Lilly Saywitz: “The Signature of the Sun”

Maddie Loud

Junior Editor

Every young creator grows up hearing the daunting tales of the life of the “starving artist.” In my case, these cautionary tales were enough to make me falter before making a mark on a canvas, hesitate to show final pieces to others, and view my art as less of an extension of me and more of a product to advertise, a page for my resume, or a point of small talk. 

As an art fellow who is more of a nervous perfectionist than a consistent practitioner of fine arts these days, there was something both moving and motivating about visiting professor Lilly Saywitz’s artist lecture on February 3rd. As the opposite to my region of comfort in Realism, Abstract Expressionism has always been a daunting topic for me, yet I left Saywitz’s talk with not only a strong admiration for the artist, but an excitement about the art movement. Saywitz seems to approach the movement with the knowledge that there is an art to the act of creation itself, not just the final result – something I am grateful to have been reminded of.

Saywitz holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Tennessee, a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from Boston University, and a BFA from Temple University. When asked to explain her art, her “first internal feeling is panic and distress,” but ultimately, most of her work featured in her showing, Rocks, Roads, Relationships, and the Signature of the Sun, at the University Art Gallery, can be traced back to an exploration of love and the many ways to handle it. “I love love,” Saywitz said.“I love being in love. I love talking about love.” 

Even when tackling such a broad topic that most cannot even assign a simple definition to, Saywitz infuses each piece with an “autobiographical” touch that shows a carefully contemplated answer to the question she posits: “What does it mean for me to use this language of abstraction?” Though I myself have feared ruining works with too much of my own expression, too much of my own artistic form of handwriting, Saywitz displays pieces that are each meant to be seen as a signature of sorts. She incorporates “bands of colors” to represent “repeated shapes throughout [her] life.” She pulls inspiration from a camera roll full of skies and everyday scenery which others may ignore but she uses “painting to compress” into one still-frame of a series of “sensory experiences.” Every piece itself has a complimentary playlist of songs Saywitz paints to when attempting to capture and infuse a specific feeling into a final picture, though she clarified, “I don’t necessarily think a project is finished . . . they merely have different points of resolution.”

Beyond Saywitz’s display of love through the devotion of herself and her experiences to her work, she celebrates a love for family, a love for art throughout history, and a love simply for other passions. She enjoys challenging herself to take excess paint, fill smaller canvases with designs, and piece them together as if they were the squares of a quilt her relatives were stitching or the tiles of the historic buildings of Lisbon she visited leading up to one of her shows: Paying Attention. “It’s a real game for me that I love to play,” Saywitz said. In collaboration with Kelsie Conley for an exhibition titled Can You Sing Yourself a Life?, she decorated tiles to “make ourselves [Saywitz and Conley] a dance floor.” As an artist who has often struggled to even look back on my work that did not perfectly match its photographic reference, Saywitz’s description of the final result of the project made me smile. “It was a great exercise in letting go . . . just seeing everyone stomp on our tiles.” 

However, I was most mesmerized by Saywitz’s representation of love through the physical application of paint on canvas. There is a poetic intentionality behind every material that I have not seen matched in Realism. Saywitz considers even the weight of the paint she arms herself with should a careful observer recognize it as the symbol of the emotional weight it serves as. She has left spaces of white in her pieces for the light of the room to reflect off of and onto the person before it: “I want to put the viewer in a spotlight.” And when the canvas “just will not take on more paint,” she accepts the limit as a more layered metaphor for refusal. 

After attending Saywitz’s talk, I would advise other deterred art enthusiasts like myself to practice what I hope to moving forward: that whether you are using crayons or pastels, capturing a second of your day, answering one of life’s greatest questions, or presenting to an audience of a thousand, or just yourself, there is a wonderful beauty in the act of making.