BY ERIN COGGINS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA BERRY
From poppies to beach scenes to Alabama football, Madison artist Sandy Sparks’ passion for art is reflected in every piece she creates.
Sparks credits her mother for her interest and talent in art. Her mother, a commercial artist, was instrumental in teaching her painting and drawing. Sparks herself began doodling with crayons on any piece of paper she could find at an early age – which was only the beginning of her artistic endeavors. “In high school I took a fashion merchandising class and made clothes. Everyone loved my Charlie’s Angels outfits,” Sparks said. “After high school I decorated houses for 10 years, worked in paint stores and did drafting for a cable company.”
It was in 1985 while working in a paint store in Georgia that Sparks sold her first painting. Her boss would allow her to display some of her paintings, and a customer chose to purchase an oil painting of a waterfall. “He got a bargain – frame and all, I charged $50,” Sparks said. “I recreated that painting a couple of times.”
Since that day, Sparks has turned her hobby into something more, having been commissioned for about 700-800 works of art. She works with watercolors, acrylics, graphite pencils, colored pencils, chalk pastels, balsa foam sculpting, glass etching, textural treatments, sewing and wood burning – but portrait art is her favorite. Her portraits can be seen in her home studio, including a graphite of a man who walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge during the Civil Rights Movement. The portrait was commissioned for the man’s birthday.
Portraits are a process Sparks works continuously to perfect. “I usually work from a photo,” Sparks said. “I sketch it out to make sure it is proportioned then lay a background. I then start with the face and eyes. Sometimes I just visualize and use the computer first to see how to lay it out, especially when putting two or three things together.”
Sparks even makes framing her creations an artistic endeavor by repurposing old frames from garage sales and thrift stores. “I sometimes use frames that people want to throw away,” Sparks said. “I clean them up, re-stain them and re-use them. It’s a lot of fun.”
Sparks’ passion goes deeper than her pencil and paint strokes. A 16-year breast cancer survivor and advocate for anything that contributes to finding a cure and helping others with this disease, Sparks uses her talent to give back, including through the Painted Bra Project, a breast cancer awareness campaign. She has one of the bras framed and hung in her studio. “I painted a Grateful Dead Bra that I donated to the Painted Bra Art Project auction,” Sparks said. “It caused a bidding war and sold for $700.”
Another special painting that adorns the walls of Sparks’ home depicts pink breast cancer awareness ribbons ascending to the lights of heaven. In one of the ribbons is a profile of her friend, Tammi Lee, who lost her fight with the disease. “We went through treatment together,” Sparks said. “The idea for the painting came to me in the middle of the night. Only one person could inspire me to paint that.”
She has also lent her talent to other nonprofits in the area, including painting five hydrants for the Greater Huntsville Humane Society. Many of these hydrants feature scenes of Alabama football – and Sparks is no stranger when it comes to paintings of the Crimson Tide. A painting of the 1992 championship game hangs in the Sparks’ home, a gift for her husband, Ralph, after he attended the game in New Orleans. She has also done a lawn display of Nick Saban for the Gamma Phi Beta sorority’s annul homecoming in Tuscaloosa. “I heard he stopped his motorcade when it was driven by the house so he could stop and take a photo with it,” Sparks said.
Sparks, a member of the Madison Arts Council, Arts Huntsville and the Huntsville Arts League, was introduced to the local art scene when she moved to the area eight years ago. She credits the ladies at 16 Main Madison for helping her find her place. “I was welcomed with open arms and was invited to paint a 6-foot butterfly for the Huntsville Botanical Gardens,” Sparks said. “After that, I met wonderful artists in the community, and it grew from there.”
Recently, Sparks has gotten into painting and drawing pets. Some of these are on commission, and others are just inspired by looking through magazines or other sources. Along with pets, she has been commissioned to paint ornaments.
Sparks is a resident artist at X-Studio Gallery in the Redstone Arsenal Exchange Gallery, where she spends Thursdays and Fridays. “I get a lot of work done out there. At home there are so many distractions,” she said. “Here people will walk by and see some of my work and ask me to commission something.”
Her husband is a retired colonel, so she feels at home on the Army base. Having been married for 35 years, Sparks said her husband is her best friend and her No. 1 critic. Her children, Kelly Sparks-Berger and Steven Sparks, are two her biggest supporters and often give her ideas and suggestions. “They help me to find the little differences,” she said. “When they point out something in one of my works, they are usually right.”
Sparks describes herself as a “starving artist.” She wants her clients to own her artwork, so she works within their budget. Her dream is to make a living from her art, but for now, just having someone own it is good enough.
“I have found the most gratification when the client receives the artwork and I see tears,” Sparks said. “Only then do I know I’ve succeeded.”