John Thiering Sand Art

Sand painter John Thiering is one of the featured SWIFF Light Box artists. A Coffs local who has specialised in drawing and painting for most of his life, he found his niche in sand painting almost a decade ago and never looked back. He tells us more about what’s behind this touching, whimsical artform and how it will play out during SWIFF Light Box…

Tell us a bit about your background in art?

I always drew and painted from a very young age, but also did cartooning, quick draw, and caricatures of people. In the 1990s I used to perform live stand-up using overhead projectors. There is entertainment and also the idea of drawing quickly.

How did you get into sand painting?

In 2010 I saw Ukrainian sandpainter Kseniya Simonova winning Ukraine’s Got Talent and the penny dropped for me. I thought it was amazing and went wow and built myself a lightbox.

My inspiration is beauty, storytelling, the creative process, creative journey of discovery. It’s the thrill of creating something.

I love the fact that these are performances that combine a soundtrack with the visual arts side, the music, the storytelling. There’s a sense of choreography too, because your hands are moving with the rhythm as the images are being created. I also like the fact that there aren’t a lot of other people doing it!

And for the uninitiated – what is sand painting?

Essentially, it’s live animation drawn in sand. It’s a layer of sand that’s spread across a lightbox – usually a glass lit surface – so when you draw a line in the sand, on the surface it appears as white light. Where the sand is thick it is very dark, and as thins out it becomes lighter, creating a nice sense of that interplay of dark to light. There’s no colour, it’s the drama and the tones – like sepia.

One image morphs into another or is followed by another one that tells a story. Often the sound effects we use like rain or thunder coincide with the narrative.

Sand is probably the most prevalent object on earth – all through the ocean, the deserts, the rivers of the world, and you’re using your hands, which is the most sophisticated tool on earth, on a piece of glass, which is also made of sand. Then it’s basically about light and dark. The fact that it is so raw and organic is one of the most beautiful things about it.


It challenges people’s idea of art which is usually something static that is in a gallery. Whereas for you it’s about the performance and the impermanence?

Yes, definitely. When you’re performing, there’s a beautiful image, and then it’s wiped clean before your eyes. Impermanence is a really important aspect of it. It adds a preciousness, just like a flower that’s only going to last a little while as opposed to a painting of a flower.

It sounds like it lends itself perfectly to the projection art in SWIFF Light Box. How is your work being adapted for the project?

It will all be pre-recorded. We did a lot of brainstorming with all the artists. I’ve recorded about 15 to 20 sequences specifically tailored for the different sites. That’s going to be edited by Di James and the animators, who will blend together my art with the other artists’ work.

Can you give us a hint of what you’re drawing for the festival?

Without giving too much away, I’m doing a tree for the Jetty Theatre window with a portrait format and we’re going to use Brentyn Lugnan’s beautiful artwork, so when I draw the tree he draws the bark. Then that tree turns into a woman. Beautiful patterns, it’s very tribal, that’s how we’re going to blend stuff together.

What sorts of themes will you be exploring in Light Box that Coffs locals can look out for?

Most of its related to Coffs – there’s waves, the ocean, it’s an amazing part of the world because you’ve got the mountains, the ridgelines are very important. We’re near the only place on the Great Dividing Range where the mountains actually meet the ocean. The beach, coastline, the water – waves, Jetty birds and animals and dolphins.

How important is storytelling to your work?

You can be skilful, but there needs to be a story behind it to engages people on another level. My stories are very much about human beings – love, loss, beauty and sadness. Even just the fact that you create an image that’s beautiful and the fact that it’s not going to last forever. There’s always an element of something sad in something beautiful, and just like in life, we have to embrace that. It’s drawing your attention to how precious something is, by realising that it’s not going to last forever.

Do you think that added element of watching an artist create makes the art more accessible to people, who for example wouldn’t normally go to look at work in a gallery?

Absolutely – that’s one of its biggest drawcards is the wow factor of seeing someone perform, like seeing a ballet dancer in full flight. It’s in the moment, it’s an experience.