Sight Unseen: A visual artist’s unsettling journey

David Briggs
West Marin artist Ernesto Sanchez creates glittering sculptures, multimedia altars and mask dances that tug at the collective unconscious. As his vision deteriorates in one eye, he is focusing his work on a newfound, though ancient, symbol.

To walk into Ernesto Sanchez’s art studio is to be struck by a visual feast: headless angels covered in bronze nails, altars with mosaic mirrors that shatter and rearrange your reflection like a Picasso, bright masks with crystals for eyes. Everything seems to gaze right back at you. But in the last few years, the Point Reyes Station studio and gallery has taken on a special significance, as Mr. Sanchez has undergone a frightening visual journey of his own.

“It started out fleetingly,” said Mr. Sanchez, a lifelong artist who has lived in West Marin for decades. “Like once a week my vision would get askew. I thought my glasses were dirty.” But his vision worsened, and he was constantly tired. He went to three doctors and eventually discovered he had a growth in his right eye known as an epiretinal membrane.

At first he believed his condition, which caused him to trip over curbs and eventually to see double or triple, could be cured. He had an operation in 2012 to cut the membrane away, but it grew back. After two more operations—one for glaucoma, another for a cataract—his doctors warned him of the danger of repeated surgeries. “That’s when I realized I was in trouble,” he said.

Mr. Sanchez’s deteriorating vision has been an emotional struggle. His life is consumed by creating works—masks, angels, busts, spirit houses, little paper pulp hearts, baby Buddha faces—that inspire wonder and, in his words, tap into ancient pools of energy he hopes to communicate to others visually. During one low point in the last few years, he went months without making anything, effectively shutting down his studio. But with encouragement from friends, he has returned to his art with an acceptance that his vision would almost certainly not improve.

This Saturday he will hold an event called Sight Unseen. It’s an unveiling of seven new pieces that, perhaps more directly than any of his previous work, explore the concepts of vision and perception. The works each deal with a different energy, and each features a single eye. The afternoon will also showcase poetry by friends Stefano Resta and Fabiola Sandoval, as well as a mask dance performed by Mr. Sanchez that depicts a blind person. 

The event is focused on embracing what his life and his vision have become. Though his condition presents serious obstacles—he can no longer drive at night, and he sees best when he wears an eye patch that sometimes draws unwanted attention—he has also experienced the beauty of his altered sight. 

In his studio last Sunday morning, wearing a black eye patch and a white doctor’s coat mottled with paint, Mr. Sanchez said he didn’t intend to create a series on the eye. But after he made the first one, he couldn’t stop ruminating on the symbolism. “It was so intriguing to me once it was finished. I kept looking at it and resonating with its presence,” he said. “The eye is one of the oldest symbols…from the beginning of cultures, people have dealt with the symbol of the eye.”

One night, Mr. Sanchez recalled, he decided to put his patch on his good eye, “to see what I could see and just kind of experience what this new vision was all about. I did that, and I was looking at everything, at the art pieces, and as I do this, nothing is static. I see double, triple and blurriness. And movement. If I hold my head still, things are still moving.”

He thought to himself, “Oh my god, when you see a movie about ghosts and spirits, when they make an appearance or apparition, it’s always in movement. They’re not static. They’re moving.” Placing the patch on his stronger eye, he continued: “This is goofy, but—I have direct access to the spirit world if I just go like this.”

In a way, what Mr. Sanchez saw that night is part of what he wants to inspire in others. He talks a lot about energy and its role in both his life and his art. If you visit his studio, he might ask if you can feel the energy in the room; depending on your answer, the studio might become what he calls a “laboratory of self-discovery.” Through his works, he says, he wants to groom the energy all around us to inspire wonder and delight.

Mr. Sanchez, a San Diego native, wasn’t always a visual artist. After considering a career in architecture he became a street performer and mime in San Francisco. Later he traveled with a one-ring circus in Mexico, joined experimental performance groups and traveled the world as a solo performance artist. During a year in Japan as a fellow of the U.S. Friendship Commission in 1993, he shifted focus from performance to visual and ceremonial art. Before and after that change, he created masks, angels and other pieces for West Marin ceremonies and events: for All Souls’ Day in Bolinas, for a woman about to go to prison for a decade, for a spirit house in Bolinas after 9/11 and for a Day of the Dead celebration in Point Reyes Station.

“It’s great to make art and live this life, but you want to create an energy that lifts people’s spirits and touches them. And it’s really important to create a sense of wonder. Why can’t we wake up thinking every day is special, with a sense of wonder and enchantment?” he asked. 

Some of his works scare people. The masks can make viewers uncomfortable, and although the headless angels are meant to bring the viewer’s focus to “the presence of the bodies,” they disturb some people, too. (“Ernesto, it looks like you chopped their heads off,” people have told him.) Ceremonies he has held on the beach in Bolinas, like the year he burned paper mache moons at every full moon, even drew anger. “They felt threatened, because it threatened their reality,” he said.

But when people are open to it, his art works and his ceremonial mask dances can allow others to tap into the energy he uses for his art—an energy, he says, that doesn’t belong to anyone but imbues everything—especially during what he called those pin-drop moments, when everyone goes quiet and time seems to stop. 

“It’s right in front of you, but it also exists in this other realm in your psychic being. That’s the pin-drop moment. When you get suspended, the moment doesn’t exist in time. You’re suspended in this moment. That’s wonder. That’s enchantment. That’s a gateway into another realm.” 

Since the beginning of human history, he said, people have held ceremonies to honor the mystery of why life exists. Even if the masks, angels and ceremonial dances don’t make conscious sense to viewers, our understanding of these rites and symbols runs deep, he continued. 

“Whether we know it or not, our DNA is familiar with [the symbol of the eye] because we’ve been living with these images for thousands of years,” he said. “So we can wake up and be born in this day and age and have no freakin’ relationship to that whatsoever, but our DNA does.”

Last Sunday, a visitor wandered into his studio and asked about one of the pieces lying on his worktable: an eye set in the palm of a hand. Earlier, Mr. Sanchez had noted how the hand symbolized giving and loving; the visitor also noticed its resemblance to a hamsa, a protective symbol well known in Judaism, Islam and the Middle East. Mr. Sanchez said he had never heard of the hamsa. But maybe the symbol is entwined in the strands of his DNA, ready to emerge when he needs it the most.


The unveiling of Sight Unseen takes place from 3 to 5 p.m. at Ernesto’s Studio.