Written by ALLISON STICE BULKA
Photography by MICHAEL SCHALK
I HAD JUST GIVEN BIRTH to my first baby when I bought the painting of the cow.
The mahogany-and-white bovine peered out from an overstuffed corner of a secondhand store where I was shopping for the nursery. With a newborn semi-permanently attached to me, this cow was obviously my spirit animal. In my postpartum delirium, I had to have her — and since she was collecting dust, the owners cut me a deal.
But when I brought it home, the oil portrait’s moody colors clashed with my airy, light-filled bungalow, which skews more contemporary than farmhouse. Every spot I tried to hang the painting seemed wrong. I didn’t want the cow judging me in the kitchen or dining room on the rare occasions I eat red meat. Nor did I want her to be the first thing I saw when I woke up in my bedroom in the morning.
My husband ribbed me endlessly about my art purchase as I relegated the cow to a closet. Though I was defensive at first, in the aftermath, I realized I had made a few rookie mistakes.
For starters, I hadn’t shopped with a place to hang the picture in mind. I didn’t consider the color palette or how it meshed with my design scheme. And I clearly hadn’t taken my partner’s taste into account when choosing a piece for our shared space.
Perhaps most crucially of all, I did not have a relationship with the artist to know who had captured the cow, and why. These are all crucial details for forging a personal connection with — and pride in — the artwork you display and live with every day.
In the years since, I have met, written about and interviewed more artists on the Savannah scene, chatted with gallerists and curators, and become a bit savvier about curating my collection.
The best way to discover what you love? Go out and look. With cheeky exhibitions at Location Gallery @ Austin Hill Realty, sleek art-world affairs at Laney Contemporary, fun First Friday openings at Sulfur Studios by ARTS Southeast and more, there is no shortage of avenues to discover artists you’ll love.
Here are six I’m watching to add to my home this year.
MARY MARGARET MONSEES
MEDIUM: PRESERVED BOTANICALS
Flowers from trips to the mountains and Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market. Leaves from neighborhood walks and afternoons in her mother’s garden. Mary Margaret Monsees’ resin-encased preserved botanicals are special moments of her life encapsulated — and highly prized by stylish clients and interior design firms, near and far.
While pressing flowers at their peak is an age-old technique, Monsees adds a contemporary edge to the process. After placing and arranging the flowers to her satisfaction, she pours epoxy resin over the wood panels for a high-gloss finish. The environment in her home studio — a beautifully restored 1890s fisherman cottage on the marsh — must be free of dust and debris. To eliminate air bubbles, she turns to her most trusted tool: a blowtorch. “To borrow a line from Julia Child, ‘Every woman should have a blowtorch,’” Monsees says.
The most precious commodity for her pieces, however, is time. Her hand-cut botanicals take weeks to dry. Working with resin, she only has a finite period before the material cures. If a particular floral proves popular, the growing season may end before she can make more. But she likes the temporal quality of her practice.
“It has an ebb and flow,” she says.
This spring, Monsees plans to release a collection featuring bulb flowers.
“I absolutely love it when the daffodils begin to pop up in March and remind us that the bright days of summer are just around the corner,” she says. By then, look for another release of her popular pressed hydrangeas that will keep forever.
ARTIST SHE’S WATCHING: “My most recent addition to my art collection is a piece by local photographer Parker Stewart. He has a great eye, and I love following his work on Instagram.”
“Throughout my life, I’ve been attracted to the stories of the items we live with,” Trish Andersen says.
Andersen, a Savannah College of Art and Design fibers graduate, ushered in a new phase of her art career when she went viral in 2019 for a handmade rainbow-drip runner cascading down the stairs of the downtown Victorian where she lives and works. Today, her rug collection includes digitally printed floor mats featuring her fibers pieces (perfect for playrooms and beneath toddlers’ art tables) and hand-tufted wool versions of the internet-famous runner. In 2022, she debuted a playful line of blankets in her favorite patterns, including one festooned with smiley flowers in collaboration with jewelry and accessories designer Paige Samek of Drainbowland.
“A blanket or a rug is an easier step for people to bring art into their life than something on the wall they may feel more disconnected to,” Andersen says. “I love being able to offer options for people to have my artwork in that form.”
Since that famed social post, her love of tufting has grown in her colorfully chaotic, yarn-filled home studio — fueling exhibitions of small works at Georgia Southern, larger-than-life installations at Atlanta Contemporary, ongoing commissions for top names in fine art and fashion, and limited-edition drops on her Instagram.
Andersen hinted more online exclusives could be on the way — though you’ll have to move fast, as her last collection sold out in 24 hours. Next up? A wallpaper collaboration with husband and fellow artist Michael Porten (featured as an Artist to Watch in Savannah magazine in 2017) is high on the list.
ARTIST SHE’S WATCHING: “Duff Yong, whose black-and-white ‘ookee’ exhibition inspired by Chinese calligraphy, video games and street art is a #art912 exhibition at Telfair Museums through September 2023. I love the repetitive nature of it!”
Jennifer Mack-Watkins has traveled the world and won prestigious awards thanks to her prowess in mokuhanga, or Japanese woodblock printing. The technique is an environmentally friendly method of carving woodblocks to publish images en masse, like Katsushika Hokusai’s famous “Under the Wave off Kanagawa.” Mack-Watkins has explored the process in Japan and Hawaii, and at the International Mokuhanga Conference where, as far as she knows, she is the only Black artist in the community.
“I chose to use my stance and how I experience the world to create something a little different from what you typically see in Japanese woodblock,” she says.
Growing up near Charleston, South Carolina, Mack-Watkins did not encounter a lot of art teachers who looked like her. The experience motivated her through her studies in studio arts at Morris Brown College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University, and a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking from Pratt Institute. After working in the classroom for years while maintaining her printmaking studio practice on the side, a career change during the pandemic and relocation to Savannah has led her to focus on her art full-time.
“I want to use my art to educate people that imagination is a powerful thing to foster in yourself and encourage and motivate in others,” she says.
Mack-Watkins’ recent work investigates the beauty, importance and complexity of positive representation of Black children. It empowers them to dream big — like her 6-year-old daughter, who longs to be an astronaut. (You’ll find space themes in many of her latest silkscreens and prints, which are held in the Library of Congress and featured at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.)
A synthesis of her interests culminated in the illustrations for the children’s picture book, “You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!”, about the acclaimed woodcarver Elijah Pierce, published by Penguin Random House in early 2023.
Savannahians can also get a closer look at her work when her New York Times-reviewed show “Children of the Sun” travels to Sulfur Studios in May.
ARTIST SHE’S WATCHING: “Sharon Norwood, who investigates Black identity and imagined histories across mediums like painting and ceramics. She works right down the street from my space at Sulfur Studios, and we love to visit each other’s studios.”
DIEGO CARDENAS (aka lé dieguê)
Diego Cardenas, who goes by lé, began dabbling in graffiti as a teenager. He grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, surrounded by the colorful kinetic works of art-world game changers like Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. After interning at Atelier Cruz-Diez in Paris and Panama City, lé moved to Savannah to get his M.F.A. in painting at SCAD. Since then, his chromatic explorations have been plastered on SCAD buses and featured as the artwork for the university’s Open Studio Night, as well as at Green Truck Pub’s Drive Thru Art Box.
You might still find some of his open-air works on the walls of the city, but these days you can mostly find him considering the natural light of his studio in the Starland District. In a sunray crossing his doorstep, he sees more colors than in Isaac Newton’s canonic ROYGBIV. Experiments with prisms guide both lé’s “Angular Perceptions” series and street art symbols. He photographs the light, examines the results in Adobe Illustrator and then color-matches what he sees with Montana nitro-acrylic spray paint to form a unified palette of 22 colors.
“What I’m proposing is a pictorial expansion of the seven colors of the rainbow,” he says.
This year, lé plans on playing with sculpture while conceptualizing a body of work for exhibition. A SOY X SOY sticker hangs in the window of his studio, declaring his allegiance to the Latin/Native American collective of artists who made their debut in a group show at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center in late 2022.
“Each one of us represents their own countries and wants to get a sense of the bigger picture in terms of culture, equality and accessibility to the arts,” he says. “We want to do multicultural and multidisciplinary events from music to poetry. You’ll be hearing from us!”
ARTIST HE’S WATCHING: “My housemate Lórien Gascon, an artist and art model who works in everything from digital illustration to performance.”
AMIRI GEUKA FARRIS
MEDIUM: MURALS AND MIXED MEDIA
Hardly a newcomer to the Savannah art scene, Amiri Geuka Farris has been living and working in the Lowcountry for 30 years. Now, his work is reaching new heights through a number of high-profile residencies (such as at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and Montage Palmetto Bluff), exposure at events like Hilton Head Island’s Gullah Celebration and in larger-than-life public artworks at Enmarket Arena and atop the
JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District Atlantic Hotel. In fact, the latter is visible from the Talmadge Bridge as you drive into the city.
This fact seems fitting, given that Farris has brought visibility to Gullah-Geechee culture through his body of work, which includes painting and drawing, video and performance art and, occasionally, all of the above.
“As an artist, I’m fascinated by the ways that different mediums can be used to create something new,” he says.
From his Sulfur Studios workspace, he’ll take a walk around the neighborhood listening to his upbeat music (yes, he makes music, too!) for inspiration for his vibrant artwork that explores memory, perception and diaspora. Many pieces use reclaimed materials and incorporate elements like Adinkra symbols, each associated with a different proverb or meaning.
“One I like a lot is the swirl, which symbolizes learning from your past and moving forward,” Farris says. “I like for people to look deeply into the painting. A lot of collectors who have my pieces will say, ‘I’ve never noticed that before in the background.’”
Those looking to collect pieces of Farris’ can visit The Red Piano Art Gallery in Bluffton or shop online at SCAD Art Sales. This year, he is also making connections with galleries from New York to London. And you can admire his public artwork dotting the city, which he enjoys for its accessibility to budding art patrons of all ages and backgrounds.
ARTIST HE’S WATCHING: “Suzanne Jackson has achieved national recognition by taking ordinary things and making them different. She’ll use canvas but drape it in a certain way or cut it up rather than having it be just a square on the wall. That is always more engaging.”
MEDIUM: ILLUSTRATION AND GRAPHIC DESIGN
Drew Murray graduated with a user experience (UX) design degree from SCAD in 2020 — right in the middle of the pandemic. “When everyone was reevaluating what they wanted to do with their lives,” Murray says.
Luckily, she had a side gig — in gig posters. Since her graduate student days, she had moonlighted as El-Rocko Lounge’s social media graphic designer. This partnership blossomed further as she began designing event promotion materials for local music booker Dog Days.
Her cheeky work has a DIY, handmade feel. The secret sauce? PERC Coffee, Pinterest and the app Procreate. At the exposed-brick coffee shop on East Broad Street, she listens to upcoming bands and scrolls for inspiration. The playful designs she dashes off in Procreate often make funny scenarios the focal point, like a “Kick me”-style sign for a lineup starring Anna Kellam. Murray’s current favorite bands on rotation include Black Hat and Joshydrop, for whom she designed a poster where the words are puffs of smoke from a cigarette.
On the horizon, Murray is working on hand-carved linoleum block prints for Late Air, the buzzy new wine bar where she also designed the menus and website. She hopes to continue to do more technical design and typography. One thing is certain: She stays in the Hostess City until the lights come on.
“I met a lot of my very close friends by being involved with the music scene,” Murray says. “The more I looked at UX jobs that required me to move, the more I realized I didn’t want to leave this community. There’s something really special here in Savannah that I’m not quite ready to give up yet.”
ARTIST SHE’S WATCHING: “NoNo Flores, the illustrator I collaborated with for the windows at Starland Yard. She often draws candid portraits of people and has a special talent for capturing the moment.”