Creatives in the Crowd: Kelly Saunders surrenders to the flow

ACRYLIC CALLING: For most of her adult life, Kelly Saunders worked in corporate marketing. But her passion has always been painting. Photo by Jonathan Lindberg

Kelly Saunders, a visual artist based in Asheville, hasn’t always identified as such. For most of her adult life, she’s  enjoyed a full and successful career in corporate marketing. But her passion always brought her back to painting. Yet, the life of a working artist felt like something far and out of reach. When she did paint, it was often with her children and viewed as little more than a hobby.

However, amid the COVID-19 lockdown, Saunders’ casual approach took a more serious turn after she painted her first guitar on canvas. A lifelong music lover, the decision proved revelatory.

Today, Saunders regularly works out of a home studio that is slowly taking over the bottom floor of her house. Half-used tubes of acrylic paints and palette knives scatter across her worktable. Meanwhile, a pair of work pants hangs on the door, calling to mind a Pollack painting.

“Messiness is forgiveness,” she says as we walk into her creative space — filled with new and half-finished paintings of drum sets, keyboards and vintage records — to discuss her unconventional journey.

Follow the music

Music has long been a key part of Saunders’ life. She met her husband, Jake — a local musician and her biggest artistic supporter — at a My Morning Jacket concert. The two soon discovered they were both part of a loose fraternity that traveled the country following other live acts such as the Grateful Dead, Phish and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The couple married in 2020.

It is through live music that Saunders finds much of her inspiration, interpreting the experiences through blue and turquoise and bold strokes of orange — colors that feature predominantly in her work. These shades, she explains, emanate from the songs she hears.

But it is also her use of lyrics, incorporated into many of her paintings, that connects viewers to what the music aims to say. “The lyrics are where the feelings are,” Saunders says, holding up a work that features a row of soft blue and warm brown guitars. “I put so much of my fire inside these paintings. It’s only when I am able to get out these feelings and the words of the songs that I can move on to what is next.”

“Ripple,” a piece from her growing collection, was inspired by the Grateful Dead and commissioned by a woman honoring her late father. The lyrics read: “There is a road, no simple highway, between dawn, and the dark of night.” There is a haunting mood to the way Saunders blends these words. The painting’s color palette paired with the lyrics come across like a whisper, similar to the way music is often conjured unintentionally in our heads as we go through our daily routines. The effect is both present and ethereal.

Not far from the Grateful Dead piece is a painting that features the words from a Phish song. The lyrics in this particular work may hint at Saunders’ own philosophical approach to her creative works. It reads, “The trick is to surrender to the flow.”


This connection to music has led to a host of commissioned pieces and broader opportunities. “People are coming to me now asking for specific paintings from specific bands,” Saunders says. “Or specific instruments that have meant something to them or the people they love. For me, these pieces are extremely rewarding. I am able to help them express things that only music and art are able to say.”

Her dedication has also led to new opportunities.

Earlier this year, Saunders became a member of the Asheville Gallery of Art. The membership, she notes, was validating. Previously, she says, she felt as if she did not have enough training to be taken seriously as an artist.

Furthermore, her paintings are now featured in places such as Marquee in the River Arts District, coffee shops and breweries. She has also exhibited in cities such as Atlanta.

And more recently, Saunders served on the production team for the Biltmore Lake Imaginative Stroll. During the May 6 event, she and 25 other artists displayed their works in the Biltmore Lake neighborhood. Saunders says the happening was another moment of collaboration that further validated the connection she has made between music and painting.

Focus and intention

Along with sound, Saunders has also begun experimenting with found tools to create new moods among her works. In one painting, she uses a flyswatter to add soft colors and shapes behind a guitar that is bathed in turquoise. Another work features carpet tape to help raise the acrylic from the canvas.

All of this is done with focus and intention. When approaching a painting, Saunders says she already has a clear idea of the image she wants to end up with. Like many visual artists, she is able to see the finished painting before she even begins. The only variable, she points out, is color choice.

Beyond the canvas, Saunders features her art on pillows and playing cards, tote bags, koozies and greeting cards, among other things.

And her creative works continue at a steady pace. Her prolific output is matched by her ever-growing studio space, which continues to take over new corners of her home’s bottom floor.

Meanwhile, she continues to balance family, career and her love for music along with her expanding artistic presence in Asheville and beyond. What started with a spark of creativity during the COVID lockdowns has since turned into a full flame. Saunders — the artist, the painter — it appears, has learned to surrender to the flow.

To learn more, visit

This article is part of our ongoing feature, “Creatives in the Crowd,” which focuses on local artists — both established and new. The feature spotlights unique stories and innovative artistic approaches within our creative community. Unlike much of our Arts & Culture reporting, these stories are not tied to upcoming events, exhibits or releases. The feature strives to represent a diverse range of voices, experiences and artistic mediums. If you’d like to nominate a community member for consideration, please reach out to with the subject line “Creatives in the Crowd.”



Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.