John Sandbach: The Making of a Polymath

He’s a poet, a painter, an author and an astrologist working in KC for 50 years.

If you’re the type who never wants your peas to touch the mashed potatoes on your plate, you might find the various art practices of John Sandbach somewhat disconcerting.

The native Kansas Citian’s professional expertise ranges from the most earthbound — shiatsu massage — to the sublime: haiku poetry.

At age 67, with no college degree, Sandbach is an internationally published poet and author, who has written almost 20 books of poetry, fiction, astrology and metaphysics in the last 40 years.  He is also an editor and a painter.

Over the last 10 years Sandbach’s paintings have become increasingly confident, large and abstract.  Always a strong colorist, he incorporates in his canvases the kind of cosmic sense of space so apparent in his poetry, as well as the mysticism inherent in all his endeavors.  He is currently preparing for a 2017 one-person exhibition of abstract paintings and ceramics at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center (curated by this author). His artworks are in numerous private collections, as well as such institutions as the Truman Medical Center.

Sandbach has practiced astrology since he was 20, has lectured and taught broadly on the subject, and has a global clientele in horoscope prognostications.

He is a medical massage therapist who taught for years at MTTI (Massage Training Therapy Institute), and has high-profile clients in both the sports and dance world. (One of his regulars was Todd Bolender, the former artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, and he was with the legendary dancer when he died.)

The only thing he doesn’t do is drive a car.

While it’s not uncommon for artists to have two or three jobs, Sandbach is aware of the risks inherent in juggling so many professional identities.   “If I’m taken seriously in one world — whether it’s writing, astrology, massage, or painting — I’m perceived as a lightweight in the other areas of my life,” he said. He refuses to deny or hide his interest in the metaphysical.

Like the “Hermetic Man,” as described by Matilde Battistini in the Getty Museum book Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Arts, Sandbach is “the initiate into esoteric doctrines who successfully breaks free of the domination of the senses and participates, through the eyes of the mind, of the intelligible life animating the universe. . .”

In the Renaissance, Battistini writes, artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci — who all believed in astrology — perfectly embodied the principles of the Hermetic Man.

While preternaturally gifted, success did not come easily to Sandbach.

He was born in 1948 in San Francisco, where his parents divorced when he was two years old. His mother moved with him to Kansas City and quickly remarried a man who became a policeman.

Sandbach’s childhood memories are not happy ones. “I started playing the piano when I was seven; I had a great teacher and loved it,” he said. But my stepfather thought art was a form of insanity and completely useless and refused to pay for my lessons. Fortunately, my music teacher continued to teach me for free.

“When I was 17 Bill Miller, who taught at the UMKC Conservatory of Music, became my teacher.  I played competitively in competitions and won a free semester to UMKC.  But my stepfather said he would not pay for college if I majored in piano. So English became my major.”

At age 18, he started studying astrology and quickly developed a clientele. He was soon teaching astrology and giving national lectures at astrology conventions.  He also began writing books on the subject. His first published volume was The Dwadashamshas: Degree Analyses and Deeper Meanings. He then studied the Tarot, which has its roots in the Kabbala, and subsequently wrote two books about that divination tradition while also teaching private classes.

In 1993 Sandbach started writing poetry, an art form he had loved since childhood. He preferred haiku, even though, he said, “most Westerners don’t really like haiku. I love the intensity of it.”

Eventually Sandbach’s haiku were accepted into the “World Haiku Gallery” page of the Japanese magazine Ginyu. In 2002 the editor of Ginyu,  Ban’ya Natsuishi,  wrote the introduction to Sandbach’s first book of haiku, Step Into Sky, calling it “ spacious and cosmic, unlike so many stereotypical Japanese haiku.”

“I imagine Sandbach to be a haijin (haiku poet) who lives in a cosmic world of poetry,” Natsuishi added, “and who calls the moon to the dry wash scattered with sand in the middle of North America so that he may talk with her.”

Four more books of haiku followed, and then Sandbach began combining poetry with his astrological studies. The Omega Oracles, which took three years to write, is simultaneously a visionary, dreamy long form poem and a legitimate astrological textbook.

In 1990 Sandbach published Histories of Aab, an enchanting book of 33 surreal short stories that also qualifies as young adult literature. He is currently at work on A Painter, the third book of the Azoth Series, works he calls “metaphysical fantasies.”

A Painter revolves around the reincarnation of famed artists Cy Twombly, William Baziotes, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo, and the stories include the universal language “aUI,” otherwise known as the Language of Space, created by the former psychologist to the United Nations, Dr. John Weilgart.

The Azoth Series reflects Sandbach’s personal venture into the visual arts. In his twenties he returned to UMKC for two semesters and studied painting with Professor Stephen Gosnell. Sandbach’s partner of 38 years, Tom Gomersall, whom he married last year, is a retired businessman who had been a painting instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute. Together they have taken private ceramic classes for years.

Sandbach primarily creates vessels by hand, painting some and leaving others outside to weather. All of his pieces look like they come from a distant galaxy.

When asked to describe the connective tissue among all his various endeavors, Sandbach does not hesitate: “The Kabbala says that only one percent of what we think of as reality is ‘real’; I want to get in touch with the other 99 percent.  Human beings are meant to be channels between the spiritual and physical worlds, and everything I do is meant to serve that purpose.”

Photo by Jim Barcus

CategoriesLiterary Visual
Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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