The Art Biz ep. 131: Injecting Personal Narrative into Your Art with Sara Lee Hughes

I’m a huge fan of the photographer Sally Mann who, in the documentary about her work titled What Remains, said that it never occurred to her to look outside of her home, family, and immediate vicinity to find inspiration.

So many artists feel they need to travel. To find exotic locations. Never exploring what is right in front of them or what they encounter in their daily lives.

This results in missed opportunities to make art that is uniquely your own.

Oil painting of group of people with same face peering into windows of house that is smaller than them | on Art Biz Success
©2022 Sara Lee Hughes, What Will The Neighbors Think?! Oil on canvas, 54 x 82 inches.

In this episode of The Art Biz I talk with Sara Lee Hughes who is deep into a body of narrative paintings with recognizable imagery that is steeped in her personal story—going so far as to include her self-portraits in many of them. (As in the many faces of Sara Lee in the painting above.)

I wanted to ask Sara Lee about making work with her life experience at its core, and, honestly, the market for art that is so personal. The bottom line: Will art sell when it's focused on the artist’s personal narrative?

Sara Lee says her ultimate intention is that she gets under your skin. That, when viewing her paintings, you start to question your actions and might even find yourself reflecting on the encounter weeks later.

We discuss the genesis of this body of work (It’s a great story!), how she is looking at her art in terms of the long game rather than seeking quick gratification, how she keeps her ideas, and how she has created a discipline that balances motherhood with her studio practice.

Listen to the Podcast


  • Waiting, Father Daughter Dance, and other paintings inspired by Sara Lee’s life. (1:55)
  • The family letters that have helped Sara Lee navigate her true self. (6:57)
  • Sara Lee’s 12-ft superhero cape and what it represents. (9:05)
  • Painting from experiences results in sincerity. (11:15)
  • Asking yourself questions can lead to your next inspiration. (14:55)
  • Sara Lee’s decision to use her own face in her paintings. (18:19)
  • The value of painting the part of your history that isn’t talked about. (21:32)
  • There are parts of your story that anyone can relate to. (25:17)
  • Using a list—rather than a sketchbook—to keep your ideas. (27:04)
  • Does personal work sell? (30:20)
  • Sara Lee’s approach to her art business, her schedule, and balancing motherhood. (32:39)
Photo of a woman riding a bike with a 12 foot cape trailing behind her | on Art Biz Success
Sara Lee wearing her superhero cape. Photo by Vanessa Lain.

Sara Lee Hughes Quotes

  • “These tossed-off sketches are seeds for the work that I’ve done in the last five years.”
  • “When I paint from my own experience, there’s a sincerity in my paintings.”
  • “All of my work is my personal experience, so who better to use than myself?”
  • “My intention is to resonate with you through the works that have inspired me to be an artist.”

About My Guest

Seated woman with short dark hair in front of large painting | on Art Biz Success
Photo by Vanessa Lain.

Sara Lee Hughes is a narrative painter living and working in Lockhart, Texas. Her representational narratives are influenced by growing up in the south during the 1970s and 80s with divorced parents and operate as metaphors for discovery, other-ness, identity, connection, balance and truth. As a body of work, they highlight moments, memories, and ideas that mark a journey of navigation through the differences between her gay father, straight mother and the socio-cultural norms of the era and those proceeding.

In her work she is most interested in exploring and sharing the connection she had with her father before his death of AIDS, the profound guidance it had on her life, and how this personal experience fits into our country’s broader social and cultural heritage.

Sara Lee studied classical drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she earned a certificate in painting and printmaking. She earned her MFA in painting from Pratt Institute. 

Follow her on Instagram

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3 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 131: Injecting Personal Narrative into Your Art with Sara Lee Hughes”

  1. Beautiful talk Sara Lee! This cape is such a strong statement about what your Dad gave you, and how they nourished you. It resonates (and you know why!) with me. BTW, in the picture you have (almost) the same posture as in the picture behind you!
    Alyson, Personal Narrative it is a great subject to address! I want to say that it is most of the time the case, but Sara Lee took it way way higher!
    Thank you to both of you,

  2. Thank you Sara lee for sharing yourself and your work with honesty, vulnerability and authenticity. “…inherent in us, innate, intrinsic in human beings when we hear another’s story, it’s like a rolodex plays, where’s that story of mine where I can connect with you…” YES. This totally resonated with me. I started a project years ago called The Memory Project in which community members share a significant memory. At the openings, I could overhear people showing and sharing others’ memories with one another…because we all have more things that connect us rather than divide us. On a side note I particularly loved your painting “What will the neighbors think” and also the two nest/tea cup paintings (already sold sadly) as I have used both of those in my own work. And Alyson, thank you again for both teasing out the different threads of meaning and intent of individual artists, then always connecting these back to a larger picture. Brava!

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