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From Mary Singleton’s vibrant nature-inspired paintings exploring the meeting of negative space and contour lines, to Laurel-Dawn Latshaw’s dreamy botanicals in mixed media, to Chris Shands’ abstract explorations in color, these three Southern artists are creating unique work that captivates, with eye-catching color palettes and a strong sense of intention.

We talked to each of them about their beginnings, their inspiration, how being located in the South has played a role in their artistic evolution, and what they would say to women who also dream of becoming working artists.

Mary Singleton of Mary Singleton Studio

Mary Singleton isn’t afraid of color. The New Orleans-based artist’s hand moves across the canvas in bold swaths of color and with confident strokes of contour drawing. Her work is vibrant, playful, emotive, and alive. She’s inspired by the landscape of Louisiana, painting what occurs naturally around her, and drawing on the energy from the creative culture that runs deep in New Orleans. And, she’s really dedicated to that love of color. In fact, one night after an extra glass of wine, she ended up with the URL, which now redirects to her website. That’s commitment, right? Meet this vibrant Southern artist.

Southern artist Mary Singleton of Mary Singleton Studio

“I think color has the ability to energize, heal, soothe. It’s emotional. It’s a language,” says Mary. “I just don’t want to be in a world or room without it. It’s too important.” Image: Sarah Becker

When did you first pick up a paintbrush? Was this something you’d done your entire life?

I don’t know the moment of picking up a paintbrush. I’ve really always been creative. From a young age, I couldn’t get enough of anything related to the arts. I got lost in every craft project or art lesson. It was really all I wanted to do.

Who were influential mentors or sources of inspiration early in your career? What about now?

My mentors along the way were all the art teachers I’ve been privileged to learn from. They understand what it’s like to have this insatiable itch to create and how to cultivate it. I was probably a little too quiet in all of their classes so they may not know that. I’ll send this to them. They each made a huge impact.

As for inspiration, I’ve always collected art books from garage sales and thrift stores. Very early on, I’d study their use of line, shadow, etc., for hours. I really relied on learning from them. Recently, I’ve found inspiration in everything from nature walks around south Louisiana to the vibrantly painted houses of my neighborhood in New Orleans. This city oozes talent, so it isn’t hard to find inspiration around here.

What inspires your vibrant color choices?

I think color has the ability to energize, heal, soothe. It’s emotional. It’s a language. I just don’t want to be in a world or room without it. It’s too important.

What has your experience been as a creative woman in the South, specifically in New Orleans? Has that played into how your career has taken shape?

New Orleans is a large part of why I’m a working artist. We moved here for my partner’s job. Next thing I know I’m surrounded by artists and musicians living in this incredibly creative city. I just started painting more and more and more.

RELATED: Carrie Pittman: An Artist Evolving

What words of advice would you have for other women looking to embark on a creative career?

Nurture your creative side. It is a relationship that takes time to build, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t show up the moment you pick up a brush. The book The Artist’s Way is such a wonderful guide when it comes to this.

Make the kind of work that is true to your voice. It’s easy to stay in that learning phase of studying other contemporary artists or even old masters. Don’t get too comfortable in that spot. That’s someone else’s spot. Find out who you are as an artist and make work that YOU are proud of. That’s all that matters.

Don’t be afraid to throw a painting away if it isn’t working. I trashed one last week and it was liberating.

Ask questions! Most artists are happy to share a nugget of wisdom if you have a question. Many of the artists you know on Instagram have probably answered a DM or two of mine when I’m stumped or curious.

Apply to anything that seems like a good fit. Who knows? They might say YES!

Where do you see your work evolving in the future?

I have no clue! Creativity has always had a bit of an untamable side for me. The result is…I can‘t plan it. I just follow where it leads. For me, it’s more about the process of creating itself. I expect it to change and evolve just as I do. That’s the fun part. It’s always a surprise, even for me. I do know my work keeps getting larger and larger. Every six months I seem to be creating my largest painting ever.

In love with Mary’s work? You can request a catalog of her available work on her website or find her in galleries across the South, from Louisiana to Texas, South Carolina, and beyond. Additionally, she takes on commissions and is happy to walk interested collectors through the process.


Laurel-Dawn Latshaw of Laurel-Dawn Corner Studio

This past year, many women were placed in a uniquely challenging position of balancing their careers with childcare and homeschooling. And, like so many others, Homewood, Alabama-based Laurel-Dawn Latshaw made the difficult decision to take a step back professionally and focus on her family. 

But, out of that hardship has come an incredible opportunity. For more than 10 years, Laurel-Dawn had painted in the wee hours when she wasn’t working as a graphic designer and art director. Now, for the first time, she can concentrate on her art. Her childhood dreams of painting are no longer a side hustle — she’s a full-time working mixed media artist creating nature-driven landscapes, botanicals, and florals that feel both light and grounded. 

Laurel-Dawn Latshaw of Laurel-Dawn Corner Studio

Laurel-Dawn’s 7-year-old son, Lochlan Patterson McBurney, took this photo. He’s flourishing as a photographer and art director in his own right.

When did you first pick up a paintbrush? Did you start as a painter or a graphic designer?

I started creating art as a little girl, painted and created art seriously in high school, and knew going into college that I wanted to study art in some way. My mom is an aviation artist, and she always encouraged my siblings and me to be creative in whatever we did. My mom had an at-home studio, so I was lucky enough to have a blueprint of how to balance motherhood and my passion for art under one roof. I will forever be grateful for my mom and all of her encouragement in art. I worked in her studio for my first job, painting watercolors by the hour, framing and boxing up aviation art to send out all over the world.

I studied fine art and graphic design at Auburn University and have been in the design and branding field for the last 12 years. Fine art has come in and out of my life, professionally, over that time, and I am so happy to finally be a fine artist, full time.

Who were influential mentors or inspiration sources early in your career? What about now?

My mom, Wende Berryhill, is definitely my number one mentor; she truly is the reason I knew that I could be an artist as an actual career. She taught me so much about what it means to be an artist, how hard you have to work, and how challenging it can be to be so invested in your own creation and business. She is an honest artist who gives me thoughtful feedback.

I also was lucky enough to meet my dear friend, Hannah Winters, another Homewood artist, a few years ago. We have boys in the same preschool class, and she has really encouraged me in such a beautiful way; she is a constant cheerleader and one who I always bounce ideas around with.

Morgan Johnston, another Birmingham artist whom I have only met once, also genuinely gave me clear action steps to start my career. Little did she know, it made a huge impact and shaped the way I approach my practice. She challenged me, after a day of drawing in the gardens of the “Pink House” in Homewood, to paint or draw every day for a month. It was so hard, but it was the very best thing I could have ever done. I numbered each piece, shared them on social media, and from that, my first collection was born. I still challenge myself every January to complete a painting every day of the month. It sets my intentions for the new year and pushes me in my practice more than anything else!

How do you find inspiration from nature?

I pull inspiration from everywhere. I have taken photos of really beautiful trees at my son’s baseball games, and on walks in Homewood. I find that the most beautiful inspiration for me is always from my Creator. Billowing clouds, a rigid mountainside, light beaming through leaves, twisted branches, leaning blooms … it’s all so good. I remember my mom always commenting on beautiful skies and clouds as a little girl. She always talked about how they looked like a piece of art or how fun it would be to paint a particular scene. She showed me how to see with an artist’s eyes, capturing beauty everywhere you can and storing it away in your mind for another time.

I also love interior design and tend to paint what I feel my personal space needs — that’s how I started painting “Petite Landscapes” and my “Carved Botanicals” [series]. I knew I wanted an art pairing in my kitchen that felt traditional but wanted to ground the space with large, more modern pieces. I shared what I created for myself, and those pieces launched themselves into full-blown collections.

How does your graphic design inform your painting? Do they complement each other, or do they exist separately?

I think a lot of this happens subconsciously. I have recently started to see how my branding background has bled into my fine art. I tend to naturally choose the same color palettes, textures, and framing examples throughout my work, to continue the thread that weaves itself through each piece I create. I feel that visually, all of my work should be able to live within the same space, complementing each other, exactly as a strong brand should function.

What inspires your color choices? What draws you to these earthy palettes?

I figured out early on that I kept gravitating toward small pops of red in my work that occurred when I started with a red base, or underpainting, for my petite landscapes. I felt that the pop of red made my work look different than others that I had seen, and made me feel like I had stumbled into what would be a major part of my brand identity as an artist. If I don’t use red in the piece, like most of my more modern works, I will sign the piece with a red pencil. As for the earthy palette that is juxtaposed to the bright red, it’s inspired by the color palette that I am personally using in my own home. As I mentioned before, so many of the collections that I have released started with a piece that I painted for my home, so that palette tends to work its way into every piece.

What has your experience been as a creative woman in the South, specifically in Alabama? Has that played into how your career has taken shape?

I grew up a military kid, so I moved around as a little girl, then moved to Alabama in sixth grade, and have been here ever since. I love what the South has to offer in terms of its incredible, lush landscape and dramatic hills. It’s something I don’t take for granted, as I have lived in other parts of the country that are simply not as beautiful.

I also think that God planted me in Alabama so that I would have the chance to attend Auburn University. The Lord knew I would flourish there. I found my people; I found other creatives that pushed me and challenged me to be better. I started in my major as a freshmen, and my drawing and painting classes were where I was at my best. I joke often that if I could have been a professional student, I would. I loved my studio classes, the pressure of making each cut to stay in the program, and trying my darndest to improve and impress my incredible professors. [It] was so life-giving to my creative heart. I am so thankful for how grueling that program was, and it instilled and pointed out my strong work ethic, and how it shaped me as an artist.

What words of advice would you have for other women looking to embark on a creative career?

I would give the same advice that so many incredible supporters gave me, just do it. Just start. Paint or draw, or be in whatever creative practice you choose, and do it every day. Even if it’s a five-minute doodle, it will hone your artistic voice whether you like it or not. The growth is in the doing, nowhere else. The progress can feel slow, but progress is usually slow and quiet, as I have heard others say. I would also say, that for me, social media made all of this possible. It’s an incredible space where I could slowly start exploring who I was as a fine artist, and it gave me a sense of accountability in my practice.

Where do you see your work evolving in the future?

I plan to paint a LOT this year. This will be my first fall with only ONE career, and I am so thankful and excited to see where it will take me.

The pandemic brought me, along with so many others, to my knees. I was working as a full time Art Director, painting as a “side hustle,” and homeschooling a six-year-old, as well as parenting an 18-month-old. It was all too much. I had to step down to a part time role at my full-time job, and then gradually stepped down altogether early in 2021. I could have never planned for the past year, like the rest of the world, but God truly used that time to help me realize what I wanted and needed as a career in my life. I am so grateful for the beauty that has come from those ashes.

All that to say, I feel like every day is an experiment, and I am still feeling out what it means to be a full-time artist. Like so many parents working full time, at home, I feel as if I have been in survival mode, and I truly take it day by day. I look forward to a time, sometime very soon, where I plan my year in advance. As for now, I am dreaming of working with a larger company to distribute my prints, getting into the gallery scene, and potentially dabbling in fabric design. We’ll see; every time I make plans, God tends to intervene and show me a better path.

You can find Laurel-Dawn’s work on her website, where she offers both originals and prints. She also includes framing recommendations so you won’t miss a beat between getting your gorgeous new artwork and nailing down the perfect way to showcase it.

RELATED: 3 Kentucky Artists Whose Works You NEED to See

Chris Shands of Chris Shands Art

Richmond, VA, abstract artist Chris Shands has created art for as long as she can remember. Throughout her career, she’s moved through mediums including textile art, ceramics, and now paint, where she uses color and texture to guide her exploration on the canvas. Drawn to bright, saturated colors, she’s often influenced by her travels throughout the Far East as a child or the naturally occurring color palettes that she comes across in her own garden. She brings these together in her work, creating layered pieces that place the experimentation and process on equal footing with the end result.

Southern artist Chris Shands of Chris Shands Art

Chris grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where her love of color was nurtured on visits to the silk mills with her mother. Image: Tasha Tolliver

When did you first pick up a paintbrush? What inspired your transition from ceramics to painting?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always drawn, sketched, and doodled. My favorite gifts growing up were those that inspired creativity: working with yarn, fabric, paint, colored pencils, clay. You name it; I was all about it! I was an elementary school teacher, and I fondly remember the times I was able to incorporate “art” activities in my classroom. I stayed home to raise my children and felt the constant tug and pull to do something creative. I took a ceramics class at the Visual Arts Center in Richmond and was hooked! I hand-built and painted clay vessels for 15 years and loved every moment until I honestly grew a bit “bored” working with clay. I was itching to try something new, and it wasn’t until a talented friend who also happened to be an artist built me a 48×48 canvas and simply said, “paint.” And so I did! I read everything I could about painting, took classes at the VMFA, Visual Arts Center, as well as private lessons. I went to museums in Richmond as well as in other cities and just immersed myself in different genres of painting.

It was at this time that I was painting both figurative and abstract pieces. I was drawn to abstract work, and I’m not really sure why, as it is much harder. There is nothing visually to guide you or look at. Abstract work for me is a lot like problem solving. The first stages of a painting are about laying down color and having fun, but you then need to sit back and ask yourself, “Does this make sense? What do I need to add or remove? How are my values? How is my composition? Does my eye carry throughout the piece?” It’s a bit like working a puzzle. Sometimes it comes together cohesively; other times I just want to scream and give up. One of the things I have learned, the longer I paint, is to not give up on a piece even if I can’t solve it right away. It eventually comes together, and I always learn something new.

How do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration everywhere! Sometimes in nature — I love to garden and draw inspiration from the colors and textures of each season. I find it in fashion and design, the way the colors play off of one another. When I begin a piece, I usually have an idea about which colors I want to use. Cool, warm, or neutral? The rest happens on the canvas, and I try to listen and pay attention to what the painting is telling me. It’s a bit like a dance, and a bit meditative. I make a mark with my paintbrush or palette knife and observe. Does this work? If not, what can I do to change the outcome?

What inspires your color choices?

I’ve been trying very hard to simplify my colors and mark-making, but ultimately I find myself gravitating to using brighter colors and adding more marks and lines to my pieces. I love adding and subtracting paint, scraping it off to reveal more complex “moments.” Sometimes it’s intentional; sometimes it’s a happy accident!

What has your experience been as a creative woman in the South, specifically in Richmond? How do you think that merges with your international experiences growing up?

Richmond has a fantastic art scene. VCU, The VMFA, Reynold’s gallery, and Quirk are just some of the places you can visit and immerse yourself. There is no shortage of talent in this city! I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, and I believe this is where my love for color was born. My mother used to take me to the silk mills with her when she needed a dress made. There were very few stores where a woman could purchase a dress! I would sit for what seemed like hours and play with the colorful silk fabric samples. On occasion, I’d get to take a few samples home and make dresses for my dolls. Heaven!

What does your daily creative process look like?

My studio is in my home, and I love that I can come and go as I please during the day. I start my day with a cup of coffee and a brisk walk with my dog. I like to allow myself a minimum of five to six hours to really delve into a piece. I can’t paint for a couple of hours here and there. This format allows me time to really examine a piece and get “lost” in a piece. This is the meditative part.

What words of advice would you have for other women looking to embark on a creative career?

My advice to anyone embarking on a creative career is to learn as much as you can, work as hard as you can, and allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. I believe I found success as a painter because I began at a time in my life when I could give all of myself to exploring and learning something new.

You can find Chris’s work in galleries and shops in Virginia and North Carolina, including Ruth & Ollie in Richmond, VA, and Sozo Gallery in Charlotte, NC.


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