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Through the looking glass

Virginia Tech alumna and visual artist Jackie Sanders charts her own course to artistic development and early career accomplishment.

Artist and Virginia Tech Alumna Jackie Sanders, pictured in her Raleigh, North Carolina, art studio. Photo by Tyler McQueen.

If success isn’t a straight line, then Jackie Sanders should have it made.

This Virginia Tech alumna’s visual creations – in which sharp angles and stark, geometric patterns feature prominently – have found a flourishing home in the Raleigh, North Carolina, art scene. From highlights in local restaurants and gallery exhibits to her very own studio at Artspace, a popular downtown visual arts center, Sanders’ list of accolades continues to grow right alongside her fanbase.

Although her unique geometric style originated when she was young, she has architecture to thank for her beginnings as an artist, not art itself. Her parents own and operate a small architecture firm, and Sanders spent countless hours watching her father draw designs by hand.

“I grew up watching my dad and just hanging out in the office,” said Sanders. “I would play with extra Prismacolor pencils, stencils, and protractors on a drafting table with sheets of paper. Those were my coloring books, essentially.”

Sanders’ upbringing would inevitably influence the development of her artistic style – especially with frequent family “vacations” to iconic buildings and residences, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Waters. The family would often joke about these visits as thinly veiled excuses for her father to admire the lines and shapes of notable architecture. Sanders also benefited from the encouragement of her high school studio art teacher, Jim Kuhlman, who helped instill her work with larger meaning through a focused approach to portfolio building.

“I think those courses really challenged me and made me realize I don’t have to be a representational oil painter or work with traditional watercolors to be an artist,” Sanders said.

As she neared the end of high school, Sanders was still trying to figure out her career goals and aspirations and at one point considered following in her father’s footsteps by studying architecture. She even discovered the popular Inside Architecture + Design summer program at Virginia Tech and attended during the summer of 2010.

Pieces of art displayed along the wall at Sanders’ art studio. Photo by Jackie Sanders.

Although she enjoyed the program’s focus on the structural aspects of architecture, Sanders connected more with the conceptual ideas behind them.

“For one project, we created assemblies of different paper cubes, and rather than focusing on the structure we were building, I was always just questioning everything,” Sanders said. “‘What’s the relationship between these cubes? What’s the larger meaning and purpose?’ I think having those types of interests and questions inevitably pushed me more towards conceptual art and visual art, but I still had a root foundation in architecture, structure, and geometry.”

After Inside Architecture + Design, Sanders knew she would attend Virginia Tech and became particularly drawn to the School of Visual Arts (SOVA). SOVA was increasing its programmatic opportunities at the time and embraced the incorporation of technology into its curriculum. One additional draw to the school was the opening of the Moss Art Center, which hosted sculpture classes that offered the use of CO2 lasers. Sanders now sees the use of those lasers as pivotal to her craft, as she was able to learn the technology that allowed her to recreate a stained-glass, UV-printed acrylic plastic effect in her art that she still uses today.

“It felt very cutting edge,” said Sanders. “And it felt very futuristic for the type of art career I wanted to pursue.”

Sanders stayed at Virginia Tech long enough to double major in art history and studio art with a minor in business leadership, graduating in 2015. She also earned a master’s degree in material culture and public humanities through the accelerated master’s program in 2016.

During her time on campus, Sanders worked at the Armory Gallery and also assisted with archiving the university’s art collection. She developed a strong working relationship with Armory Gallery director Deborah Sim, a SOVA instructor who has served as a mentor to Sanders ever since.

Sanders creates art pieces at her studio in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by Tyler McQueen.

“Jackie epitomizes the disciplined, working artist,” Sim said. “She’s a progressive, creative, and thoughtful human, and she took advantage of every opportunity she could find at Virginia Tech.”

Sanders has thoughtfully taken advantage of every opportunity after graduating from Virginia Tech, too. She’s an active member of VAE Raleigh, a downtown visual art exchange and gallery that hosts artist critique groups and networking opportunities for painters, photographers, and more. Her work was also accepted last March into the 311 Gallery.

“That really showed me that my art can be accepted by a group of people who don’t know me at all, who just saw value in the work,” Sanders said.

Despite her success, the life of an artist isn’t always easy. Sanders frequently jokes that she’s a full-time artist with a full-time day job, too. In addition to the art studio, Sanders also works for a local awards and engraving company doing graphic design, production, and marketing.

With these recent accomplishments, Sanders says she has the opportunity to create bolder, more ambitious goals for the coming years. Whether it’s growing her current body of work, preparing for an upcoming solo exhibition, adding pieces to her online store, or coming back to Virginia Tech on occasion as a guest speaker, she looks forward to a bright career and has plenty to share with future artists.

“Make the most of every opportunity and resource available to you,” she advised. “Even if it’s a job or experience you don’t think you’ll connect with, give it a try. You’ll either learn a new skill or have more appreciation for the people in that role.”

– Written by Jared Cole