Fierce Beauty

15 Mar 2015

The vivid Caribbean-inspired art of Sarah Haynes


The paintings hit like a punch to the gut, like there’s this barely contained energy set to burst from the canvas. It’s in the intensity of the colors, the strange angles, the way the eyes seem to burn into you straight off of the portraits. 

Stand in a gallery surrounded by the work of Sarah Haynes and every painting seems to ask: Do you understand? Do you get what I’m saying to you?

And then you meet her. She’s almost shy, soft-spoken. You understand at once: there’s more to this story, much more. 

Haynes' earliest memories are of island hopping through the Caribbean on a boat built by her father, an accomplished sailor. It was a stirring, Bohemian beginning to her artistic journey, marked by sights and experiences in faraway places and long stretches of time alone, in which she put pencil to paper and grew her own talent. She was home-schooled by her mother throughout their travels.

“There was beauty in the darkness, but it was frightening too.” That’s Sarah, the artist, remembering Sarah, the small child, watching the night sky roll by as the boat slipped through the moonlit waters. There’s a subtle poetry in her words as she speaks of the times they travelled by night. She remembers the boat running on autopilot, either her father or her mother up to keep watch, and she herself close by. All around them, a vast openness of space. 

Then, in the morning, the return of light and color to the sky and water. The vivid splashes of color that marked the islands that were home for only a while, echo in her paintings even today. 

She loved to draw, right from the start.

Other children would catch sight of her, sitting and sketching, and run up to her to talk and play. But the times when they spoke the same language were few and far-between. Sometimes they were the children of fellow sea-faring families, other times they were children indigenous to the islands. She quickly learned to use her talent in art to fill in the gaps where words failed her. 

The year they spent in Puerto Rico was the longest they stayed in any one place until they settled in Charleston. All of it filtered down through her, made its way through her head to her hands, and found a home in a sketchbook, later on a canvas. She drew what she found beautiful and she drew the things that frightened her: precursors of her mature work.

Once they began to set down roots in Charleston, Haynes found inspiration in her aunt, Thomasine Bradford, an Atlanta-based artist and art historian who once staged public performances and artful protests as a member of the Girl Vigilantes. “She helped me see that it was possible to make a living as an artist,” she says.

That inspiration and her early years of learning to understand her world through art guided her through studies at Charleston County School of the Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art, and College of Charleston. It was at College of Charleston that Professor Michael Phillips encouraged her to work large. Over the years, her paintings have appeared in exhibits at Charleston’s City Gallery, Eye Level Art, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, and Redux Contemporary Art Center. She was chosen as the subject for the second episode of Talent Freaks, a web-based series focusing on art and the creative process. 

These days, Haynes is a favorite at Rebekah Jacob Gallery. “Sarah Haynes’ Caribbean-inspired color palate and thick, quick, confident brush strokes are key elements of her paintings,” Rebekah Jacob says. “Her work is appealing to our client base across the country and we can barely keep her paintings in inventory.  We look forward to expanding her collector base, as well as organizing key exhibitions that advance her career.”

On the road or at home in Charleston, Haynes' focus is on art. Sometimes that’s in front of a canvas, other times browsing art openings and exhibits wherever she finds herself.

“The best art, for me, is visceral,” Haynes says. She tells the story of breaking down in tears after walking through an exhibit of contemporary Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie’s work in New York City. “There has to be an emotional response. That’s how I know art, when I feel it inside.”

She gestures, maybe toward her heart, perhaps deeper – straight through to the place words can’t reach. 

Sarah Haynes is represented in Charleston by Rebekah Jacob Gallery, 502 King Street. See more of Haynes' work at

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