Why story is paramount, or, how I made a tradesman cry.

Through story, individuality can be transformed into universality.

Not long after commencing work as a sand artist I realised how multidisciplinary the art form is. Like film-making, it combines several artistic disciplines in the one product.

The most obvious discipline is Visual Art. As a sand artist it is essential to be able to draw. When I’m standing before the light-box I use my drawing skills, knowledge and experience to depict a plethora of people, places and things. Since I was a young child I have been observing the shape of things so I can draw them as well as possible. In the last 10 years I have transferred this knowledge into the medium of sand. The purpose behind each image varies according to the story being told; capturing a likeness, evoking an emotion, relaying part of a narrative, creating something beautiful, etc. Whatever the context, drawing ability is invaluable.

The fact that these drawings are created in sand with nothing but my hands adds to the audiences appreciation of my artistry. However, in many ways it’s easier and quicker to draw this way. There is no tool in between the medium and me. No pencil requiring handling, or brush needing to be reloaded with paint. The space between the drawing tool and the image is reduced to nothing. This proximity and immediacy maximises the possibility to draw with spontaneity and feel. (I will explore this notion at more length in a future blog).

The next most obvious discipline to a sand art performance is the Audio. This includes music, voice and sound effects. Music is incredibly powerful in accentuating the drama of a story. It can evoke deeply felt emotions, desires and poignant memories. I especially love collaborating with musicians live where we can improvise and explore the interrelationship of image and sound. Whether it is performed live or pre-recorded, the audio component is crucial to the success of the overall performance. 

The least obvious, and often overlooked discipline in sand art, is Dance. Dance can be defined as the rhythmic movement of the body, usually to music, expressing an idea or emotion. In my performances my hands move in correlation to the music. They rise and fall to the melody or accelerate and slow down in response to the changing rhythm. A sudden flurry of the hands can add to the drama to the story, while a graceful movement can denote peace and quietude. This element is at it’s best when I relax into the flow of the music. The dance of the hands can serve to convey the story, or it can simply contribute to the aesthetics of the experience.

However, the most important discipline in sand art is Storytelling. An audience may be impressed by the dexterity of an artist as they draw in intricate detail, or a musician whose fingers move with lightning speed along a fretboard, but it is only the story that can move their spirit. A powerful story can go way beyond cleverness and connect people to a shared human experience. The skilful showman draws attention to their individual talent, setting them apart from the crowd, while the storyteller can bring people together revealing common experiences and truths. In other words, through story, individuality can be transformed into universality.

To use a musical analogy, a musician plays an extremely fast guitar solo, not missing a note, their fingers moving so fast that all you see is a blur. The viewer is impressed by the discipline required to achieve such a high level of skill. 

Another musician, sings a song with lyrics and mood that speak to the heart of the human experience. It is a song about a child, vulnerable yet full of wonder. The song is both beautiful and sad and the listener is left with a tear in their eye as they are reminded of their own childhood.

The first musician has impressed the listener with an exceptional display of talent. The second musician has moved the listener by touching on what is meaningful in their life.

The final section of my show on a cruise ship in 2018 was a story called “The Songbird’s Gift of Love” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3bsbPFGyr8&list=PL-j0E_bOVAHKFN2-6mNGvi2q5_LwjaJLl&index=13. It is a celebration of the power of music to heal broken hearts and ignite passion. After the gig I was approached by a middle-aged couple from Manchester. The man told me he was a builder and that he loved my show. 

‘It was so good that I almost went’, he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘went’ until he pointed to the corner of his eye indicating tears. He then added,I haven’t went since I was a kid!’ His wife was smiling and nodding in agreement. She seemed pleased that her husband had got back in touch with his feelings. I can only speculate, but her smile suggested she was looking forward to the resurgence of his romantic spirit.

Cleverness alone is not enough to reveal the profundity of our human experience. However, a clever artist can use these skills to tell a story with a depth of feeling that just may bring a grown man to tears.

If you would like to contact me about this or any other articles, please feel free to sue the form below or shoot me through an email at johnthiering@gmail.com
Sand Art and Paintings are available to purchase online.