision for my future. And most importantly, I now view myself as an artist.”
It would take a while for the triumphant energy to subside and reveal the pockets of unsettled foundation underneath. I ask her what it’s like now, trying to create all the time, having her livelihood depend on it.
“It’s just a roller coaster,” she says, throwing back her head. “There are days when I’m like, yeah, kicking ass! I feel so alive, I see the vision! … And then there are plenty of times when I’m browsing Instagram or Pinterest and I see pictures of artists in their studios surrounded by canvas with paint up their arms and that’s all I want. I definitely romanticize things, ideas…”
When Sandlin settled down in Colorado toward the end of 2016, stationary and alone for the first time in months, the “hustle, hustle, hustle” mentality slowly turned on her. The At Wild Woman didn’t refuel her energy or joy in the same way anymore; as the dust settled, that desire for purpose emerged front and center. Scrambling for an answer to what it meant to be an artist, she found a studio to rent and filled it with her own canvases. But, within two months, she moved out, facing the fact that the space depressed her.
With no energy coming from the At Wild Woman, failing as a studio artist, and still no definitive sense of how to define herself, Sandlin pivoted in the way she knew best: the way she’d done before with the Year of Making, and even detailed in an ebook she wrote in 2016 titled Grit, a guide for stuck artists.
She figured if she just kept producing, kept exercising her creative muscles, the art and bold feminine strength would return. “It was me searching for something that would make me feel more like a true artist,” she says. In spring 2018, she launched herself into a new, high-volume creation project called “100 Days of Independent Study,” in which she tried woodworking, pottery, embroidery and painting again.
“I am searching for a feeling,” she wrote weeks later on her blog. “The feeling of such commitment to and passion for your craft that it pulls you in, causing you to lose track of time, look up and it’s dark outside, having forgotten to eat lunch or check your phone. Flow state. … I want that more than anything. And I feel a little fraudulent to admit that I currently do not feel this way about my work.”
That was before she realized the fraudulent feelings had risen from the void of purpose that engorges a soul when it focuses too heavily on generic, conventional definitions; Sandlin was trying to ignore or dismiss what she found naturally engaging, and instead make herself reflect the conventional artists portrayed on social media.
“When I kept coming back to the At Wild Woman and photography, and realizing the truth is that I don’t fit into one neat little box, that’s when I realized I just need to embrace this.” So she turned back to the At Wild Woman, and instead of merely casting her as a project, Sandlin fully surrendered to all of her essences. “I’m being her,” Sandlin says. “It’s allowing me to open up to other possibilities without it being this really needy feeling. I don’t feel like I need to define myself in some other way. I’m just gonna keep staying true to who I am, and who I am is not just one thing.”
With that realization, the hustling fell away. “My whole tagline before was make, make, make, and now I kind of want to throw up when I hear that,” she says. “There’s still something to be said about showing up, but that’s all you have to do. Just show up, you don’t have to do anything. And showing up just means listening to yourself and allowing yourself to show up however you want to.”
Now, she’s on a mission to find “the true creativity that we’re talking about, like just being creative as a person, as a human, [having the] mindset of more internal work,” she says. “There isn’t one craft that you can do, like there isn’t one thing that makes you an artist. It’s just about approaching life as a creative pursuit.”
At the dawn of her wild-woman self-realization, she wrote on her blog: “Don’t settle. Keep searching for your creative home, the one you’ve built in sincerity, the one that’s real. Screw a perfectly linear creative path. Take a risk. Choose what’s real over what’s certain.”
She signs it: “Yours from the creative unknown, Amanda.”