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Art and aspiration in Appalachia

art frAt first glance toward her work, you think Sara Alexander is a great photographer.

At second glance, you realize that’s not a picture, but a painting. The detailed, vibrant canvas is straight from the talented hands of a rising star in the Western North Carolina art scene.

Alexander lived in Florida until her family moved to Western North Carolina when she was 11. She knew from a very young age that she not only could create art, but also that she wanted to pursue something within the field.

“The first time I realized I was good at it was in preschool,” said the 24-year-old, whose maiden name was Bernardi. “I did the cover for the Thanksgiving production, and I was kind of excited about that. Throughout school, I took art classes and I really liked it.”

When she got to Tuscola High School, it was art teacher Bill Eleazer that saw something in Alexander. His methods of positive support and focusing on each pupil’s strength pushed the budding artist to simply enjoy the process of creation, and not to worry about all the details of career choices.

“From the first art class, he took us and guided us,” she said. “He was really patient. He did a great job in taking each student individually and figuring out what their strengths were and their learning styles.”

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Though she found a personal satisfaction in her work, Alexander was still unsure about making a stable existence out of it, even when she was in college working toward her eventual BFA (Painting/Drawing) from the University of North Carolina in Asheville. She had, and still does, toy with the idea of teaching, but between the immense support of her family and her antsy hands, she took the plunge into her passion.

“The idea of doing this slowly developed as I thought, ‘Can I really do this with my life?’ and figuring out ways to make that happen,” she said.

After she received her degree, Alexander decided to leave the area and start from scratch in a fresh environment. She got married and moved to Columbia, S.C., but soon began longing for the unique beauty of Western North Carolina. She couldn’t shake the things that inspired her so much when she was developing her craft.

“It’s definitely the landscape. This is an inspirational place to live in, with all the beautiful scenery, weather and people. The light here changes from second to second,” she said. “In school, I couldn’t wait to leave this place. Then, six months after I graduated college and moved away, I knew I had to come back.”

And as her quest down the rugged road of individual artistic freedom commenced, she began showcasing and selling her work. The first piece she sold for commission was for a family friend, who wanted a painting of a city streetscape in Ft. Lauderdale, something that reminded him of the avenues he strolled as a youngster.

“I was really nervous. It took me a while to get to the point when I felt ready to give it to him. I wanted it to be right,” she laughed.

But, the piece was a success, and Alexander built upon that milestone. Using oil with her painting, which she said is easier to blend with “wet-into-wet,” she also works extensively in graphite pencil drawings and dabbles with sculpture, wood crafting and jewelry, in which she’s learning the skills needed to weld. She finds herself in this creative candy store and, by the looks of it, has a sweet tooth for anything she can get her hands on.

Growing up, Alexander had aspirations to be a mechanical engineer. Now an artist, the mindset of an engineer hasn’t left her. To curb the difficulties of the creative process, she comes up with an idea or concept for a piece and starts making a list.

“So, I have this problem I want to solve and I use a list to figure out how to solve the problem,” she said. “From there, once I got what elements I want in the piece, I start thinking about composition and how things are going to go together.”

Light, and the moods that angle and time of day create, is a common theme in her work. She harnesses the mystery and charm of sunlight and shadows. If there’s a landscape she finds appealing, she’ll take photographs of a location and transfer it to a canvas. The results within each painting are warm and inviting. But, for still-life drawings, she purposely shapes a darker, more humorous emotion.

“It’s so perplexing. There are so many things you can explore within light. The possibilities are endless, which is why I think I’ve been interested in it for so long,” she said. “You take an apple and put it on a table, with just daylight, and then you turn off all the lights, block the window, put a spotlight on it and it becomes so dramatic, but nothing has changed except the light. I like making everyday things appear different.”

Now residing in Maggie Valley, Alexander recently set up shop online through, a site where artists of all walks of life can sell and promote their work. Those interested can view her work on her own site ( and on Facebook. She is looking to further establish herself in the region, hopefully getting some of her pieces in galleries around Waynesville and Asheville. It’s the first steps in a long journey, but Alexander is excited for the twists and turns an artist will confront, overcome and embrace.

“It’s more that I can’t not do it. There’s a drive there that I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t create something,” she said. “You start with this blank canvas and by the end there is something you made. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. I have to do it.”

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