Suzanne Saunders, raised in Leicester, first began to feel the artist within herself when she participated in a summer program for gifted and talented middle-school students. But back at home, she says, her conservative family didn’t nurture those instincts. “When I got to UNCA, I found out I could major in art and it was a revelation.”
After graduating with a BFA in painting, she and her artist boyfriend struck out for New York, detoured to Boston, ran out of money, and ended up back in Leicester a month later with their tails between their legs. They hadn’t yet unpacked when a friend suggested New Orleans was great for artists, so they picked up their bags and drove south.
“I had never been to New Orleans. It was so different from what I knew, so alive and quirky and a little bit spooky,” she says. “It was everything I love.”
They got jobs and a cheap place to live in the French Quarter, where she observed people creating and selling their art on the street and in Jackson Square. “I decided to give it a try. I sold about 17 little paintings in one weekend, and that was it.” She quit waiting tables, and after a short stint on Royal Street, became part of the unique Jackson Square art community. “My boyfriend and I were kind of like new blood; we became known for bringing vibrant colors to the square. It’s a way of life … you meet people from all over the world.”
Even so, about seven years in she burned out, and set her sights on the tented art galleries of the annual New Orleans Jazz Festival. “It’s highly juried, but I got in my first year. I could spend three months painting in my studio and sell it all that one weekend.” She reveled in the culture — “it was so fun, the music and food and people.”
She did it for 14 years and would be doing it still, but when her parents became ill, she began spending more time in Leicester caring for them. When they passed away within two years of one another, she inherited the house her father built and the 30 acres it sits on.
The change in scenery has impacted her work. “In New Orleans, I was painting bayous and musicians. Up here, we’re looking at woods, so I’m more into nature, forests, and little animals, though I still do my share of surreal — stuff out of my head. I do something artistic every day.” Her acrylic canvases are moody in palette and rich in mystery and atmosphere, with candle-like drips on some works adding a Gothic touch.
Saunders and her husband, a sculptor, converted the lower level of their home to a studio, and she also joined Trackside Studios early in 2020. “I’ve been sitting in there twice a month on Mondays. I like to chit-chat with people about my art. I’m working on a 14-foot mural for Rum House restaurant in New Orleans now, and we hope to drive it down there when it’s finished.
“I miss New Orleans, but this is home for now.”
Suzanne Saunders, Leicester. The artist’s work is represented by Trackside Studios, 375 Depot St. in Asheville’s River Arts District, tracksidestudios375.com. For more information, see suzannesaundersartwork.com.