LIVES TO PAINT, by Suzanne Hurt
Feature story about Sandi from the
September/October issue of LUXLIFE magazine

Sandi Crist’s Napa garage shows what a double life she leads.

Half of the garage holds the black BMW she drives to her job as a property appraisor for the Napa County Assessor’s Office. The other half is the painter’s studio where she creates artwork that consumes most of her free time.

A kaleidoscope of oil and acrylic paint tubes fill three big racks. Hundreds of paintbrushes are waiting in seven big paint cans.

In the back corner, an easel holds a 4x4 painting of a giant martini glass. More than a dozen other canvases hang on the walls or sit on the floor -- some completed, some in progress. And there are always a few blank canvases waiting for Crist’s future inspirations.

"The paintings are everywhere," Crist said. "I ran out of wall space."

Painting hasn’t always dominated the 53-year-old’s life. The daughter of a homemaker and carpenter, she first owned her own paints and brushes just six years ago when a friend gave her a set as a present. Before that, Crist had sketched, but only for herself.

Her first painting was an abstract she presented as a house-warming present for a girlfriend.

"Once I picked up the brush, I couldn't get enough of it. I was painting every night when I got home from work. I'd get home on a Friday and paint until one or two in the morning. I never knew I could do it."

She started painting wine bottles. The paintings received positive notice. She then painted vineyards, wine bottle labels and even pets, usually on commission.
But her artwork took a sudden turn when she discovered a passion for painting romantic scenes with people – figurative art. She took a leave of absence from her day job to paint full time for three weeks with local artist Mike Fitzpatrick.

One day she found herself crying during a lesson. "I was so happy," she explained. "This is what my life is supposed to be about. And I'm so lucky that I found it." Crist, however, is mostly self-taught.

Her painting of a couple flirting in a nightclub (entitled "What") is the most talked about painting in Napa. Everyone’s trying to figure out who the couple is. She admits she’s a die-hard romantic; she’s still hoping for that one sweet love after her first marriage didn’t work.

Crist is a beautiful blonde living in a toney valley that has produced almost as many beautiful blondes, brunettes and redheads as it has pinot noir grapes. But Crist stands out as the only woman with paint spatters on every pair of Seven jeans she owns.

She’s also a rare lung cancer survivor. A long-time smoker, Crist went in for a physical at age 50, where her doctor found a tiny lump on a chest x-ray, which turned out to be malignant on furthere testing. A surgeon removed the entire upper right lobe of her lung, as well as a portion of rib.

"It's a huge operation. They almost cut you in half," she said. "It was scary. You don't know what you're really in for."

It was a long time before she could paint again due to the surgery. She didn’t understand why she went into a huge depression afterward, but found that is common with major surgery.

"I've never come home since then on a Friday night and painted until one in the morning. I just don't have that energy any more," she said.

Her doctor said she’s cured. But Crist knows lung cancer returns to a lot of people who’ve survived surgery. Twice a year, she goes for checkups that give her hope.

"It's like this huge relief. It makes you think, okay, I've got another six months."

Crist is trying hard to sell enough paintings so she can retire early and live her dream: painting full time. There are still all those blank canvases.

"People say you have to wait until you're 55 to retire. If you're looking from year to year and you don't know if you're going to be around…." she said. "It makes you look at your priorities differently. I should be doing what I love to do."


***Update *** It's 2010 and for the last two years Sandi has been retired from her work at the Assessor’s Office and has been devoting herself full time to her "real job" making beautiful art.