7 minute read

Abby Sands

The Multi-Dimensional Life & Art of

STORY LIZ GENEST SMITH PHOTO ABBY SANDS

To the naked eye, Mandeville photographer Abby Sands appears to be the fortunate beneficiary of a naturally positive perspective and some happy accidents. But if you zoom in through the lens of her life experiences and dogged determination, you’ll quickly realize that to reduce her accomplishments to simple luck and a plucky attitude is to do her a great disservice.

Abby abruptly became a financially strapped, single mother of three small children about 15 years ago. Most of us would give up on any entrepreneurial aspirations and either move near grandma (for her, this would mean Vermont), or go back to corporate life for the steady paycheck and benefits. But these were not options in her mind.

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“After the divorce my family said, ‘You need to get a job!’ But I really just wanted to be a photographer,” she states, unapologetically. “I couldn’t go corporate. I had three kids to raise, and had to work around their schedules. I actually worked for a gallery at one point. It was the only time I’ve ever been fired. I mean, I don’t blame them. I was late, the kids were sick, it was always something.”

Why wouldn’t she relocate to New England, to be close to family members who could offer support and assistance? Her simple answer is, “I don’t do cold weather. And Old Mandeville is my home.”

Though she’s moved around the country quite a bit, Abby lived in Mandeville from elementary through high

school, then found her way “home” 18 years later. She’s also an active member of the Old Mandeville Business Association, Old Mandeville Historical Association and the newly formed Mandeville Artists Guild, lest you doubt her word or dedication.

An art major who learned the basics of photography and graphic design at advertising agencies, and humility and a serious work ethic at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace, this self-proclaimed “hustler” had her resolve even further challenged when, soon after becoming a single parent and sole provider, Hurricane Katrina struck. First came the flooded house, then the eviction notice.

As for why even that didn’t break her, Abby explains with a shrug, “I’ve never been a woe-is-me kind of person. This is my life, I make the best of it.”

Perhaps never were these words more true, and more demonstrative of her character, than when she infused that hardship with her signature sense of humor and displayed the result in her family’s Christmas card picture in that difficult year of Katrina.

“Even the sofa was out on the front porch. It looked like Sanford & Son. We all sat out there, I had some lemons that I cut up, and I put some yellow food coloring in a pitcher of water. Everyone was filthy and not paying attention.”

And, voila – the old lemons-to-lemonade adage came to life. Her perspective and drive have certainly proven crucial in propelling Abby to the enviable life she currently leads. Her three children – two in high school, one in college – are all doing well, she’s her own boss, she has an annual gig as a talent coordinator at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles and she travels the world, seeing and shooting exotic locales.

“I don’t know how I pull it off,” she admits modestly. But don’t fall for it. Much of her success has come in spite of some serious hardships. Most creative types are a bit scattered, and often rather undisciplined – but make no mistake, Abby has had to organize, coordinate and manage her life like a welloiled machine. She just makes it look easy, and aesthetically appealing.

She also graciously credits the aforementioned series of disasters with bringing her an opportunity she’d long dreamed of. “I always wanted to live in an old shotgun house, and here I am!”

If you visit her quaint abode in Old Mandeville, and you feel like you’re being watched, or you swear you hear rustling in the underbrush as you approach the front porch, it’s not your imagination. It’s probably the litter of orphaned armadillos living under her house, or the feral cat who’s helping to foster them – both of whom have become beloved extended family members.

Step inside, and you get the sense you’ve entered the inner sanctum of a true creative, where free-spirited character meets organized chaos. The living room walls are haphazardly adorned with art, including her own work and portraits she shot of her children when they were little. The rest of the space is a happy jumble of eclectic furniture, easels, and all manner of artifacts, reflecting both her creative endeavors and everyday life.

Chatting with Abby gives you an immediate snapshot of the bold personality that quite obviously influences her work. Her playful, open and generous energy exudes from her person and leaps off the screen as you scan through the photographs on her website – ranging from weddings and portraits to commercial work to artistic creations.

Her personal assessment – “I’m critical of myself, but I don’t take myself too seriously” – is right on the money, and explains why a session with her is so refreshingly relaxed. It also helps that, like most of us civilians, she’s self-conscious about being photographed.

“It makes it easier to understand people who hate getting their picture taken. You can’t make them sit and pose. We walk, we talk, we get comfortable,” she says. “I want it to be a timeless piece of art that’s relevant to you. Everyone is different, so I go approach each shoot with fresh eyes. I make it personal by pulling out your personality.”

One look at her portrait of a teenage girl in shorts and cowboy boots, laughing unabashedly as she sits comfortably cross-legged on an old brick sidewalk flanked by flowers, or

ABBY SANDS

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LETTER FROM THE MAYOR

another in a chic dress and high heels, cheerily kicking up a soccer ball under ancient live oak trees, and you’ll never look at your one-dimensional, trapped-in-a-studio, drape- or tuxedo-clad senior picture the same way again.

As delightful as her portraits are, her fine art collections reveal a deeper glimpse into her psyche. Her “Mind Show” collection is a series of high concept images, born from a daydream, which morphed into recurring characters in masks, set against various eccentric backdrops, using a reverse color tint technique that makes these shots instantly recognizable. Some of the most distinctive shots are of her teenage son in a top hat and tails with a friend’s daughter, a professional dancer, in a tutu and toe shoes. When I comment that her son must be an awfully good sport, she says, “He is. Well, I paid him. And he didn’t have a choice,” she adds, laughing.

Abby points to a large image on display in her living room, where the two characters are sitting at a sidewalk cafe, against a wall of vibrant signs and folk art. She admits the dancer’s feet were bleeding and her son was miserable, but the shot is incredible. “And the mask hides it all.”

Her travel collection reflects perhaps the most enviable aspect of her life – her ability to jet off to extraordinary destinations for working vacations (next up is Italy, where she and a friend will take a side trip to a Depeche Mode show, illustrating her claim to be “young at heart, with an old soul”). On these sojourns, she brings “the good camera,” but allows herself to disconnect from emails and social media. “I’m not a liver transplant surgeon I can do that!” she insists. One of her most striking photos happened completely organically while visiting Cuba. When asked about it she speaks of the subject, a woman name Esmeralda, with complete reverence.

“I was in Old Havana, just before the ban was lifted – I wanted to hurry before all the tourists moved in -- and when I rounded a corner, there was this striking yellow wall, and this dark-complected woman sitting in a crooked chair, holding a big honking cigar. I was star-struck. I stopped in my tracks and asked if I could photograph her. She picked up her fan, and posed. I took her picture, thanked her, and left.”

Despite the outward appearance that everything just magically works out for the best for Abby Sands, do not doubt, she makes things happen. Is it her optimistic, offbeat perspective? Tireless work ethic? Boundless energy? Dedication to her art? Ability to network and create pathways for opportunity? Joie de vivre?

The answer, quite simply, is yes.

On the home page of our website (www. cityofmandeville.com) are two links that are important for residents during hurricane season. First, under “What’s New” you will find “Hurricane Preparedness.” It covers a plethora of subjects that will help you, including the latest report from the National Hurricane Center. Even when we are not under emergency status, you can check it every day of the year for current weather updates. Second, there is a link where you can sign up for “E-Briefs” to get emergency notifications by email. During hurricane emergencies, we will email you as often as changes occur, as well as post these notifications on our website.

If you have elderly relatives or someone with special needs, check the St. Tammany Parish website and the Council on Aging for any announcements about open shelters. Also have a plan in place for your family and pets in case of mandatory evacuation. To protect your home, be sure that you keep outdoor furniture, potted plants and ongoing construction to a minimum in order to prepare quickly when it becomes necessary. When a hurricane approaches, it is necessary to remove or tie down any loose objects to prevent projectiles in high winds. During emergency status, City Hall phones are answered 24/7. Stay safe and call us at any hour for the latest information.

DONALD VILLERE City of Mandeville Mayor

For more information: AbbyPhoto.com