In the early days of the pandemic, artist Sandra Swill couldn’t help but notice the influx of empty cardboard boxes piling in front of the neighbors’ doors in her Delray Beach high-rise. With a country in lockdown, the tenants in her building, like the rest of us, had shifted to online shopping for essentials and comfort items alike. Swill recognized this as a potent sign of the times.
“We look out our windows, and we see Amazon trucks, making deliveries constantly,” says Swill, a docent at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “And there is all this cardboard. And so it stimulated a different part of my psyche, as far as, what can I do with these cardboards? I started bringing them up to my place, and started cutting them up.”
For Swill, circumstance, not necessity, has proven to be the mother of invention. She had never worked with cardboard prior to this year, but after scavenging material from her neighbors, she has completed more than a dozen upcycled sculptures from this deceptively shapely medium. Her cardboard creatures appear in skirts and hats—some with earrings and faux hair adding wit and nuance—and run the gamut from winsome brides to stoic protectors.
Her initial cardboard sculptures had a lighthearted tone, while her more recent entries in the series have taken on a more somber bent. They have echoes, to some, of dogū haniwa, the ritualistic clay protectors dating back to third-century Japan.
“A lot of what I was creating was starting to get that feel, of the characters from that time period, which I had never known about,” Swill says. “They’re kind of mysterious. They do have some kind of a spirit to them. I see it myself.”
Swill is accustomed to beginning work with an open mind, and letting inspiration and intuition take their course. She has typically operated as a painter, working with acrylic.
“I generally do not know exactly where I’m going when I put a paintbrush in my hand,” she says. “The palette that I choose for the day is generally what directs me. I’m very nonobjective. And as the colors start blending on the canvas, generally something starts to become evident in my imagination. And lo and behold, there comes the subject matter.”
Swill is hesitant to proscribe specific meaning to her work; as with her paintings, she hopes her cardboard sculptures prompt personal reflection. “Each of us, when we look at art, sees something so different based on our own life experiences. I would want people to feel comfortable. I would want them to really want to pause and contemplate.”
But she does see her ongoing series as a product of its zeitgeist, a kind of time capsule of an artist reacting to the world around her. “Throughout the history of art, different trends have evolved due to … what was happening outside,” she says, adding, “in my paintings, often I’ll put the month and the year. For these, I’m just putting 2020.”