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Charles Van Sandwyk
Charles Noel van Sandwyk was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1966. In 1977, he emigrated with his family to Vancouver, Canada. By the early 1980’s, he was selling his drawings and watercolors in a style reminiscent of the old prints and paintings which hung in the family home.
Van Sandwyk studied graphic design at the Capilano College art program in North Vancouver. Upon completion in 1986, the wanderlust of younger years sent him travelling to the South Pacific. He discovered the Fiji Islands, and fell in love with a remote island and its inhabitants.
In that same year, van Sandwyk won an Alcan award for his limited edition book A Selection of Neighbourly Birds, illustrated with etchings printed on an antique intaglio press. This first attempt at publishing prompted a passionate venture into the world of hand-made and private press books and prints.
He began to divide his time equally between Vancouver and Fiji, leasing land from the neighboring family and building for himself a simple home of grass thatch, in the traditional island style. Van Sandwyk settled into a pleasurable routine of winter seasons in Fiji filled with painting and writing, the results of which were brought back to Canada each summer and prepared for exhibition and publication each autumn.
His watercolors, etchings and books are now collected across North America and in Europe. The National Library of Canada has maintained archives on his work since 1986, and in 1992 purchased the original drawings and paintings for his children’s book The Parade to Paradise. The book Wee Folk won Juror’s Choice award at the 1994 Seattle Book Fair, and also third prize at the Alcuin Awards ‘95 for limited editions.
Van Sandwyk continues to divide his time between Vancouver and his beloved Fiji.
Often, I am asked from where I receive my inspiration. To many people my work appears to have stepped out of another time and place. In fact, it is sometimes assumed that I am no longer among the living, or when I am met with, and my surname recognized, that I must be the grandson of the artist. I believe that old world style can be continued by the living.
From my earliest recollections in Africa, I drew birds and animals. When I was seven years old, Mom and Dad bought a piece of land in a recently developed rural area, and there they built a large brick house.
For the first time I was truly aware of their creative bent, for they both worked with great fervor and enthusiasm on this, our dream home. The beautiful old engravings and paintings which had been awaiting the new walls were lovingly framed by Dad, along with sepia photographs of the family ancestors from Holland and England.
Mom worked her wonders in decorating our house and we were all so proud of it. My brother and I endured trips to antique auctions where my parents bargained for early settler antiques, the collecting of which was a growing hobby of theirs.
Outside, Mom did all the gardening, and we built a dam to attract the local bird life. Beyond the garden there was the dry rolling veldt to romp in. I think this is where I developed my love for the bush, and the wide open spaces, and also the warm ochre earth - a color I use repeatedly in my paintings.
In the evenings, there were the old children’s books from my grandparents - Peter Pan and the Grimm’s fairy stories, and Beatrix Potter, too.
Outside our little paradise though, the politics of South Africa continued to worsen, and so in 1977 Dad decided to move us to Canada, where his cousin had already settled.
There I was, a boy who had hardly worn shoes outside of school hours, now immersed in an entirely different culture. So books rescued me, and I discovered the worlds of Arthur Rackham and J.R.R. Tolkien. And when it came to high school geography, my mind wandered to other worlds.
My salvation came to me in the form of three high school art teachers. One taught me calligraphy and hand lettering. Another gave me the skills of etching and printmaking, and the third, who had watched with mild amusement as I forced etching plates under the wheels of the family motorcar to gain adequate printing pressure, procured for me a one hundred year old printing press. All three teachers instilled in me the belief that art is infallibly connected to life, and all three supported me in any venture I endeavored, as long as it furthered my pursuit of art.
By far, the greatest source of inspiration comes from my lovely Fiji. I don’t mean the constant deriving of imagery from Fiji, but rather the joy of being there, and taking the time to develop ideas for paintings and stories - the freedom to be alone with one’s self.
Much has been said about my avoiding the northern winters, the lure of tropical beauty, and my apparent escape from civilization. These allusions have nothing to do with any important part of me.
My island is no more physically beautiful than thousands of others; in fact, many people deem it to be far less so. Still, this is the place where, at the age of nineteen, I stepped upon the sandy shores and thought to myself, “Here I am, where I was meant to be.”
In 1995 I was involved in a motorcar accident on the main island. In the recovery ward of the Lautoka Hospital, I had a wondrous dream about an island sanctuary populated by strange creatures. It was a very gentle, healing dream with a depth I had never before experienced. Immediately upon waking I set to work sketching the visions while they were fresh in my mind’s eye. This dream became Sketches from the Dream Island of Birds which remains a personal favorite among my publications. With Dream Island, a new philosophy became evident to me. When a dear friend, who has often been a moral advisor as well as representative for all my private publications, read the manuscript to Dream Island, she said, “No more pretty pictures. Dig into the depths of your heart and share your vision.”
I realized that I needed to express the moral code I was learning in life, and apply it more confidently in my work. So most of my work expresses my philosophy in some form or another.
In all of my work I have tried to create a gentle world in which to escape. I love to embellish with borders and decorations. I am often, and quite accurately, accused of over romanticizing my subjects. Art, indeed life, should he a rich visual feast, restrained only by good taste.
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