Gordon Sander and JJ Manford stand next to each other for a photo in a large art studio with several large colorful paintings in the background

For Two Cornellian Pals, Art Meets Life—Now in Book Form

An enduring friendship between alums—dating back to when they were mentor and student—has led both to cultivate their creativity

“Bear Hugs” celebrates heartwarming stories of Cornellians on the Hill and around the world. Have an idea? Email us at cornellians@cornell.edu!

By Lindsay Lennon

When Gordon Sander ’72, BA ’73, began an artist residency at Risley Residential College in 2002, he was returning to familiar ground. The author, photographer, and journalist had come back to the Hill twice before to work on books and had a history of hiring Risleyites as assistants.

But this time would be different. Not only would Sander end up doubling his planned one-year stay, he’d also meet a fine arts major who’d go on to become a lifelong friend and collaborator.

That student was Jonathan “JJ” Manford ’06—the subject of Sander’s ninth book, titled Rooms, to be published by a small Latvian art press in January 2024.

The front and back covers of the book Rooms by Gordon Sander featuring a colorful psychedelic painting by the book's subject, JJ Manford
The wrap-around cover of Sander’s upcoming book.

“Back at Cornell I envisioned writing a book about JJ at some point,” admits Sander, whose byline has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerous other publications. “The idea was like one of those bubbles at the bottom of a glass of soda.”

Now a painter whose work has been mentioned in the New Yorker, Manford was named by the popular online art marketplace Artsy as one of its most sought-after “emerging” artists in 2022.

Two men in an apartment
In Sander’s Cayuga Heights apartment, 2006.

The duo’s relationship traces back to when Sander hired Manford as a student assistant as he worked on his third book—but they soon bonded on a personal level.

“I knew pretty quickly our idiosyncrasies would complement each other,” recalls Manford, who holds an MFA from Hunter College.

“He very organically became a father-like figure to me as I was losing my biological dad to cancer.”

The pair went on to collaborate on several projects—including C Town Blues, a serialized novel about Sander’s undergrad years, published in the Daily Sun from 2004–06, which Manford illustrated.

I knew pretty quickly our idiosyncrasies would complement each other.

JJ Manford ’06

Manford curated a 2006 photo retrospective that Sander mounted in Sibley Dome and helped with research for a book that Sander wrote about his mother’s experience living in hiding during World War II in the Netherlands. (It’s one of two of Sander’s books that have been published by Cornell University Press; the other is on Rod Serling.)

While Manford left Ithaca in 2007, Sander stayed until 2017—employing more than a dozen Risleyites over the course of 15 years before relocating to Latvia, where he still resides.

The two remained intertwined, forming what Sander calls “a mobile two-person art factory.”

Sander commissioned a portrait by Manford—and had him paint his Ithaca apartment silver, à la Andy Warhol’s “Factory.”

In 2007, they joined forces on a photo and painting exhibition at the now-defunct Gershwin Hotel in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Rooms, Manford says, is the first time they’ve officially collaborated since then—and he can’t imagine a better person to tell his story.

Sanford’s 200-page book is divided into two sections. “The Life,” a biographical essay, explores Manford’s process and inspirations.

Two men and a woman stand around a painting being held by one of the men in an art studio
The duo (with Manford’s assistant) in Brooklyn.

“The Works” showcases more than 100 of his pieces—many comprising his vibrant, almost psychedelic paintings of interior rooms.

Says Sander: “I like to think of our relationship—at least the creative dimension of it—as a kind of helix with the separate strands periodically coming together, against the backdrop of our enduring friendship.”

Top and final photos by Olya Frank; artwork by JJ Manford; other images provided.

Published December 19, 2023

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