Manju Shandler: “I am a Visual Storyteller”

Manju Shandler Artist

A fine artist and theatre designer from Brooklyn, Manju Shandler, charmed The Art Sprinter judges with the range of artworks submitted to the contest. Her works are very symbolic and multi-layered with ink, pencils, and all kind of paints. In addition to fine arts, Manju is working as a theatre designer. In this interview with The Art Sprinter blog, Manju narrates about her aspirations and impressive artistic career.

Manju Shandler Solo Show Legends & Leviathans at The Hammond Museum (summer 2012)
Manju Shandler Solo Show Legends & Leviathans at The Hammond Museum (summer 2012)

Please introduce yourself to The Art Sprinter Blog readers. What is your background in art?

I am a visual artist and theatre designer, the common thread being visual storytelling. I am most interested in creating artwork that inspires new narrative interpretation by the viewer.

From early childhood on I have always been painting, sculpting, and drawing. I discovered a love for theatre design, specifically masks, puppets, and costumes at Bennington College. I love the collaboration and seeing my work come alive on stage.

Since graduating from college nearly 20 years ago, I have worked steadily both as a theatre designer and shown my visual artwork in galleries.

Manju Shandler Solo Show Deus Ex Machina at The Governor’s Island Art Fair (summer 2013)
Manju Shandler Solo Show Deus Ex Machina at The Governor’s Island Art Fair (summer 2013)

Do you have a formal art education? In your opinion, is education important for artists (and why)?

I received a Bachelor of Arts from Bennington College in the self-designed major Performing Visual Art. This was a way for me to combine my visual arts practice with the technical and collaborative aspects of designing for the stage. College was a place for me to explore different artistic avenues that I may not have gone down without the inspiration and support from an exceptional group of professors and peers. One of the main aspects of my education that I benefitted from was that Bennington requires students to do an internship each year. I found these apprenticeships very beneficial in terms of learning practical skills and getting a brief window into my mentors’ lives.

After college I moved to New York City where I found work in costume and puppet building shops. I spent many happy years freelancing and building fantastic objects with lovely people. Between these more commercial jobs I would design things for the theatre or work independently on my own visual art.

My formal education was the jumping off point for me to discover how to creatively and practically express myself. I dearly value all the experiences that helped to mold my life and work even though my background is not what most artists receive as a formal “Art Education. ” I do not know what I missed not getting first a BFA and then an MFA from a fine arts university but it has not been necessary for me to be able to express myself. I believe if you have a deep hunger to create then you will do so with or without formal training. Often my favorite artists are “outsiders”. People who come from outside the norms of society but have such vision and determination that they create wholly original works that seem to spring from their very souls.

Manju Shandler Solo Show at The Governor’s Island Art Fair (summer 2012)
Manju Shandler Solo Show at The Governor’s Island Art Fair (summer 2012)

How can you describe your art? What do you expect viewers to explore in your mixed media works?

I am a visual storyteller who creates large mixed media artworks imbued with elastic meaning. I think I can use that sentence to describe most of my work.

I hope while people take the time to explore my work they both see what I have created and that their imaginations are triggered to look into the collective subconscious to build personal narratives upon established story lines in their imaginations.

Manju Shandler Solo Show Legends & Leviathans at The Hammond Museum (summer 2012)
Manju Shandler Solo Show Legends & Leviathans at The Hammond Museum (summer 2012)

Which creative medium do you prefer to work with and why?

I am an artistic omnivore. I love to constantly change mediums and explore different means to creating work. I love to see how far one medium can go and combine it with another.

For the last 15 years I have been working with a thin translucent plastic called polyester film. This material allows the staging environment to be visible through the work, breaking the metaphor of painting as a window into another dimension. I mark this surface with India ink, grease pencil, printing, acrylic, and spray paint. I sew this work together creating large multi-layered plastic tapestries. But I also love working with paper, foam, fabric, clay, wire, and all sorts of crafts materials. I enjoy the physical quality to building something by hand and although I use the computer extensively for research I do not make digital art.

What is the message that you are trying to present through your works?

I’m not sure there is one message I am trying to convey. Just that life is messy, history repeats itself, and there is beauty and truth to be found through all sorts of art. Making art is my way of trying to sort through all the chaos of the world and add value.

Why does mythology interests you as artist?

To me, mythology is the cumulative collective subconscious of the human race. Through these ancient stories we as a species have created a kind of shared experience and memory bank.

Installation shot of Behemoths at The Ise Cultural Foundation (summer 2014)
Installation shot of Behemoths at The Ise Cultural Foundation (summer 2014)

What inspires you as an artist? Who is your favorite artist and why? Any old masters that you enjoy?

I take great joy and inspiration from almost everything! I’m so pleased to live in an era where the world is at our fingertips and artists are able to explore the bounty that is currently and historically amassed.

I have so many favorite artists it is constantly changing but generally artists who have fearlessly created work over a lifetime inspire me. A quick scroll through my pinterest inspiration page shows: Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, William Kentridge, Joseph Beuys, Pablo Picasso, William de Kooning, Kate Tucker, Tony Ousler, Cheryl Pope, Paul Gauguin, Anselm Kiefer, Kate MccGwire, Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, Jenny Saville, Fracis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Lucian Freud, Helen Frakenthaaler, Maskull Laserre, Ron Mueck, El Anatsui, Orly Genger, Cecily Brown, Kendall Buster, Rosemarie Trockel…the list goes on.

Doing research for my series LEVIATHANS I became fascinated by whaling, one of the first super fuels, and began equating it with current fossil fuel consumption. Both are finite natural resources that will be depleted. To fully immerse myself in the whaling culture I listened to the unabridged audiobook of Moby Dick and studied Dutch etchings of whaling from the 1600’s and 1700’s, borrowing their imagery to create printed plastic backgrounds with historical significance. The printers Jan Saenredam, Jacob Matham, and Wenceslas Hollar were some of the masters that were of particular inspiration.

Manju Shandler Studio (December 2014)
Manju Shandler Studio (December 2014)

What do you think about the Jewish artists’ movement in New York? Are there enough galleries, events, and projects working with Jewish artists?

My primary personal experience with the Jewish art movement here in New York City has been with LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture. From 2008-2011, I was one of three original artists in Residence at LABA (along with Jesse Zaritt and David Tirosh), laying the first building blocks for what has quickly become one of the most respected Jewish Arts organizations in the US. In 2014, LABA was named one of the most innovative Jewish Organizations in North America by the Slingshot Guide and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

These honors are evidence of the quality of LABA’s programming, staff, and artists as well as the obvious need for this type of programming. My personal experience has been that there are less available resources for visual artists than those working in performance or other time based media. One of the reasons that I am so pleased to be included as an Art Sprinter Finalist is the potential for my work’s inclusion in the accompanying exhibition this summer.

Manju Shandler - Leisure/Time Installed in the Lobby of the 14th St Y for The  LABA/Alma Exhibition (autumn 2010)
Manju Shandler – Leisure/Time Installed in the Lobby of the 14th St Y for The LABA/Alma Exhibition (autumn 2010)

Some of your artworks relate to natural disasters such as earthquake and tsunami. Why do those topics inspire you?

In 2011, I was just completing a year of study at LABA centered around the theme of Paradise. I became transfixed by the intersection of natural beauty and humankind’s pervasive intervention in all aspects of the planet. When the Tsunami hit with such a devastating force, only to be compounded by the nuclear threat I was deeply moved. The images of the endless white cars floating in the water were so startling and evocative it focused certain themes I was investigating. I have not been to Japan but I have a love and respect for both the Japanese people and their artistic traditions.

Manju Shandler Solo Show Legends & Leviathans at The Hammond Museum (summer 2012)
Manju Shandler Solo Show Legends & Leviathans at The Hammond Museum (summer 2012)

According to your resume, you are also a costume designer. Please tell us more about that area of your interest.

I am a theatre designer with a specialty in costumes, puppets, and masks. Currently, I am working on remounting my production design for The Little Orchestra Society’s “Cinderella and The Prince Who Slays The Magic Dragon.” This will be this production’s fourth performance cycle at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall featuring a full orchestra, an ensemble of 12 ballet dancers, and numerous larger than life puppet elements. This year we are working with a new choreographer, Margaret Hickey, who will be putting her unique stamp on the performance. Currently, I am busy adding new costumes and design elements for this revival.

Detail photo of Small Ziz  by Manju Shandler (2014)
Detail photo of Small Ziz by Manju Shandler (2014)

What is your connection to Jewish culture and art? Who are some of the Jewish artists that inspire you?

I was raised in a largely secular home and received very little religious Jewish education growing up. Once I became an adult with my own children, I became more interested in learning about my background and traditions. Having the opportunity to study Midrash at LABA created a huge expansion of my vision of how art, history, and traditions can be combined.

I feel so fortunate that I was able to study with some of the finest Jewish educators and artists out there during my time at LABA. The three teachers I studied with at LABA remain both practical and spiritual inspirations. I am honored to call them colleagues and friends.

Stephen Hazan Arnoff, who founded LABA in 2007, was just selected as the CEO for all of the Jewish Community Centers in North America. I applaud the JCC’s choice and I am so happy that Stephen’s vision will be reaching a greater audience.

Ruby Namdar, Head Teaching Faculty at LABA, was awarded the Sapir Prize, Israel’s highest honor for literature in 2014 for his novel “The Ruined House”. It is wonderful to see this book that he toiled at independently for 10 years be honored fully.

Basmat Hazan Arnoff, co-founder of LABA, teacher of Jewish text, writer, and theatre director, has been my inspiration and collaborator on several projects including the performances Binding and A Wonderfully Flat Thing. The mother of four children she has been a tremendous inspiration in how to maintain your artistic voice while being a parent.


Do you find art contests helpful for the artists? If so, why are they important? What would you suggest to the artists who are thinking of participating in The Art Sprinter competition?

I find art contests personally helpful in that they provide opportunities to share my work with new audiences and force me to articulate what I’m creating in the studio. There is nothing more motivating than a deadline to help get the final push to complete something.

When considering entering any competitions, I think it’s important to understand the vision of the award and to be honest with yourself about whether your work is a strong fit. My main advice for anyone who would be interested in entering the Art Sprinter Competition is to make sure that your work is represented with the best quality images and that your writing about your work clearly represents your own unique voice.