|Sandra Brownlee, Unusual Animal Series #6 1993. Photo: Jack Ramsdale|
Beyond our genes, we are shaped by family, culture, and landscape. For Sandra Brownlee, these were all found in the environs of Halifax, Nova Scotia where she lived for most of her life until she departed at age 31 to attend graduate school. From early on, Brownlee was clearly a kinaesthetic child who loved the outdoors. Her fondest memories are swimming in the Bedford Basin or wandering in woods scented with lady's slippers and mayflowers, stroking velvety moss, and inhaling crisp, clean air. Brownlee spent a lot of time walking, exploring, and swimming–– closely investigating the sight, scent, and tactility of her surroundings.
Sandra Brownlee knows things through her hands, so it was natural that she would attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) to study weaving. From the moment that she first sat down at a loom in 1968, she loved the rhythm, structure, limits, and the gradual building of cloth. When she graduated in 1971, she was armed with a BFA in Textiles and a diploma in Art Education. From her graduation till she departed Nova Scotia in 1979, Brownlee balanced studio work with teaching. She taught part-time at NSCAD and other schools for nine years. During this period, her studio practice was mostly focussed on weaving utilitarian cloth and exploring textile traditions. In 1978, Brownlee had a solo show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, a harbinger of great things to come. The following year, she made the first of four significant moves when she departed Nova Scotia to attend the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It was there that she started developing the exquisite black-and-white woven imagery that has earned her accolades.
During this period, Brownlee set parameters on her weaving practice to allow her to focus solely on the woven imagery. She limited her palette to black and white, mostly using ubiquitous cotton sewing thread and wove her fine imagery on a countermarch floor loom that she brought back from Finland in the mid-1970s. Furthermore, she limited her scale and weave structure. While at Cranbrook, Brownlee met the love of her life, photographer Jack Ramsdale, and they eloped shortly after graduating from Cranbrook with their MFA degrees. They moved to Toronto so that Brownlee could fill a sabbatical-leave teaching position at Sheridan College. In her four years of living in Toronto, her woven images became more complex and mature and she was recognized with numerous grants and exhibitions.
In 1987, they moved to Philadelphia so that she could fill a another sabbatical teaching position, this time for the esteemed Warren Seelig at the University of the Arts. From 1987 to 1996 she balanced her weaving practice with teaching at several art institutions including: University of the Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art, the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, the Tyler School of Art, and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. Beyond these schools, she taught workshops at Haystack and Penland, and in 1994 Brownlee had a residency at the renowned Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. She received the ultimate recognition of her innovative woven imagery with a 1995-1996 solo exhibition, Weaving Out Loud, at the Museum for Textiles in Toronto, that toured to other galleries in Canada and the United States. This show was a mid-career survey of close to 15 years of her woven textiles.
Brownlee's career flourished with teaching, grants, awards, noteworthy exhibitions, her woven imagery adapted into a book GRRRHHHH: a study of social patterns, and more. Unfortunately her marriage to Jack Ramsdale was over by the time she returned from a teaching stint in India in 1993. Given the intensity of this era, it was no wonder that by 1995, Brownlee's creative stores were depleted and she needed a change.