The Biscayne Times

Jul 03rd
The Artist as Mentor PDF Print E-mail
Written by Elisa Turner, BT Contributor   
June 2020

Oliver Sanchez stays active with help from Artist Relief

OArtFeature_1liver Sanchez has been a presence in Miami’s art scene for at least 15 years, since he founded the maverick Swampspace gallery in the Design District. He’s been called a trickster, though he prefers the sobriquet “leprechaun.” He’s known for puckish wit, for quick and pointed remarks skewering Miami’s cultural establishment, delivered with a grin or audacious Facebook post. “I like to keep it lively,” he admits. But speak to him about his passion for art and artists, and the shrewd, irreverent trickster-leprechaun persona slips away.

This passion illuminates his successful application to the nationwide COVID-19 emergency fund Artist Relief. The fund was launched in April with $10 million. Sanchez is one of 550 artists to each win a $5000 grant from the first round of grants distributed. (Seven other Miami artists in various disciplines received grants then.)

His application reads in part: “I am the founder and director of an artist-run project space known as SWAMPSPACE in the Design District, an alternative venue recognized by the Knight Foundation Arts Challenge in 2014. I have presented over 80 cultural events in the past decade with a modest budget subsidized by my fabrication business and artistic practice. One could say Swampspace is my way of giving back to the industry that has sustained my creative passion. I also mentor students from the local magnet high school and have served as an adjudicator for the National YoungArts Foundation.”


Sanchez appreciates that the $5000 grants are distributed without conditions on how the money is to be spent. “I think that’s really a big thing on their part. They understand that different people have different needs,” he says, adding that the process of applying to Artist Relief was one of the most efficient grant applications he’s ever submitted.

According to Artist Relief, there are 5 million creative workers in the United States; in April, 62 percent became fully unemployed because of COVID-19 and the average decline in estimated total annual income was $27,103. For the first round of funding, says Artist Relief spokesman Robert Grand, there were over 500,000 applications. Once it’s determined that artists are eligible to apply, generally meaning that they aren’t commercial vendors or merchants, and that there’s substantial need, artists are chosen by a random lottery, he explains. Applications and details are found at

Artists are encouraged to reapply if they didn’t receive a grant. “You can update your situation,” Grand says. “We wanted to give people time to hear about the initiative. The fund has enough money to fund 100 grants every week between now and September.” Artist Relief is a coalition of seven national arts grants makers, among them Miami’s National YoungArts Foundation. They’ve collaborated for this fund in various ways, including reviewing applications for eligibility. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided $5 million in seed funding; 24 other funders contributed. As of May 15, funds exceeded $12 million with 750 grants awarded.


A multitalented artist in Miami, Sanchez has much to contribute to his community, says Lisa Leone, National YoungArts Foundation vice president of artistic programs. While a YoungArts adjudicator in 2014, he participated in the selection process for YoungArts and worked with the finalists during YoungArtsWeek. When students come to him with a question he can’t answer, Leone adds, “He’s not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s investigate.’ He’s not intimidating but at the same time, he has a wealth of knowledge being in the arts scene in New York in the 1980s, being an artist, being a fabricator, having his own gallery space, knowing the community.”

She likes that he’s direct with students in ways some adults are not. Sanchez provides “sound advice, cutting through the BS,” she adds. “Students always love Oliver. He’s real. And they see that.”

For the past decade, Sanchez has mentored students at Design and Architecture High School (DASH) in the Design District. They learn about the tools of his trade as an artist and fabricator who works extensively with expanded polystyrene (EPS), or as it’s commonly called, Styrofoam. He calls this white, ubiquitous material “American marble” for its architectural volume, which he uses for fabricating large projects other artists have designed. The DASH students, he says, “learn all the weird stuff, carving Styrofoam or cutting wood or using a drill press. I don’t put my kids to work to make my art. We talk a lot. Some of them are fairly privileged, but a lot of them are not.”


For the 2019-20 school year, his commitment to art education grew. He’s informally involved with ProjectArt, a national non-profit program in eight cities, including Miami. Through its resident artists, ProjectArt provides after-school art classes for children in public libraries; the program serves children ages 4-18 in eight Miami libraries. His daughter, Lucia Del Sanchez, a graduate of DASH and Cooper Union, has been a ProjectArt resident artist during this school year at North Central Branch Library.

The resident artists, he says, are not given a strict curriculum and they don’t get supplies. “Luckily, Lulu has me,” he adds, referring to his daughter. His crowded studio is a ready source of materials; together they create art projects for her students.

Sanchez recently acquired a large collection of National Geographic magazines. That trove engendered artwork by him, as well as afterschool projects. From the magazines, he created inventive collages, such as Bad Bunny and Walrus, by cutting images from tear sheets and then applying them more or less randomly to the adhesive side of laminating sheets, the final result visible by flipping over the sheets.

He shared this technique with Lulu: “She did that with the little kids in the library and they went crazy. They loved it.”

ArtFeature_5For him, the collages are entertaining experiments with chance, but also wry commentary on the unpredictable consequences of an information revolution spiraling out of control, even leading to the absurdity of driverless cars crashing into each another. One summer at the de la Cruz collection, he helped kids collaborate to create a honey-comb-shaped sculpture, Polymer Hive. He’s carved Styrofoam for his own sculpture, such as Lincoln Penny and Silver Dollar, for a solo show, Valley of Tears: On Disillusion at Miami Beach Public Library. It acknowledged his poignant personal history as a Cuban exile. “All the men in my family are dead,” he explains. Coin-shaped sculptures bearing the visage of assassinated American presidents contributed to the elegiac tone.

The Artist Relief grant is a “huge boost in morale,” he says, after being rejected numerous times for grants in Miami. The funds will replace lost income, help other artists, bolster the web presence of Swampspace, and keep its brick-and-mortar viable. At age 61, he insists, “I’m the guy that doesn’t go away.”


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