Candace Sanderson

Written by Erika Sherk. Artwork by Candace Sanderson. Photography by Chris Beauchamp/Beauchamp Photography.

A poetic soul, a fire-haired Rapunzel in Carhartts and work boots, Candace Sanderson wields aggressive power tools to create elegant, expressive wood sculpture. It’s unlikely you’ve ever met anyone like her.

Her eyes flash with verve and delight when she speaks of her work. That alone is rare. Who likes their day job that much? After years toiling at pay-the-bills office jobs, Sanderson jumped the chasm from cubicle to studio in 2012, launching as a full-time artist, a daily sculptor of wood.

Now she spends her days in her garage-studio with power tools, chisels and stash of Western Red Cedar and beetle-killed Lodgepole Pine. The space is simple, the pièce de résistance a beautiful second-hand work bench.

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“It was a real find,” Candace says, running a hand gently along it. “You need a good solid workbench. It does become your best friend.” She loves that her bench had a life before it came to her. “It was already scarred up and nicked. It just encourages you. It doesn’t matter if you make a mess.”
Messes are a key theme on this artist’s journey, a contrast to the clean, smooth loveliness of her finished sculptures.

“I initially started out with a set of chisels and a mallet from Lee Valley,” she says, leaning against her work bench. “I would clamp down two two-by-fours in the kitchen and make one heck of a mess.”

Candace Sanderson was once Candace Wunsch, a determined, bright-haired kiddo. ‘Kitchen-as-art studio’ isn’t new for her. When little, she happily worked for hours at the family table.

Her brother and sisters would be running around on the farm, she says, “and I’d be inside at the kitchen table, building something out of mason jars and tinfoil and Plaster of Paris.”

“My sister still makes fun of me,” she adds. When admonished by her sister, “Yeah, I remember that stupid bunny you made out of tinfoil and mason jars.” she calmly replies, “I remember that rabbit, there was nothing wrong with that!’”
The farm girl had the benefit of artistic relatives. Art was in her blood and luckily, a passion familiar to her mom.

“My mom was extremely supportive,” Candace says. “And I can’t imagine I wasn’t a messy kid.”

A devoted artist-child, she built and created constantly. There was always an adult around to encourage. “I never felt silly for anything I made—whether it was good or not good,” she says, “whether I made it out of cardboard or not.”

“Every part of my life has always been about making something. Is it because I wanted to or because I had to? I don’t know…maybe I just didn’t see any other way of doing things.”

Moving into adulthood, Candace studied Visual Arts at Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC.) An instructor, Merv Bielish, introduced her to wood sculpture.

“I swear, the moment I started working with wood, I fell in love with it,” she says.

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It’s the sound the chisel makes when it’s pushed through wood, she says, the tap-tap-tap of the mallet. “It’s very meditative. It allows the crazy part of my brain—the part that just won’t shut up—time to be silent.”

Soon she was walking to the college before sunrise. Other college students were sleeping off hangovers but Candace was in the studio at 6 a.m. “It was all I wanted to do,” she says.

She and her husband Charles started dating. “He’d bring me supper, we’d eat together, then he’d go and I’d walk home later.” Take note of Charles; he is a crucial element in this story.

Her future—as she walked away from the college’s curving walls—was uncertain.

“I knew [art] was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I didn’t know how to get there. How can you be a full-time artist when you’re trying to pay the rent?”
It was impossible then, she says. “For 20 years, life took me down a completely different path. You work for someone else, you do the 40–60 hours a week, always wanting something else; always knowing there was something else.”

Art was always there, after work, on weekends. Her husband Charles always said that one day Candace would be making her art full-time. He said, “I have complete faith in your ability to be successful at it.’”

Meeting Charles, one thinks ‘oh, now I see.’ Candace is an unusually vibrant human being. It’s hard to imagine someone burning so bright without a partner reflecting light back in return. Her husband, an electrical/instrumentation instructor at GPRC, radiates energy.

When Candace’s full-time GPRC job was cut, she and Charles talked it over and concluded: she wouldn’t look for another one. Did he hesitate? “I thought it was the best decision,” he says. As he speaks, one of Candace’s sculptures, The Promise, peeks out above him on a shelf. “We had worked years to make sure we had everything. You get to a certain point where you have achieved those goals.”

“We realized that we could survive, without needing to have two people making money. You just say, ‘hey, let’s take on a roommate, let’s not have a brand-new car every two years, let’s downsize, be frugal.’”

There was no negative impact, he says. It was the opposite. “My life couldn’t get any better than it is right now.” It’s a joy for him, he says, seeing his partner living her truth.

Sometimes Candace will get a little bit stressed, he says. “I say, ‘let’s not make this a 9 to 5. This is about doing what you love.’” Indeed, it is exactly that for this artist.

“I know it sounds clichéd,” Candace says, “but every day, when I walk into the studio, even if things are going badly or I’m frustrated, I still walk in and say, ‘I love my life. I love that I get to do this.”

Candace asked Carmen Haakstad, a celebrated artist and former gallerist, to make a studio visit in 2012, to critique her work.

“I was honoured,” Haakstad says. He made the tour. “I felt she had a talent, and that the skill was there. I didn’t feel she had found her own voice,” he says. “It’s hard to get there, when you’re not doing it full time.”

Serendipitously, that was exactly the path Candace had chosen.

Three years later, she and Haakstad had concurrent solo shows at the Centre for Creative Arts. The difference in her work was remarkable, he says. “I noticed she’s definitely gone to another level of finding her own expression, putting her own signature on it. Her work is just beautiful.”

It makes a great difference when an artist can create full-time.

“I wish I could be as brave,” says Haakstad. Cormorant, a smooth, bright Candace sculpture holds a place-of-pride beside him in his office. “It’s a bold move and it shows the commitment to her craft and to her art.”

“For artists, it’s the dream,” says Kiren Niki Sangra. Sangra, an artist herself, is also Creative Operations Coordinator at the Centre for Creative Arts, which hosted Candace’s show,
Life Markers, in October.

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Many of the Life Markers pieces were big—six feet of smoothly sculpted wood imbued with avian features. “It was so great,” says Sangra. “People would walk in the door, they’d turn the corner and their faces would light up. You could hear them say, ‘wow.’”

“It’s rare to see wood sculpture created locally,” Sangra says.

“When you told people they could touch the pieces, everyone went ‘ohh.’ It’s always, ‘don’t touch the art!’ The wood is so smooth and beautifully finished. It adds another layer to the experience.”

Jim Stokes, a well-established local painter, attended the show. “I’ve never seen a show just so wholeheartedly enjoyed and praised by the public,” he says. “As a full body of work, it was very striking.”

Stokes has been part of the art scene in Grande Prairie for 35 years. That scene took note of Life Markers. “When we see a new artist who’s really working at a very high standard and producing top-quality work, it’s just a joy to see,” Stokes says.

‘It’s spontaneity in wood, it’s spiritual,” says local painter and muralist Tim Heimdal. “I’m reminded of the totemic art of the West Coast that inspired Emily Carr or the spirit paintings of Alex Janvier. Lovely.”

Gordon Mackey, a pencil artist and former president of Artists North, also attended the show. “At first glance, you might just see a sculpture,” he says, “but the more you look at it you see there are subtle design features, hidden meanings in it that you didn’t notice at first.”

As Heimdal noted, the West Coast certainly influences her work. Candace is closely connected with the creatures of Gabriola Island, BC, where she and Charles own a piece of land and a cottage.

Every piece the artist makes is inspired by connections made with animals; often birds. Indeed, every artistic move she makes is deliberate: the western red cedar represents her heart and mind on the West Coast and the lodgepole pine, her roots in the Peace Country prairies.

Every piece represents feeling, emotion, and intimate connection, closely connected to Candace’s experiences. It is personal stuff—and a conscious decision.

“As artists, do we make what people seem to like and what people seem to buy? Or do we make what is nearest to ourselves and risk nobody else liking it or worse, making a fool of ourselves?” Candace says. She decided that for her, the only option was the latter. Risks be damned.

“I don’t do art as a political or environmental protest,” she says. “My purpose is self-discovery and to understand where I fit.”

Candace spends five to nine hours in her creation space every day. It’s not easy work. As Jim Stokes says, “All this beauty and subtle elegance comes at a tremendous amount of grinding and sawing and chipping and sanding and polishing and dust and grit and sweat.”

In the past few years, Candace has graduated from chisels to an arsenal of power tools. “I’m starting to understand the wood,” she says, “what the wood is capable of and then in turn what my skills can do with it.”

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Her fellow artist, Gordon Mackey, attests to it. “I’m a retired shop teacher so I’m quite knowledgeable about wood,” he says, “but she’s just as knowledgeable as I am. It’s very impressive.”

The sculptor is always quick to give the credit to her artistic partner. “What I do is not much more than half the work,” she says. “The wood provides most of the beauty.”
Each bit of former tree has a journey to undertake before coming to Candace’s chisels. It must first cure for several years, to dry, to balance its humidity and to get any ‘checking’, that is, cracking, out of its system. Even after a sculpture is fully finished, it may shift as years pass.

“That’s the beauty of working with wood,” says Candace. “It’s going to continue to change over time. There’s nothing I can do to stop that. I don’t want to. Just like you and me, we change as we age. We respond to our environment.”

Fittingly, her next show is called Life Markers, Milestone 2. Inspired by the original milestones—rocks placed at every mile on the road, to show progress—it will build on her previous work. “It’s still Life Markers, still my journey but it’s my next milestone,” she says. “I don’t want to keep doing what I’ve been doing. I want what I did to influence where I’m going, but I still want to be going forward.”

There’s no doubt she’s moving. With her artistic drive, her passionate heart, it’s hard to imagine Candace Sanderson doing anything else.

“I think in the years to come I’m going to be saying, ‘Hey, I used to know her,” says Mackey.


Candace Sanderson has, at present time, two shows scheduled in 2016. Life Markers, Milestone 2 is scheduled to run at the Beaverlodge Area Cultural Centre, July 24–August 25. A partner show with Gordon Mackey, theme: Portraits, is scheduled for November 16 at the Centre for Creative Arts.


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