Inside the Artists’ Studio


In the Northside rests a concentrated art community rich with unique sculptures, art shows, classes and individuals pushing the envelope on old and new world creative arts. I got to meet some of these artists firsthand, see (and covet) their works, visit a few workspaces and mark my calendar for what’s to come. I even found an option for getting my own kiddo interested in art and myself back in tune with a brush. Whatever your choice in medium, get ready to be inspired.


When Marilyn Sparks first entered the art scene, it was in fashion. Over the course of her tenured career, she produced some of the nation’s top fashion shows, from haute couture to athletic wear. She hopped from one big city to the next, earning a reputation as a model, a producer and as a highly sought-after expert. But, as fashion shows became something of a spectacle in themselves, she felt a pull in another direction – and it led her to a big, blank canvas.

In front of a giant white space, she turned on her favorite music, donned an old shirt as a smock and let her collected industry knowledge of colors, texture and composition lead her to something that was quite surprising. 

If you’ve ever seen one of her paintings, you’d argue it was something defined as quite fantastic. And after years of honing that newfound skill, her work is immediately recognized by vibrant, warm colors – as rich as her red hair. Sparks illustrates iconic southern landscapes, landmarks and general nostalgia. A far cry from edgy runway ensembles, the newfound focus actually hit pretty close to home for her; before she walked and worked those
catwalks, she was a country girl, growing up in Nashville, Tenn. She summons memories of old barns, whimsical wildflowers, rustic canoes and more to her canvases. I watched her work diligently, to the sounds of fun music in her Cumming home studio surrounded by oils, palette knives, Italian-imported espadrilles and a myriad of brushes. I couldn’t help but feel happy when she wrapped thick canvases in such lively imagery.

Her pieces make a lot of other people happy too and not just on the Northside, where you can see her latest works hanging at Taylor Kinzel Gallery in Roswell. She’s on display at six Kessler Collection hotels across the country, including Asheville, N.C. and Savannah, as well as in Highlands, N.C. at The Summer House, in Blue Ridge at High Country and in Red Bird Gallery in Seaside, Fla. If you’re not up for an art walk, dine at Tutto Kitchen & Bar in Roswell for a glimpse at one of her colorful canvases that’s sure to help please another kind of palate.


Gregory Johnson can’t necessarily offer a recommendation for the best local art shop in town. In fact, if you’re interested in the kind of work he does, you’re going to have to commit to some online research and maybe a premium in shipping for materials. That’s because as a renowned sculptor, Johnson pools his resources from warehouses across the country. He lives in Cumming, but has shown and sold works from coast to coast, even at Miami’s famous Art Basel. But, since most of us are only seeing works within our surrounding zip codes, you can see his on public display across the Northside as well, including the new and modern, 10-foot version of
Lady Justice in front of Cumming’s new City Hall.

His career began at age 8, when he won a drawing contest in a magazine. His parents immediately enrolled him in art lessons, and after obeying what his first art teacher taught him — to “draw what you know, not what you see” — the rest fell into place.

“Going to my room with a pad and pencils was my escape as a kid,” Johnson said. “That was how I found my peace and quiet in the midst of a crazy family life.”

From drawing, he painted and then began sculpting in 1990, but commissioning some of the latter wasn’t something he could do on the same tight schedule. Working in the tedious medium of large-scale metal sculpture (mostly stainless steel and bronze), his works take almost a year to complete. They range in aesthetic from abstract and contemporary to traditional and awe inspiring. And while you may also spot his piece, “Crescendo,” in Johns Creek and think it’s a wave crashing, Johnson takes pride in the fact that your neighbor or friend might see something completely different.

“That’s the beauty of doing something more abstract,” Johnson said. “Everyone can see what they want to see. It opens up room for your imagination to take off.”

Johnson further explained that with abstract works of art, you’re able to sculpt things otherwise immaterial. For example, though you can’t necessarily sculpt the warmth of the sun’s rays, you can sculpt those feelings behind it and those may bring up something different in each eye of the beholder. While the argument for abstract ignites an entirely new (and infinite) conversation with the sculptor, his traditional, straightforward pieces are just as piquing.


It’s almost too easy to associate being in the South with someone doing something cool on a farm. And Susan Shaw, or “Farmer Sue,” as she’s known to thousands of moms and their children since her Art Barn opened in 2001, is known for evoking the American pastoral from a young age. Within her 6 acres (she leases an additional 20 next door) in Hickory Flat, kids can get up close with some of the animals they’ve been singing about since they were toddlers and then use their creative hands and minds to leave home with something totally fridge worthy.

“It’s a unique spot for moms to come with their kids and spend hands-on time with animals and art,” said Shaw, who traded a decades-long career at the keyboard in graphic design for dirt under her fingernails. “Even though I have always been a city girl, I have loved art, animals and playing in the dirt since I was a child. When folks ask how this all happened I say, ‘Graphic designer by trade, farm girl by providence.’”

She bought the farm in 1999 and slowly began to make it livable.

“Honestly, there is nothing more amazing than sitting in a big chair holding a chicken, bunny or a lamb,” she said.
“Peeking around the corner of a barn and seeing a child doing the same with a blissful look upon their face – that’s a gift of really experiencing the moment,” she said.

“We love taking our kids to the Art Barn,” added Jackie Clower, a Northside mom of two young girls. “It’s such a unique blend of outdoor time and hands-on expression. My toddler and my 4 year old stay engaged, thanks to the change in activity every few minutes. Plus, Farmer Sue is full of the energy they love, extremely welcoming and truly excited to teach the kids about her animals and how they can inspire arts and crafts.”

“Nature is inspiring,” Shaw added. “The colors, the patterns, the textures, the sounds. Mix that with being outside and any moment can be relaxing or energizing. We all spend so much time inside, in front of a computer or a TV, being entertained rather than creating our own entertainment. Be it playing Tic-tac-toe with sticks and rocks gathered on a nature walk or quietly watching an animal in the barnyard, being outside connects us to the earth, makes us slow down and see the world in a different light.”

That connection includes: every visitor getting messy with a take-home craft; meeting, petting and learning about the animals on the farm; and starting to transform their minds into something open toward the artful. For children, it may be the first step toward a new generation of artists like the ones we’re talking about here. Keep an eye on their online calendar for story times, weekday playdates, Mom-and-me workshops like pottery, beekeeping, gardening and more.


When you’re like me and can’t decide on your favorite medium, getting to know some of the individuals who make up the Sawnee Artists Association (SAA) is the best way to open up the door (and maybe a few windows) to creativity. The group callsCumming home with almost 150 members,including impressionist painters and jewelry makers to intricate woodworkers and large-scale metal sculptors among many others. They’re not only responsible for some of the area’s best art shows since the mid-1970s, but plenty of the area’s most famous public art.

Been to the new courthouse in downtown Cumming? SAA artists helped reproduce, create and display renderings of the six courthouses to come before it. It’s worth a trip to see – whether you’ve got a fine to pay or not.

SAA member Mary Negron helped found The Sawnee Artists Plein Air Group that hosts an interactive painting event to give fans a more intimate experience: watching artists at work. She paints using the local area as her muse and teaches her crafts, which include oils, watercolors, inks and acrylics. Negron’s paintings can be found in the permanent collection of the Cumming First United Methodist Church and once a month at the Lakewood 400 Antiques Market.

Each individual artist has their own story to tell, but you can see the big picture three times a year, including the upcoming March Art Madness and later this year for the juried show, “Colors of Fall,” or the Sawnee Artists Arts Festival, which showcases and sells handmade crafts, hosts events for children, serves food and more.


Those artists’ stories from the SAA include one of an older craft in the self-taught Hans Meier. As chairman of the Gwinnett Woodworkers Association’s Scroll Saw group and President of Atlanta Wood Turners Guild in Fulton County, the Roswell resident is a unique find for an art form that’s rare to still see. For that reason, you won’t find him in the boutiques around town, but you’ve most likely spotted his work at one of many local craft shows, from Inman Park’s to Butternut Creek’s or Christmas at Lanier Tech and more. Or, you’ve shopped online where his talents impress through intricate wood puzzles, large-scale decorative, fretted crosses and fascinating 3-D objects.

As someone who helped gift my woodworking dad with a scroll saw and all of its accessories this past Christmas, hearing about what Meier is doing to preserve the craft was particularly interesting. His role includes regular presentations and classes through the Gwinnett Woodworkers Association (GWA) all year long. He teaches beginner woodworkers to veteran wood turners and receives calls from around the world and across the nation about the fascinating art he produces, questions on the trade and custom orders.

“I’ve done this all my life,” said Meier, who, despite his reputation, only does woodworking as a hobby. “My father did it, so I [do] too. And now, I’m the president of a wood turning club.”

His guidance with the GWA has resulted in plenty of wood turned, display-worthy candlesticks, bowls and more. In fact, some of his most interesting work is made from reclaimed wood gathered from the old covered bridge that used to occupy property at the Cumming Fairgrounds. That’s truly some local inspiration.