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Creativity and a Little Sand Equals Great Folk Art

by Wes Cowan (10/05/10).

A pair of sweetheart sandbottles made by Andrew Clemens for Henry Reinken and his future wife, Helen Wimmler. They remained in the couple’s family until passed to the current owner’s family.

One of the hottest categories of antiques on today’s market is folk art. Though very broadly defined, the term “folk art” generally refers to individual creations by untrained or self-taught artists. From naïve, 19th-century paintings to whimsical sculptures from the late 20th century, good folk art has an inherent charm that, in recent years, has driven prices skyward.

For many collectors, central to their appreciation of folk art are the stories of the folk artists. Such is the case with Andrew Clemens, who, during his short life, created remarkably complex pieces simply by filling glass bottles with colorful sand.

Clemens was born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1857, and at the tender age of 5, he lost his abilities to speak and hear as a result of encephalitis. After a brief stint at the Iowa Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Council Bluffs, Clemens began experimenting with sand art, collecting the naturally occurring, multicolored sands from the Pictured Rocks region of Iowa. He fashioned special tools that he used to arrange the sand in intricate designs and then pack it tightly (he used no glue of any kind). Sizes and designs varied, and orders came to Clemens from around the world, each customer paying about $5 to $7. As his skill and creativity developed, his subjects ranged from boats and ships to flowers to flags and eagles, and he frequently created custom sandbottles depicting a scene of his customer’s choosing, including his or her name in a variety of fonts. Larger, more complex bottles took as much as year to complete.

A blown oblong footed bottle with polished pontil. Geometric decoration throughout with one side featuring a rosebud nosegay above a yellow band with the caption, McGregor, Iowa, Oct. 1892

The reverse depicts a maritime scene with cattails and lily pads in the foreground and sailing ships in the background; 7.25" high. It sold for $15,275 in June of 2009.

Throughout his career, the window in front of his worktable was a popular place for McGregor, Iowa, residents to pass the time, watching the meticulous artist create his sandbottles. In his later years, he became so absorbed in his work, he lost interest in nearly everything else, and the long hours hunched over his table began to take their toll. Clemens—dubbed “the portrait painter without a brush or even paint”—died in 1894 at the age of 37. He is thought to have produced hundreds of bottles during his lifetime, but relatively few survive today.

The label used by Clemens on his sand creations.

The imagination, complexity, and rarity of Andrew Clemens’ sandbottles have made them extremely popular on today’s market, generally fetching thousands of dollars each. But to many collectors, these bottles are priceless, because they are tangible reminders of the tragic, isolated life of a very gifted folk artist.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@cowans.com.

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2 Responses to “Creativity and a Little Sand Equals Great Folk Art”

  1. Tlhe Lightner Museum in Saint Augustine, Florida has two very good examples of Clemens work in its collection.

  2. Bill Castle says:

    These are absolutely amazing. I thought I’d seen good sand art before. I guess I had. I just hadn’t seen Great sand art before.

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