By Elizabeth Sturgeon
Photos by Morgan Hunt
One of Sandra Fuller’s earliest memories begins where most stories do: a 3-year-old Sandra opened up her Cinderella book to the blank interior pages that rest behind every front cover—the ones so often empty, with exception of a scribbled name or note, and pushed aside for the opening lines. Her first impulse was to grab a pencil.
With her aunt and mother in the car, she was almost in tears after covering the empty pages with drawings. “But when my mom saw me in the backseat,” Sandra says, “she told me I could do whatever I wanted to in my book. I filled those pages and then moved on to other books at home, then to notebooks and papers.”
These early memories showcase the artistic spark in Sandra, which has since grown into decades of making and teaching art. “I’ve always wanted to soak up everything I could about all kinds of art,” she says. And she certainly has. Sandra has studied under many great teachers, put her work in museums and shows across the Southeast, and shared her skills and passions in various art associations and her lessons.
Though she now primarily works with acrylic paint and watercolor—along with whatever her students are working on—Sandra has developed a skilled background in many different mediums, which started with weekly lessons from when she was in third grade through high school, then in her college and post-grad courses.
Just one county over from her childhood home in LaFayette, Auburn University drew Sandra to their art department where she continued her art education. She and her husband, Gene, eventually moved to Huntsville for his work at NASA, and, there, she took more courses at the University of Alabama Huntsville, plus a few summer terms at Louisiana Tech. She learned jewelry making, watercolor portraiture, printmaking and a bit of sculpture, and her concentrations grew.
Sandra’s current body of work shares bright color and movement—where abstract meets realism, she says—often depicting scenes reminiscent of her childhood in the country, pulled directly from her memory. “I have been an observer forever,” Sandra says. “My cousin and I grew up like sisters, with three days difference in our ages. We would get on our horses and ride everywhere. I know what rolling hills look like.”
Sandra sees her work as three different styles. First is her realistic work, which usually depicts moments from her family farm: pathways and cloudy skies, flecked trees arching over one another, all made up of the brightest colors. When she sits down, Sandra always has an exact image she wants to put on the canvas.
She’s inspired most by the “active and busy life” of her home in LaFayette. About a year ago, for her son, Sandra painted her grandmother’s quilts airing on the fence line, all patterned and patched as one of the final steps in the family affair. “My family at night—my father, grandfather, uncle, mother, aunt, and I —would sit around the big stretchers stitching the quilt top to the lining of her piece.”
Sandra labels the majority of her work as abstract. Large, expressive brushstrokes are intertwined with landscapes and other specific images, and they’re always filled with bright reds and pinks, greens and blues. Sometimes the sky is warm and orange, or the trees and grass shadowy and violet. No piece escapes the vivid life Sandra brings to color combinations. “To me, abstract is when you see something you recognize in the painting, maybe a faded face or a mountain in clouds that is obscured, in between representational brush strokes. It’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together.”
Then, there’s her nonrepresentational work. “Nonrepresentational is movement, pattern, texture, color, all of it,” she says. “It’s just whatever it is, not representing anything.” This work allows Sandra to let go of structure and realism and find relief in the movement of the brush. Then, she’s left with just the beauty of the paint left behind.
Sandra often paints just for herself and her family, but she also creates work for clients and individual shows as well. Her children are all involved in creative careers themselves, with skills in interior design, architecture and woodworking, and have served as agents for her commissioned projects. She also finds her practice alongside her students, teaching art to children, teenagers, and adult students over her time in Huntsville and Hoover.
She first started teaching art when her three children—Cass, Kelle and Robin—were all in or near high school. Sandra was called to fill in a position at the high school, and she ultimately finished the whole school year. She continued to teach some classes at UAH and at the college’s studio spaces.
When Sandra moved to The Preserve in 2007, she turned her basement into a studio and classroom space, mostly for private lessons. During COVID-19, those lessons have turned into Facetime calls with some of her regular students.
Her lessons often vary based on the students she’s working with, but they almost always cover art principles before students get a good start on a piece. She enjoys getting to work with students, especially her beginner students, one on one. “I want them to be able to ask questions and not be intimidated by other students,” Sandra says. “I want them to know what mediums and brushes to use, basically to have a good introduction.”
Eventually her students find a subject or idea they want to focus on, after starting with drawings, adding color, and then finding a favorite medium or experimenting with a new technique. Sandra works with them as she teaches and demonstrates.
As students continue to take her classes, and often form a community in and outside of her studio, Sandra sees them take on the childlike spirit that she sees from her younger students, who always embrace challenges and make excellent artists.
Give them a few blocks, and fourth and fifth grade students will model the great sculptors Sandra teaches them about without fear or judgement. “Children are much more forgiving of their artwork, and sometimes it is much better than if I had given it to an adult. They don’t question their work.” And with this spirit comes a curiosity to know more and constantly learn.
“My students are always learning and developing and exploring different mediums,” Sandra says. “They are just like me—they just want to know more.”
Sandra will be opening her studio back up for in-person classes at a limited capacity starting in April, and she’s also exploring an option for virtual students. Email her at email@example.com for more information.
Conserve & Preserve
Have you seen the “Conserve & Preserve” signs along Patton Chapel Lane, or near the entrances to the Preserve? “That’s my idea of what it looks like in the wintertime,” Sandra says about the painting she created for the Clean Hoover Initiative as a leading Hoover artist.
Sandra is also a member of the Hoover Arts Council, which was established in 2017 to promote and foster fine and performing arts in the city. She and many other artists on the council worked and taught classes at Artists on the Bluff until the space closed in 2018, and now they dream of opening another shared space in Hoover where artists can display their work and perform.
In addition to her shows and involvement in the arts locally, Sandra’s work has decorated spaces around the U.S. and Europe. Coca-Cola, Retirement Systems of Alabama, Microsoft, Regions Bank, Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Company, and other companies have her art in their buildings. Her work is also included in permanent collections at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the Huntsville Museum of Art, and Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall in Talladega.