Nashville Nights - A Conversation with Sarah Spillers

Published June 30th 2023
Interview by Jay Sanchez

Artist Sarah Spillers is an award-winning contemporary painter and educator born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. As a Nashville native, her recent works depict the aftermath of the populous city going through the COVID-19 Global Pandemic. Spillers has been exploring the new environment that the pandemic has created and translated it into a series of acrylic paintings, emphasizing the use of lively color and texture in contrast to these gloomy and more serious times. Fast forward to 2023; Sarah Spillers continues to push the envelope with an approach full of possibilities in addition to her masterful flow with a paintbrush.

I had the absolute privilege of chopping it up with Sarah as I experienced her exhibit at the Downtown Artist Co-Op in Clarksville, TN. Our conversation found us in a space of individuality and growth. We talked more in depth about her journey the last few years, her vision as a creative and educator, and of course her latest body of work titled “Nashville Nights”. Let’s drink a PBR as the honkytonks burst with sounds spilling into the night air, the lights are vibrant, the energy on Broadway is unmistakable on a Nashville Night…

“Don’t let your fear of the unknown stunt your future potential.”

Sarah Spillers

Jay Sanchez: Allow me to first express my appreciation for taking the time to converse with me Sarah. I’m honored and privileged homie.

Sarah Spillers: I appreciate you friend.

Jay Sanchez: Let’s begin with your latest body of work “Nashville Nights”. Give the reader a glimpse to opening night. What were your thoughts and feelings on the night of June 1st, 2023?

Sarah Spillers: Opening night felt surreal. It was overwhelming to think that all my work for the past year led to this moment. I was eager and excited for my work to finally be seen and hopefully understood. When the doors opened, I enjoyed watching the viewers float around the exhibit in different sequences. Initially when I designed the layout of how I intended my work to be viewed I never imagined the different ways my work would be introduced and interpreted. I adored all of the conversations my work provoked between different groups of strangers and people I’ve met through different stages of my life. Part of my goal was to bring my community together through their shared memories of these different parts of Nashville.

Jay Sanchez: How does this body of work compare to your previous efforts in the past?

Sarah Spillers: This body of work introduces a new perspective of Nashville and a new palette of color that I have been exploring for the past year. I’ve always adored the use of bright color in my work, but the neon is new. I feel like neon is an intimidating color versus my previous pallets of pastels and primary colors. This body of work differs from all of my previous work due to my vast exploration of different mediums. This was my first time displaying work other than traditional paintings. I feel as if I unlocked a new world doing this and that I was previously holding myself back by limiting my creativity to only one medium. This body of work has more emphasis on exploration.

JS: It is my own belief that internal interrogation can almost certainly create a masterful body of work. Describe the process and inspiration behind Nashville Nights? What conversation are you intending to create with this cohesive body of work?

SS: For me, color is a powerful tool for self-expression and storytelling. I use it to capture the mood and emotion of a moment, to convey a message or idea, or simply to create a beautiful and dynamic composition. Growing up in Nashville has given me a unique perspective on color and the arts. I have been influenced by the rich hues of country music, the bold colors on Broadway, the warm tones of southern hospitality, and other talented creatives in my community. In Nashville Nights I wanted to create a homage that celebrated my community through the unique textures and colors that can be found here. This series technically began in 2020 with emphasis on the primary colors and depicting the aftermath of Covid but has recently evolved into electronic neon’s that celebrates Nashville’s community. The title of my show derived from a conversation with my dear friend Ghost.

JS: Going back to 2001, I’ve witnessed the city go through a lot of changes. Now here we are in 2023, yet the city continues to evolve at rapid pace. “I personally find joy knowing that through your work, one can still appreciate all the electric experiences Nashville has to offer”.

Image By @gabbiraephotos

SS: The pieces in Nashville Nights are a celebration of the vibrant culture, rich history, and unique charm that make this city so special. Through my use of bright neon colors, glitter, and texture, I aim to capture the electric energy of the city's bustling streets and highlight the unique cultural identity of Nashville. Food is also a prominent theme in my work, as it is an integral part of Nashville's identity. From hot chicken to biscuits and gravy, the city's cuisine reflects its diverse cultural influences and southern roots. I feature iconic dishes from Daddy's Dogs, Pancake Pantry, and snacks that can be found in local gas stations as a personal way of honoring the city's culinary traditions and paying homage to the people and places that make Nashville so unique. My paintings of Dolly and Elvis serve as a tribute to the many famous musicians who have made a lasting impact on Nashville, and who have helped to shape the city's rich cultural history. Glitter is a prominent feature in my work, and it serves as a connection to downtown Nashville. The city's vibrant nightlife, with its neon lights and glittering buildings, is a constant source of inspiration for my art. Through my use of glitter, color and different mediums, I aim to capture the dynamic, ever-changing energy of downtown Nashville and the sense of possibility and excitement that permeates the city. My earlier work depicts Nashville living through the COVID-19 Pandemic and uses a drastically different palette and provokes a different feeling. Through my art, I hope to inspire others to see the beauty and magic in the everyday moments of life. Whether it's a bustling street corner or a simple plate of food, I believe that there is art all around us, waiting to be discovered. My paintings are a tribute to the spirit of Nashville and a celebration of the many things that make this city a truly special place.

JS: Sarah Spillers is not only a talented artist native to the city, but also an educator who is inspiring the next generation of creatives. Give me something that would capture your early days as a creative?

SS: As a middle school art teacher, I like to share with my kids that I didn’t take art when I was their age. I was in band playing the viola. When I entered high school, I found out that due to this I would never have art and without hesitation… I retired the viola. I was introduced to art more in depth as a teenager in high school and I found a new part of myself that I knew I wanted to explore more of. In my early years as an artist, I explored graphite and charcoal. Color intimidated me and the thought of painting with neon would have put me in a coma. I later found color when I was in Painting 1 at Austin Peay with Paul Collins and it allowed me to digest color as something as less intimidating and more expressive.

JS: Tell me about the world you’ve been exploring since the pandemic? Why is this exploration important to you as an artist? As the educator?

SS: I believe that exploration in general is crucial. As an artist and educator. As an artist, exploration allows one to push their levels of their creativity and develop new techniques and styles. It is through exploration where we can discover new mediums and experiment with different textures. Without exploration, I believe this is where an artist may become stagnant and fail to grow and develop their craft. As an educator, exploration is equally important. Teachers who encourage exploration in their classroom allow their students to develop their own creative processes and discover their own artistic voices. I believe this helps students develop their artistic skills, but also their crucial thinking and problem-solving abilities. Encouraging exploration can help students become more confident and independent learners.

JS: I see your influence on others to be plentiful. How do you acknowledge your personal influences while maintaining full control of your creativity?

SS: I feel very blessed to be in an influential position and although teaching beyond full-time is tiring, I try and prioritize my creating as well. I find that working in my craft furthers the teaching of my craft. As an artist and educator, I am constantly inspired by the work of others. It is important for me to acknowledge these personal influences while maintaining full control of my creativity. One way I do this is by being intentional about the sources of my inspiration. I carefully choose the artists and educators I follow and study, and I make sure to analyze their work critically and creatively. I consider what I can learn from their techniques and approaches, but I also make sure to bring my own unique perspective to my work.

JS: Give the reader more insight on your artistic style. Who has been a big influence on your work?

SS: I find myself to be influenced most by my previous art instructors and current peers. I find a lot of my inspiration in the artists I frequently teach my students about. I personally admire Basquiat's artwork and I feel moved to create when speaking about his work. My kids also influence my work. My style has derived from me letting go of striving for perfection. I’ve learned that painting more gesturally allows more freedom and self-expression.

JS: I personally have a natural connection to the range of palette used by any given creative. The prolific palette we experience with your work is phenomenal Sarah, it deeply resonates in me. Why is your range important as a form of expression? What are you wanting the accomplish as an artist?

SS: Thank you for those kind words, Jay. As I shared before… for me, color is a powerful tool for self-expression and storytelling. I use it to capture the mood and emotion of a moment, to convey a message or idea, or simply to create a beautiful and dynamic composition. I change my color usage to better depict the feeling and story I am trying to provoke. I aim for my work to be loud and energetic. I want my work to be something that takes minutes to digest and that makes you feel. A funny conversation I heard between a couple the night of my show went something along the lines of:

Wife- “I love her work! I’m just unsure where we would hang it.”

Husband- “This isn’t the type of work you hang with the others in your living room. It’s a damn statement piece!”

This conversation made me audibly laugh and I’m happy that it translates this way.

JS: That’s hilarious homie, sounds like a lot of the married couples I know. You were named Nashville’s Best Visual Artist by Nashville Scene in 2022. How has this experience influenced who Sarah Spillers is now in June of 2023?

SS: I am beyond grateful for this title, yet I try to not let it defy who I am as an artist or how I view my work. This experience did give me the validation that my work for Nashville has been seen and appreciated. I feel very blessed to be surrounded by a community that values my work. This experience has made me feel more connected to my community.

JS: What is next for Sarah Spillers?

SS: I don’t want to share too much, but I hope to continue to push internal boundaries. I hope to continue exploring how I can connect different mediums together and for my work to become louder. In this body of work, I have incorporated more fabric into my way of thinking, and I hope to continue this path. I’ve decided to title them as “fabric paintings”.

Learn more about Sarah Spillers.


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