Sandy Bender on finding inspiration in natural disasters and tribal legend


Today, our new exhibit, “Fantasy Tales,” presented by the Bucks County Illustrators Society, opens.

Showcasing the work of 19 local artists and spanning a range of styles, from pencil drawing and oil painting to mixed media and digital illustration, the exhibit is inspired by stories with elements of the fairy tale, supernatural or fantastical. 

Participating artists chose a story or excerpt from a favorite tale — including classics like “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” Native American folk tales, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” —  and created an illustration to accompany it. Some rendered illustrations based on their own original stories.

According to Pat Achilles, co-founder of the BCIS, the exhibit highlights illustration’s roots in fine art. Much like the fine artists of centuries past, many members of the society have studied anatomy, classical design, history, science and literature. That knowledge has shaped much of their visual storytelling.

“Our pictures tell stories in a realistic way so that they can be immediately understood by the onlooker — but then as artists we incorporate nuances, hides surprises, project relationships between the characters in our scenes, so you can enjoy the illustration more and more the longer you look,” says Achilles.

"The Rainbow Birds"

“The Rainbow Birds”

Sandy Bender is exhibiting “The Rainbow Birds” in the show. The illustration is based on an original story he penned about the sun being rescued by birds of many colors after it is called into battle and left wounded. With the world plunged into a stormy darkness, the rescue creates a rainbow of victory.

“ ‘Rainbow Birds’ was inspired in part by tribal legends about how birds were all originally grey. The crows remained black because they were cynical… My birds have always been colorful. In my story…they are the birds that we know today — cardinals, blue jays, goldfinch, bluebirds, scarlet tanagers,” he says. “I like to draw from life and from my imagination. That has been my orientation from when I was young.”

Sanford Bender-BCISThe Bucks County illustrator and musician has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts. While he could have found work as a commercial artist — and did try his hand at it for a time — the lure of freehand drawing was greater than that of digital art. Having always appreciated architectural history, he ultimately chose to apply his graphic skills to the field of architecture. There, he discovered, in the discipline of building, a foundation that proved essential to his well-being.

“I was living in New York City when I moved in that direction. It gave me a heightened awareness of the city. I also was fascinated by Gothic cathedrals and the stories they seemed to tell,” says the Newtown artist, who specializes in natural disaster resilience. “Architecture gave more of a sense of dynamic and static forces, such as gravity and wind. I understand and draw structures better whether it is a bridge or a living skeleton.”

His profession can keep him away from his studio for weeks, while he assesses the cause of damage to buildings, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure across the country.

“I always sketch to understand the inception in my disaster recovery work,” says Bender.

He then offers suggestions to make the structures he studies more resilient and in tune with natural forces, which could also help with securing grant money.

“Natural disasters humble us and cause us to recognize their power and beauty. These forces carved out the dramatic landscapes that awe us,” says Bender.

His art is often influenced by those vistas.

Oregon - Sandy Bender

Bender is inspired by the many landscapes he sees, such as this slice of Oregon coastland.

“My landscapes always had dramatic weather and geology,” he says. “Now, the architecture is seen as infrastructure along with bridges, tunnels, and roads.”

Even his illustration “The Rainbow Birds” owes as much to his efforts in hazard mitigation as it does tribal lore.

“The sun being deployed to battle might be similar to me being sent to natural disasters. I do miss friends and family. It takes my colorful drawings and melodies to bring me home,” says Bender, whose CD “Terrain” features his artwork throughout.

Although he identifies himself as a scientific illustrator, he eschews drawing from specimens, preferring the animation and vitality of living and breathing marine creatures and wildlife. It is perhaps why he has yet to illustrate any textbooks, though he has written a chapter for one on water pollution.

“I think that I am more of a fine artist who was fascinated by the accuracy of scientific illustrations. I love wildlife, but I do not love biology. I did study anatomy, but do not like dissection and looking at innards,” he says. “Creating stories with drawings is most interesting.”

For young artists interested in the field of illustration, he offers this advice: “Become educated in the illustration department of your college, and see if you are really a fine artist who cannot compromise…I think that you have to love the digital world. Really identify what subject matter fascinates you. Maybe you are an educator or storyteller.”

And, lastly, he says, “You need a sense of whimsy.”

“Fantasy Tales” runs through July 20 in our farmhouse, 305 Horsham Road, Horsham.