In some ways, Sandy Freckleton Gagon's approach to art — and life — has been a treasure hunt. She can't remember a time when she did not want to be an artist; but partly, she says, that's because early on her parents taught her to love nature.
"They had incredible observation skills, and they both taught me to observe," Gagon said. "We would go hiking, and we would look for what we called 'treasure' — rocks and nests and seashells and feathers."
She learned to see the world through such simple pleasures.
Today her art work is filled with these same treasures, which she sees not as objects but as metaphors and symbols. "I think of what I do as interior landscapes," she says of her still-life paintings. But she sets them up to represent more than what immediately meets the eye. "I put a lot of my personal feelings, a lot of my symbolism into my still lifes and figurative works."
It's an approach that is gaining the Salt Lake artist a lot of attention in classical-realism circles. She is now represented by the Leslie Levy Fine Art Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Phillips Gallery here in Salt Lake City.
In 2000, Gagon was invited to participate in a show at the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco, which "brought together all the top artists in realism. It was really an honor; there were some great realists there." Her piece, in fact, titled "Still Life With Crenshaw," was chosen for the title page of a story on the exhibit in American Artist magazine.
In 2001, she was a finalist in a "Still Life — Objects of Delight" contest sponsored by International Artist magazine. She was also invited to participate in the 9th Annual Realism Invitational in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2002. "Last summer, I sold my first international painting — to a client in England."
So, she has come a long way from when she was in seventh grade and took Best of Show at the Utah State Fair. But, she adds, it has been a journey filled with discovery and treasure.
Gagon has a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design and illustration from the University of Utah and for a number of years was a freelance designer and illustrator, doing work for the LDS Church, Deseret Book, Bookcraft and Embryo Music, among others.
Although her family was supportive of her interest in art, "they also thought I needed a way to earn a living." And being a freelance graphic designer and illustrator was perfect, "because I could stay home and be a mom and also paint. Being a mom is very important to me. My family is very important to me."
But, she says, it was her husband "who said I had the heart of a fine artist." With her family's encouragement, Gagon decided to retrain as a classical artist, studying with such classical-realism authorities as Nelson Shanks, Burton Silverman, Daniel Greene and Anthony Ryder.
"I can do any style or medium — I started with watercolors and gouache — but the epitome of greatness to me is oil painting, the only medium I now use," she says. "I love the great masters. I love to go to museums and study their techniques up close."
Realism is not the easiest style. "You have to have the aesthetic perception, but the technique must also be accurate. With works of realism, even those who are not trained in art can see if it's not right."
She has always been drawn to the realistic style. "I don't like to paint loosely." Even in high school, when abstract expressionism was all the rage, she was talking about Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth — "which wasn't very cool."
But Gagon had discovered her passions and stuck to them. To get to do something you are passionate about, she says, is one of life's greatest joys. She also enjoys "pushing myself to continue to learn and grow."
She also loves to travel, to visit art museums of whatever genre. "I like contemporary art. It just doesn't represent what I have to say."
Realism, Gagon says, offers plenty of room for creativity. What all artists strive to do, she says, is help viewers see the world in a different way, to notice something about the world they may not have noticed before.
In her own works, she likes to create "Zen-like peace and harmony, a place of total order that is not overly sentimental but where joy and happiness are possible."
Many of her paintings include tributes to the masters she loves: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Bougereau, Sargent, Cassatt, Chase, coupled with some of the treasure she still finds from her walks and hikes. "I like to show my love of family, of great things and share that with the viewer."
Gagon believes that great art is the sum total of a lot of little things — a lot of life's treasures. "Like music does, like the other arts do, great art truly enlivens and strengthens. It creates beauty and truth. It brings out the best in people. It soothes. It creates balance and harmony.
"Whatever happens in life, art can be a stabilizer. You can use the creative energy that flows from it to create happiness."