As I pull up before Sarah Long’s Savannah Quarters home, it seems fitting that a loquacious five-year-old runs out to introduce himself, shake my hand, and welcome me. As I will soon learn, Mason’s story, and the story of his siblings, plays an influential role in Long’s artistic practice.
I first met Long at this year’s Gordonston Art Fair and, perhaps because of my background in hospice care, was immediately intrigued by her portraiture and how she often incorporates images of patrons’ departed loved ones into paintings or sketches. Most of her work is by commission, and despite a 15-year hiatus while raising six children, it did not take long to build back a client base.
Long shares very openly about her six children: “They’re all adopted. I started at 30 and it’s been 15 years of mini miracles. There are a quarter of a million children in foster care in the US and my husband and I focused on them prior to knowing we couldn’t conceive ourselves.” They first adopted a three and five-year-old (now 21 and 17) through foster care, then adopted two more children who were birthed by an addicted homeless woman and who are now teens and finally adopted two more because the same birth mom kept having babies. It is understood that she and her husband have been trained to cope with violence and trauma, and that the family openly discusses the damage caused by poverty, drug exposure, abuse, and neglect.
Stop, for a moment, to ponder this young woman’s life during COVID when schools and therapy clinics were closed, and all six children were home, two in diapers and three identified as ‘special needs.’ Long says, “At this point, a friend saw how much I was struggling and told me my life was not sustainable and I needed to be painting again.”
So, somehow, during this horrendous time, she went back to work, “and this last year I started doing art fairs and redid my website after 15 years…now I have six solid hours while they are all in school to paint at the kitchen table. My daughter says I put on my painter’s face….I completely zone out even if there’s screaming and yelling; I just keep going through the mayhem and chaos.”
Always artistic, Long grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan and has fond memories of her grandmother taking her to the city’s Institute of Arts, where both were drawn to the highly realistic paintings of French traditionalist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). From a “very blue collar, hardworking family,” she will be forever grateful to her parents who mortgaged their home to send her to a private high school that specialized in visual arts. Here, under the tutelage of sculptor and nun Marie Henderson, she deepened her passion for art and her love for humanity. (Interestingly, Sr. Henderson sculpted a bronze of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, for St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah.)
After high school, Long received a BFA in Illustration from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio before receiving a graduate fellowship to earn an MFA in Illustration from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She graduated SCAD in 2002 and immediately embarked on a painting career in portraiture.
Now, after the afore-mentioned child-rearing hiatus, the artist says, “There’s three things that I do: I create live, rapid sketches [she sketches at art fairs or at wedding receptions], I do archival family heirloom portraits, and I do landscapes.” Long’s posthumous portraits particularly intrigue me, and I ask how she started that aspect of her business. “My first job was for a precious family where the young mother had terminal cancer and died while I was making the portrait. They wanted a portrait of her with her little girls. It’s now twenty years later and her daughters are married themselves.”
Long says that “the sentimental quality of what I do in painting children” has led her to be asked to reinvent scenes to incorporate, for example, departed grandparents. She believes her degree in Illustration has helped her with this reinvention aspect of her work: “For instance, I have clients who said, ‘Our son is 30, but we want a portrait of him when he was five in Johnson Square in front of our church, and holding a plane because he’s a pilot now, and then can you foreshadow that he’ll be married?’’ This last request she honored by including a carriage ride for a newlywed couple in the background. “So, I’m constantly recreating things that never took place.” Another example is a landscape on her website that started out as a painting of her client’s beautiful marsh view but ended up incorporating her and her young son on her dock as they watch other family members boating on the water.
Long sits with clients to discuss their vision and to determine elements they want included in their painting. “If they’ll let me, I’ll take my own photos, but if it’s not possible, they give me a ton of reference images.” She then suggests a composition and creates sketches from photos or in paint from which she will attain their approval on color, items incorporated, and layout. It’s all very collaborative. “I just did another for a family where they had lost a grandchild and wanted a painting of all the grandchildren together. We created a scene that never happened where the sister is holding both twin boys [one of them died].” Long continues, “Sometimes I’ll hide things in the paintings that only the buyer knows about. I started that early on. In the painting where the mother, Lisa, died of cancer I hid relatives’ names for the children to find, because they were little.”
We next discuss the detailed series of twelve oil paintings entitled ‘From Dusk to Dawn: Our Heavenly City of Savannah.’ Because of this busy mother’s time constraints, each painting takes about five weeks to complete, but she hopes to finish in time for the spring opening of a new gallery located next to the fire station on Oglethorpe Avenue in the space formerly occupied by painter Blanche Nettles. The first painting in the series is her magical portrayal of Colonial Park Cemetery: The sidewalks before the gates sparkle and glisten, the sky glows, the stars twinkle. Almost completed are a scene of Independent Presbyterian Church at night, and one of the iconic Forsyth Park fountain at dusk.
Using a mixture of Damar varnish, linseed oil, and turpentine as her medium, she applies thin layers of oil over an acrylic underpainting. The resulting luminescence gives a magical, heavenly quality to the nocturnal or dawn works, and often the source of light is hidden or created in her imagination. Long references her passion for Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s use of tenebrism (a term used to describe work where significant details are illuminated by highlights, contrasting with a dark setting), and for sfumato (the smoky quality which blurs contours).
Long’s love for traditional, classical art, and for beauty and order is always evident. But exceeding that love is the love for her children. On the wall of her office-turned-home studio is a pencil portrait of her second child. He had the most horrific upbringing and lived in a car before the Long family adopted him. She includes their beautiful home in the background and portrays him wrapped in a hooded coat, “to cover his physical scars and to represent how I covered him with my love."
Her graphite drawing of now five-year-old Mason, “the only baby I ever raised,” depicts him as open and trusting, his beautiful and enormous eyes staring out at the viewer above his pacifier. This was a child whose face bore physical signs of trauma when she first gained temporary custody, but she chose to disregard them in the portrait because, “while I feel like the scars that he has are real, I want him to know that’s not what defines him.”
Before the tempest of children entered her life, Long named her business Crown Portraits to reference the verse from Isaiah that promises God will “bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” She says, “I think of where my children have come and know my whole job as a parent is to bring them beauty.” Quoting Van Gogh - “Art is to console those who are broken by life,” she continues, “I think that’s why I lean towards the beautiful, and the realistic. I’m trying to get my kids to see the world in a different way.”
Find more information visit www.sarahlong.com and see samples of her rapid sketches on Instagram @crownportraits/sarahlong