Originally Published: February 7, 2002 5:15 p.m.
Painting landscapes of every sort and in every location is Sheila Savannah's passion. She has lived around the U.S., from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest and now the Southwest. Her subjects range from a striking snow scene in Monument Valley, left, to a lush forest setting in "Valley Visitors," right.
"This is artist heaven here with the desert, mountains and rivers," she said. "I don't have to look for a subject and I'm never tired of painting around nearby."
Savannah's primary subjects are landscapes: rocky mesas, canyons, mountains, deserts, adobes and sunsets – her specialty.
"I particularly like skies," she said. "They set the mood, with mist, fog, cloud, sunsets. It captures that sense of place."
If not in her studio, Savannah is most often outside, painting early morning or late afternoon light and shadows at Granite Dells or on the Sedona rocks.
"The colors in those rocks!" she exclaims, adding, "The best teacher I ever had was the out-of-doors."
Second to the Southwest, Italy is her favorite subject. She returned from a three-week stay south of Naples in May, and has a long history with the country.
From 1972 to 1976, she worked as the librarian of the American School of Milan.
"I loved Italy," she said. "It was almost impossible not to get into painting there, with so many museums and art galleries."
Her true yearning was toward art anyway.
"I did library work just to support myself till I could be an artist," she said.
Savannah always felt she could be an artist, from the time she was a child doing paint-by-number kits to excelling at arts in high school.
"I did think I would be an artist," she said, "and pictured myself in the West" long before she had ever seen its deserts and rugged terrain.
Savannah grew up in the lush landscape of Savannah, Ga., which explains the small slips of a southern accent that sneak out from time to time in her speech.
And lest one think it's strange she would have the same last name as her hometown, about a decade ago, she changed her name from the mundane (she thought) "Sheila Edwards" to the more unforgettable "Sheila Savannah."
She graduated from Peabody College in Nashville and studied studio arts at Chabot College in California.
Her favorite teacher was Ruth Burden, a drawing teacher in California.
"She taught me to really look at the world and see in different ways," she said, "to see reflected light and analyze scale, not just see superficially."
Savannah loves to teach, too. Her voice rises to a teaching level when she talks about the techniques of painting. "See that blue-green shadow on the box lid?" she'll ask in the midst of a conversation.
Sitting in her Prescott studio, Savannah is surrounded by her paintings, some framed, most stacked.
One's eyes can wander from a canvas of a small village in New Mexico to a pond with palm trees and a duck, a Southwest doorway opening in a rust-colored stucco wall, or an Italian seascape with dots of sailboats rounding a point.
"I'm very attached to the texture and feel of paint," Savannah says, toying with a small palette knife, mixing colors, smearing red into green, adding daubs of yellow.
"The big globs of thick paint are like dough, or mud. It's fun … fun to paint and fun to mix. I think paint is beautiful," she said.
Savannah also sees the world with an artist's eyes.
"I notice shapes more than other people, I think. When I look at trees I don't just see green, I see yellow-green, blue-green, or brown-green – the subtle nuances," she said.
In the mountains, she takes note of the blues, purples or neutrals. Even in shadows, she sees colors.
"Shadows are not just black. I don't use black much. There is very little in nature – they're more likely grays or purples," she says, teaching again and fiddling unconsciously with a paintbrush, feathering the bristles back and forth with her fingers while her watch, with hour marks like a tiny paint palette, glints in reflected light.
Savannah favors the process of painting over the finished product.
"Sure, I want it to turn out, and I like it when other people like it, but it's the process," she said. "I have a notion of how I want it to be and keep working to get what I'm striving for.
"I want the paintings to glow and to sing and to say something about that place," she said.
Savannah says she is always reluctant to finish a painting.
"Are there any more strokes or color that I need to make it say what I want it to say?" she asks herself. "If not, it's finished."
Savannah's painting style is "studied impressionism," she said. "I'm not competing with the camera. "I'm trying to give my impression, what I feel about it. "I want people to say, 'the painter must have loved this place.'"
Both teacher and student, Savannah says, "No matter if I live to be 105, I will never have learned it all."
"I attempt to have my paintings translate and transcend the actual subject and help illuminate our connection with the world around us," she said.
Savannah has been painting full-time for about seven years. She teaches art at the Adult Center of Prescott and at Yavapai College.
Her work has found its way into more than 70 juried exhibitions and several art publications, including American Artist Magazine and the Albuquerque Journal. She has been featured in numerous solo exhibits, including at the Frye Museum in Seattle and the Bardean Gallery in Albuquerque.
Savannah has earned her share of awards, too, such as the Hernandez Fine Art Award of Excellence in 1997, the New Mexico watercolor society's Best of Show 1996 and Best of Show at PFAA's Visions Southwest 2001. A stack of multi-colored ribbons glint from a closet doorknob.
Savannah's work is on display locally at the Phippen Museum, in Scottsdale at Treasures in Art, and at galleries in New Mexico and Santa Fe. She is available at 443-7733.
Contact Sandy Moss at email@example.com