Sanithna Phansavanh

Sanithna Phansavanh


Painter, Illustrator: Atlanta

Life-changing experiences might not occur very often. But when they do – and when they’re so good that they lift us higher than we ever imagined – then even the most shy among us can’t wait to share.

     Sanithna Phansavanh isn’t shy. And just a few minutes into our conversation, something sparked the desire to share one of his own life-changing experiences: what it’s like to be the father of two young children. 

“I wasn't aware of how much love I was able to express and give to another being and then I had my daughter and I was astounded. And then I had my son and I thought, Man, I'm not going to be able to love anything else but my kids. I just don’t have the capacity. But parenthood really opens you up. It's really beautiful. I mean, don't let that color your impression too much because kids are hellions, too. They can tear down the world in a second. But it's definitely a good thing. Kids are amazing, man.”

     In fact, so enamored was Sanithna with raising his new family that he decided to put personal art aside, devoting much of his energy instead to a steady career in graphic design. Work, work, work. Time went on; his little toddlers kept growing. And as their personalities and characteristics developed, his love for them grew even more. It was instant motivation to keep the design career going full-steam. But despite all that, the empty spot inside – where art used to be – was still there.

“You get to a point where you start thinking about how things affect your children. Whether it's the world or how you raise them. And I started to think about inspiration and the people I looked up to, and I was wondering how I could be that for my kids. And part of that was not wanting to be this old man later on and sort of telling them, ‘oh, well I could have been this, I could have done that’, you know? I kind of wanted to take the bull by the horns and show them, you know what? I have this passion, I have this dream, and I’m going do it.”

     And he meant it. Along with his career and family responsibilities, Sanithna started finding time for his own art. There must have been a different tempo to his days, but hearing Sanithna demonstratively recount the experience made me think that shortly after he picked up that pace he just couldn’t be stopped. More sketches, more illustrations, more paintings. More positive energy. Listen to him talk for a minute and it’s easy to see how much he’s enjoyed it.

     But at the same time his admiration for the masters – Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Ingres – has him continually working on technique and draftsmanship. And already his work shares a theme with theirs: a love for drawing the female form.

“The reason I do a lot of the female form is, I mean, one, they’re more aesthetically pleasing than the male figure. Second part of that is that when I was growing up my mom had this painted portrait of a woman and I thought that she was the most beautiful thing ever. And I saw this when I was a kid and she made such a deep impression on me that I’ve sort of been working out this image in my head of her. And the third part of it is that I just think that women, as characters, they’re able to take on roles a little bit better. So if you think of movies as paintings, I almost feel that females are more adept at portraying emotions.”

Click through the collection of sketches on Sanithna’s blog. Look at the faces of the women he’s created. Can you sense their body language? They’re storytellers; expressive to the point where you almost want to ask them what they’re thinking. The perfect combination of color and mood and moment – there’s the allure. And I think part of what impels Sanithna to tell such stories through his work, part of that original spark, is the particular time in which he grew up.

“I actually remember trying to decide on what music to buy by album covers. Before the Internet you had to go by word of mouth from your friends, or you would have to go into a store and make a good judgment based on artwork. And one of the times that it really panned out for me was The Pharcyde. I picked up their cassette based solely on the cover and I was like, holy crap I love this. I still have a lot of my cassettes, too. I kind of refuse to get rid of them."

"It’s really interesting because…I don’t want to be an ageist or whatever, but nowadays it seems like there’s not much soul in contemporary culture. I kind of feel bad for a lot of the kids growing up because they’re recycling fashion and attitude from previous generations, and it’s unfortunate to me because we had the grunge scene, the alternative scene, the growth of hip hop, the SoCal stuff like Jane’s Addiction, you know? We had all this really great stuff. And now there’s hardly anything. There’s nothing that I want to sink my teeth into.”

     And really, the great stuff that is out there can somehow be a lot harder to find than it once was. It almost doesn’t make sense with the proliferation of the Internet and the ability we have to instantly access information.

“The bad side to that is a lot of that stuff becomes disposable. When I was growing up, listening to music was an experiential thing. You’d get the CD, you’d open it up, and you’d pore over the album cover and the whole entire package. It became an experience. And so if you’re plunking down good hard money, you’re going to enjoy it. But nowadays it’s like you get it, you listen to it, and if you don’t like it it’s gone. It’s disposable. And you don’t build your own story around it. You don’t attach emotive qualities to it.”

     When is the last time you did build a story around a song – or remember exactly where you were and who you were with when you heard that song for the first time? And think back to your CDs. Your cassettes. Your records. How many album covers do you specifically remember for their art? If you take even a minute you’ll probably have a dozen. And a big reason is because you physically possessed the music.

     With the arts especially, there should be that sort of experience attached. And even if it seems to be happening less and less often these days, Sanithna, in very bright ways, is determined to make his own art an experience for the rest of us.

     A few days before the opening night of his first-ever solo show, he announced on his blog that seven pieces of his art would be hidden around Atlanta. The morning of the show he’d begin sending hints through his Twitter account: at the top of each hour, a new tweet about where the next piece of art might be hiding. For seven people, an instant, unforgettable experience.

“I wanted it to be as fun as possible. I didn’t want it to be this sort of stodgy, antiseptic art experience. Which I hate. I hate going to galleries that are super-pretentious.”

     Especially in the developing Atlanta art scene – Sanithna wanted his show’s energy to make people feel comfortable. And the positive reaction opening night vindicated what he’s been feeling. He wants that support for the arts to continue.

“That’s one of the biggest hindrances in Atlanta is that people are not aware enough of the whole art world, and there’s this weird tension, like, ‘Well, I don’t want to ask about it ‘cause I don’t want to offend anybody and I don’t want to seem stupid…’, so they never cross that threshold of trying to become familiar with it.”

     That sentiment is common anywhere, of course. Not just in Atlanta. But lately Sanithna has been feeling good about art in his home city. In the past few years there’s been a new energy for it.

“There have been really talented artists who were kind of struggling and now they’ve toiled so much that they’ve made the ground fertile, you know? And I don’t know if it’s just the right time because of factors like the economy and if people just want to get into something that makes them feel good or what have you, but all of a sudden I’m noticing these really great artists coming up. The community was never really together because we were so spread out. There had been pockets of groups and things like that, but now it’s really coming together.”

     In fact, these days you’ll have some clutter if you stick a tack in a map of Atlanta for each art gallery that’s open. Such a crop of galleries has opened up on the West side that it’s become an official entity: the Westside Arts District. Add to that the galleries on Ponce de Leon Avenue, and the Castleberry Hill area. They all have art walks. And show openings. All the time.

“You have to love yourself before other people love you, so I think if we start cultivating the culture and art here by ourselves we might get a little bit of national attention. And I hate that we need that recognition, but we really do. ‘Cause man, I hate that I have to struggle here. It really sucks. I love a lot of things about Atlanta and I hate that there aren’t as many opportunities. A lot of my friends have moved out to LA, tons of my friends have moved up to New York because you can turn around and have an opportunity right there. But here, you almost have to create opportunity for yourself. Which is okay because it makes you a little hardier. To go back to the analogy of toiling in the soil, it makes it a little more rewarding if you’re the one growing your own sustenance.”

     Think about the timing. Sanithna Phansavanh is painting. He’s reciprocating the inspiration his children have given to him. He’s pushing for an original experience. And in Atlanta, the arts community is growing. It’s everything he’ll need to create countless life-changing experiences. And I think that’s what he might do best.

{october 2010}
(images c/o Sanithna Phansavanh)