Sal Salandra was first called to the art of what he likes to call “stitched paintings” during a period of being bed-ridden with a back injury some 40 years ago. At the time, his mother-in-law sent him a needlepoint kit to help pass the time, having no idea of what it would birth. “I thought: ‘what am I gonna do with this?’,” Sal tells us. “But, I had nothing to do, so I went ahead and started. It just fascinated me to see something appear as I was sewing,” he adds. Born and raised in Englewood, New Jersey to an Italian family, Sal found much of his zeal for art came directly from his culture. He seldom regarded himself as a maker though, and until the age of 52, hairdressing was his primary passion. When he started to use the needlepoint kit, traditional motifs came to the fore. Then in 2015 came a shift, when he was commissioned by the owner of a “dirty book store,” in Los Angeles for a BDSM themed painting, and emerged a motif from which he’s never looked back.
Sal has also seen a major shift in his process since his start in the 80s. At first he was trying to follow patterns, but soon found difficulty due to his dyslexia. “I was actually doing an angel and the hand came out all wrong, so I started sewing it myself in the way I thought a hand should look,” he tells us. Going forward the artist vowed to work from his own perception. “So when I first started doing this, my figures kind of looked like people but weren’t quite anatomically correct.” After some time, he began studying men’s bodies and poses, looking at photographs and imitating them on his canvas. Then came his use of colour, capturing vibrancy throughout the scenes in order to elevate and accentuate the characters – “it’s all about the characters,” he adds.
The concept for Iron Halo first came about after Sal began questioning his experience and the teachings within the Catholic church. “I try to make my art and some of the scenes show that God didn’t necessarily feel that sex was a sin. It’s how I feel about religion and sex, and what the church tries to teach us, not God” he tells us. Throughout his works, he makes mighty references to religion and Christian iconography; there’s crosses, subtle stitchings of rosaries and angelic paradisiacal scenes. Whereas elsewhere in the series, he reconstructs powerful figures, unapologetically immersing them in the erotic motif. From Batman to Superman. It feels as though the artist is saying ‘so what?’ to our preoccupation with tabooing sex and sexuality, by involving the revered figures and practices that we hold on to – if they can do it, why can’t we? If they’re fine with it, why aren’t we?
For Sal, there are absolutely no challenges while sewing. The process is as cathartic as it was 40 years ago. “If I listen to what’s coming to my mind, they flow,” he says, “the actual challenge is in listening to what’s coming in”. When making the works for Iron Halo, there were times when he thought that some of the scenes and imagery may be too much for his audience to accept or understand, but he now feels that if the subject matter comes to mind, it should be included in the work.
All in all, Sal has a love for erotica that he has no intention of dimming. Currently working on paintings of Americana, “from the Flintstones to Snow White, Grease or Frankenstein, you know stories we grew up with,” and some reinterpretations of old paintings such as the Mona Lisa and Sistine Chapel figures, there’s no question that the artist will continue to illustrate the beauty of sexuality through all we deem to be powerful and precious. “Iron Halo shows that sexuality will never be wrong. Enjoy your fuckin’ sex.”
Iron Halo is published by Blurring Books and available to purchase here in hardback and paperback. Sal is represented by Club Rhubarb.
Sal Salandra: Say Your Prayers (Copyright © Sal Salandra, 2020)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.