“I’m of the opinion that if my creative work is making people feel anything – I’m doing it right,” said Lakeland-based visual artist Sara Savannah Jones. Emotion is the nucleus of the 28-year-old’s work. Her pieces are engrossing and cool, and mystifying. Working primarily with acrylic paints, Jones uses found objects, photography, drawing, painting, and recycled materials. She notes in the ‘About Me’ on her website, “I find that using recycled canvas and “found” surfaces are an essential technique to convey humanity in my work.”
Born and raised in Lakeland, Jones is a resident artist at ART/ifact Studios, serves as the vendor coordinator for Buena Market, and is a K-12 teacher at the Cygnet School, heading up their art department. Jones’ Instagram bio reads in part, “World’s greatest hotdog artist,” an inside joke she said has gone too far. But she’s not wrong – her hotdog paintings are superior.
In addition to originals and prints, Jones accepts commissions for album covers. “It’s a lot more fun than people asking me to paint their dog’s portrait,” she joked. Jones has created album art for a number of local bands and musicians, including her sister, Emily Ledford, Rover, Revel in the View, Bobby Hawk, Kevin Sumner, Joe Black, and most recently, Liquid Pennies, out of St. Pete.
Jones is inspired by New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley and noted an affinity for the vaporwave aesthetic. “My dad’s a graphic designer, and that had a huge impact on what I do,” she said. Her style heavily emphasizes color theory. “With my acrylic paintings, I’m not blending my colors – I’m layering them,” Jones explained. She even has tattoos depicting CMYK and RGB color theories. These elements and influences have culminated into her present style, and “I hope it keeps changing,” she said.
Photography was an early preoccupation for Jones. She would fill up the disposable cameras gifted to her by her parents. A homeschooled student until the ninth grade, she hoped to go to Harrison School for the Arts for photography but wasn’t admitted into the visual arts program. She instead attended Lakeland High School. “The art teachers there absolutely changed my life,” Jones said. She sunk her teeth into the school’s art offerings, taking classes in graphic design, art history, digital and film photography, ceramics, painting, and beyond.
In high school, Jones met surreal photomontage photographer Jerry Uelsmann. She said of the film photographer, who passed away last April, “His work is layered. It looks like they’ve been Photoshopped – the base of a tree that turns into a house – but he’s done all of it in the darkroom.” Hopeful and hungry, Jones asked Uelsmann for any advice he had to give. “He told me to always work from an emotional basis.”
The advice was somewhat of an epiphany. At the time, Jones approached her art through the lens of what would work aesthetically. “I started thinking about how I could turn a thought or an emotion or something that I was going through into something that was represented abstractly in a visual way.”
Small-scale acrylic works remained central after she graduated. When the pandemic hit, Jones explored a larger format, something she has gained traction with in the last few years but found herself still looking to ‘break in’ to the art scene. “I noticed in Lakeland, especially after Covid, that there was nowhere for artists to go after they graduate,” she said. After participating in a show at ART/ifact, Jones was offered a resident space at the studio. She shares her spot with studio roommate, florist Bethany Lynam of Golden Wild.
ART/ifact founder Eli Hults asked Jones if she wanted to do a solo show shortly after she took up residency at the studio. “But then Roe v. Wade was overturned, and I was feeling very much like not wanting to talk about myself. So, I put on the Punks for Planned Parenthood show.” The art show fundraiser amassed nearly $3,000 to donate to Planned Parenthood.
The show also introduced new artists to the studio, and like Jones, they wanted in. “I love love love Lakeland. I can see myself living here forever, and I want to see the scene change,” Jones said. “It’s been dominated for a while by a lot of the same artists. And that’s great; I want everyone to find success. But I want everyone to have a chance for that.” So, she partnered with VOLUME Art Collective to produce another show called ‘BREAKING IN!’ The exhibit boasted over 50 visual artists of varying mediums, many of whom had never publicly displayed their work.
Pursuing art seriously since age 14, Jones finds herself 14 years later, finally established. “It often can feel like the arts community is something you can’t break into unless you attach yourself to someone else,” Jones said. That sentiment catalyzed the BREAKING IN! art show at ART/ifact. “I love the underground arts community. A lot of the artists came to me and told me that they didn’t feel welcome to display their art because it wasn’t what you see around here traditionally. I want to uplift those people and give them more opportunities.”
A NETWORK OF WOMEN
The BREAKING IN! art show was orchestrated almost exclusively by women. Asked about her experience as a female artist on the local scene, Jones prefaced that she didn’t have a bone to pick with the arts community and certainly didn’t think she had the correct or only vision for its direction, but that it had been tough, especially in Lakeland. “It’s been a male-dominated arts community for a very long time. All the galleries were owned by men, all of the successful artists were men, most of the murals were painted by men,” she said. “It’s been a challenge. Other male artists love to give me unsolicited advice. I’m happy that you want to help, but I’ve found a level of success that I want, and I’m not trying to pursue anything greater than that.”
“I try to keep myself close with women,” Jones said. She called her mom, Tracy Jones, “the most beautiful feminist I know,” adding, “She always inspired me to be myself, whatever that looked like, and it looked like a lot of different things growing up.”
Women like Buena Market creator Stephanie Bernal and Art Crawl founder Ellen Chastain have also been influential to the artist. Bernal empowered Jones to start putting on events, and of Chastain, Jones said, “She’s always given me constructive criticism and talked to me about how my art has grown.”
She is surrounded by other creative, powerful female forces like her studio roommate, Bethany Lynam, sister Emily Ledford, and VOLUME Art Collective founder, Sunny Balliette. Jones said of fellow ART/ifact resident artist Morgan Patterson of Patterson Tattoos, “I call her the best business bitch I know because she’s extremely intelligent and has a huge focus on making a safe and accepting space to get a tattoo.” And, of course, she would be remiss not to mention Cygnet School Director Dr. Wendy Bradshaw. “She’s fed me, housed me, given me a job. She’s a powerhouse.”
QUEEN OF CMYK
A large, bright piece demanding space and attention in Jones’ ART/ifact studio sits unfinished, ready for the next element to be painted. When asked about approaching her work from an emotional basis, as advised by Jerry Uelsmann, this is the painting that came to Jones’ mind. She fished the heavy 4x4 wooden canvas from a dumpster and got to work on what has become an homage to her support system.
The painting features a magenta background (one of her favorite colors) with CMYK along the left side and a melange of painted objects given to her by a friend or acquaintance or left at her house. “Each item exists in real life and represents a person in my life or someone who has passed through my life,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for years because I keep meeting new people who mean something to me.” Asked if the work had a title, Jones replied, “It doesn’t. I feel like maybe I’ll title it once it’s done, but I also don’t think it will ever be done.”
When browsing her portfolio, one painting that caught my eye was entitled “Big Fish Boy,” depicting a shirtless man holding a fish. As absorbing as the painting is, its backstory is even more so. Jones used to live in a historic duplex in Dixieland. The house had a detached garage in the backyard full of personal things left behind by previous tenants. The artist decided to poke around and found a gallon Ziplock bag of old family photos. “I thought it was cool to look into these strangers’ lives,” Jones said. She drew the images that she especially loved, of which “Big Fish Boy” was one. She created an entire Polaroid series on this stranger, based on the abandoned photos with notes written on the back, which she used to title her pieces, like ‘Auction School’ and ‘Chris, Night Before Our Wedding.’ “I thought those were so beautiful and sad that they were left behind,” she said. “I love being able to solidify a memory or some kind of nostalgia in my pieces.”
HOLDING THE DOOR FOR OTHER ARTISTS
“I’ve found the best way to find success is by lifting up other creatives, so that’s the direction I’m trying to go in,” Jones said. She joined the ART/ifact administrative board several months ago. “I wanted to see life in here, and I wanted people to have opportunities, and be around their peers, and have a hub and a place to talk.”
“I’m so thankful for Eli because here they understand that struggle, and I feel like together we’re going to put on a lot more shows that feel like they’re for everyone and create a safe space where you don’t have to tack yourself to a man who’s already found success here,” Jones said.
Jones noted an almost requisite part of any change in the arts community will be embracing art you’re not used to and “creating a space for art that you’re not used to calling art. [...] You don’t have to like it, but if it makes you feel something, then it’s doing its job.”
Reach out to Sara Savannah Jones through Instagram or email to purchase originals and prints or inquire about commissioning an album cover.
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