The South Main Historic Arts District is a jewel of a neighborhood in downtown Memphis. From shops and boutiques to museums and restaurants, this historic neighborhood has grown into a vibrant hot spot in the past decade and is continuing to explode with growth. Artist Sue Layman Lightman has been there since the beginning of the neighborhood’s revival with her art gallery, Sue Layman Designs, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this spring. As a self-taught artist, Sue left a successful career in public relations for the art world after taking a year to reevaluate her life and pray for guidance. We are so pleased to introduce the dynamic Sue Layman Lightman, today’s FACE of Memphis.
Are you a native Memphian?
No, I’m from Lynnville, Tennessee. During my senior year at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I married a man from Memphis, so I picked up and moved to the Bluff City with him. I completed my college degree in education at The University of Memphis. After graduation, I taught in the Memphis City School System for five years.
Tell us about your journey from a career in public relations to a career in art.
I loved being in public relations and marketing, but one day I woke up and didn’t like it anymore, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was tormented with thoughts that there was something else I needed to be doing. Trying to find out what it was consumed me. I stepped away from PR for a year and prayed, searching for God’s help.
One day, which I cannot explain, I just knew I had to go get canvas and oil paints, and start painting. What an adventure it has been! I am pretty sure everyone thought I was crazy and, to be quite honest, I don’t think they liked what I was painting because it was very abstract, but it didn’t stop me. I’m the prime example of doing what you feel in your heart regardless of what else your friends and family are telling you to do. I knew I had to keep painting. I even painted a huge mural on my living room wall. It was an amazing undertaking for someone with no painting instruction. It was so awesome and invigorating. I painted for hours on end, and it just made me happier.
I’ve never found painting to be anything but fun. I can’t stand the thought of what my life would be like if I had never discovered this gift. It was also a huge adventure and undertaking to open my business, Sue Layman Designs, which I had no intention of doing when I went and bought that canvas and those oil paints. It was a crazy, but totally exciting time! And to think that now I’m celebrating 10 years of business — it’s just something I never planned or expected to do.
Tell us about your 10 years spent with a gallery in the Historic South Main Arts District. What is your favorite part of the neighborhood?
I opened my art gallery in 2007 on G.E. Patterson in a live-work space. The thought to have a business only came to me when I was trying to decide what to do with the first floor of the three-story condo. I was extremely excited about the interest people had in my art and knew that the South Main Historic Arts District would make a great place for a gallery with all the revitalization taking place. Aside from the rebirth, this area is special to me because it reminds me of the neighborhood where I grew up in Lynnville. The welcoming atmosphere and style of the buildings here are so similar to that of my hometown.
I liked the modern architecture of the condo that was designed by Archimania. From its industrial look to the concrete floors and view of downtown Memphis from the third-floor balcony, it truly had everything I wanted. I loved the mix of the history of the old and the excitement of the new.
To see how the South Main Historic Arts District has grown over the last 10 years has been so inspiring. There’s so much redevelopment going on with everything from businesses to restaurants and, of course, there’s Trolley Night that brings people in to celebrate all the things we have to offer.
Tell us about your creative process.
I pick a canvas, which is usually large — 5’ x 5’ or 3’ x 4’. Then, I draw an outline of a design with a paintbrush. After that, I go back and I pick colors and mix colors to create new ones. I overlay; I create more designs inside the original designs to create depth and texture, so there are many complex designs in one painting that could even be a painting by themselves. When I feel the painting is complete, I stop and name it.
What inspires you?
The finished product. To see a piece that is unique and different from others I created in the past is what truly drives me.
What is your favorite painting style?
I don’t have a favorite style of painting, because I can see something interesting and creative in almost any painting, sculpture, fabric or design technique. That’s the truth!
What advice can you give to first-time art buyers?
Before you begin purchasing art, it’s important to first do a little homework to determine which styles, mediums and designs you love the most. You can look in magazines, online, go to local art festivals and art showings in your area to explore and find pieces that touch your heart and make you happy. Signing up for art mailing lists can help as well. Once you get an idea of what you have a passion for, it’s time for the fun to begin — buying! Just buy what you love.
Any guilty pleasures?
Strawberry shortcake and shopping in New York City, and if I can combine the two, all the better! Oh, and Broadway plays!
What are your hobbies? How do you unwind?
I enjoy taking Pilates — I take classes taught by one of the dancers from Ballet Memphis. I also enjoy going to the gym and walking along the sidewalk by the Mississippi River. When I have time to unwind, which is rare, I sit on my back patio with my puppies and cut my cell phone off. Adios, world!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
What’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when visiting Memphis?
It’s so tough to choose, but if I absolutely had to narrow it down, it would be to take them to the Brooks Museum of Art, then to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens and finish it off with a Grizzlies game.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower it would be …
The ability to bring out creative gifts in everyone I meet
What might someone be surprised to learn about you?
I love to dance!
What three lighthearted things can you not live without?
Coffee; my two Coton de Tulear puppies, Tish and Bogey; and going to see performances at Ballet Memphis.
Thank you, Sue! To learn more about Sue’s work, visit suelaymandesigns.com.
Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Sue!
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