Grand Isle painter presents first exhibit in 30 years

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BRATTLEBORO — When Mara Williams, chief curator of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC), traveled to Grand Isle in northern Vermont to visit the studio of Sandy Sokoloff, she became only the ninth person to view Sokoloff's paintings in the past 30 years.

Beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 9, the public will have the opportunity to increase this figure exponentially when "Sandy Sokoloff: Emanation" opens at BMAC. A reception and light brunch, free and open to all, will mark the opening of this and five other new exhibits. Sokoloff will attend the opening reception. The exhibits will remain on view through June 16.

Sokoloff's artwork was exhibited in New York and Boston from the 1970s through the early 1990s, at which point Sokoloff ceased exhibiting in order to focus on painting. "Why did I withdraw from the art world? Too much monkey business for me to get involved with," Sokoloff laughed, noting that he was quoting Chuck Berry.

Now 74 years old, Sokoloff has been painting since he was five. "I'm someone who has opted to live in isolation and try to realize my vision," he said. "I'm at a point in my life where I'd like other people to see it now."

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Sokoloff holds an MFA from Boston University and received training as an oil painter, but he developed an allergy to turpentine early in his career. Unable to continue in oils, he turned to acrylic paints, which led him to develop a layering technique that he has used for the past 50 years.

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"The properties of acrylic are vastly different than oil," he said. "Acrylic dries very quickly, and oil paint takes hours or days to dry. You can paint over with acrylic in ways that you can't with oil." This technique lends depth and complexity to Sokoloff's paintings.

Describing the paintings she selected for "Emanation," Williams said, "Sokoloff creates visual and spiritual energy through a lively arrangement of shapes, gestures, and colors that activate physiological and emotional responses. His paintings plumb the possibilities of optics, philosophy, and theology, and open a space to contemplate the ineffable."

Sokoloff was several years into creating a series of mystical, abstract, nine-foot spherical paintings before he learned about Sephirot, often translated as "emanations." "Sephirot is a Kabbalistic view that says that although we may not have a direct experience of the higher power that we call G-d, it does emanate," he said, "and, according to the Kabbalah, it can take the form of 10 spheres which present the various aspects of the higher power." Sokoloff was powerfully struck by the connection between this concept and his work.

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"Although I am not an observant Jew, I have been strongly influenced by my cultural heritage," Sokoloff said. "As a child I loved to draw, and early on my grandfather told me, `A Jew may never create an image of G-d.' Still, the Kabbalah describes Sephirot as the manifestations of G-d that allow Him to appear in both the metaphysical and physical universes. Investigating the paradox of an image that both appears and does not appear gives impetus to my work."

Sokoloff has just begun work on a new group of paintings, "Archangels," drawing on the association between archangels and Sephirot in Jewish mysticism. Chief Curator Williams selected one painting from "Archangels" to include in the exhibit at BMAC, while the rest of the paintings are from Sokoloff's "Sephirot" series.

Five years ago, Sokoloff and his wife moved from Massachusetts to Grand Isle, Vermont, on Lake Champlain. "I find this landscape to be very spiritual and very supportive of someone who wants to make paintings," he said. "I'm not an artist, I'm a painter. I put paint on canvas and push the paint around. Whether it's art is to be determined."


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