One Woman's Journey Into the Light | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

One Woman's Journey Into the Light


Ann Saunders' "Evidence of Worship" is on display through Jan. 3 at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

The Muslim call to prayer is heard five times every day throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa, but Dec. 9, nine Islamic voices echoed in the halls of the Mississippi Arts Center before Ann Saunders, a local artist, presented her spiritual work to the public.

Filled with bright orange and intense blues, Ann Saunders' spiritual artwork mimics the soft and severe nuances of her beliefs. Like the shapes and movements in her art, Saunders' faith allows her to mold what goes onto the canvas.

A Jackson native, Saunders has traveled throughout America and the world, recently returning to care for her aging mother. When Saunders was 5, her parents placed her in the Art Institute of Chicago (then known as the Saturday School), believing her to be a truly gifted child. Saunders then spent the next several years developing her skills, searching for a way to make her work matter.

In 1983, Saunders found the answer when a college friend embraced Islam and shared his faith with her.

"I was still searching," Saunders explains. "Once I got thinking about it, I attended a series of lectures on Muslim faith. Everything they said I believed."

After going to several lectures, Saunders eventually decided to adopt the faith herself. Although she was an Episcopalian at the time, she says Islam is an open culture that never required her to abandon her former beliefs.

"The beauty of Islam is that I could embrace it without disregarding my Christianity," Saunders says. "I didn't have to disavow anything."

A few years later in 1999, Saunders made the required week-long pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj as part of her new faith. Throughout her journey, Saunders says she continually heard a line in her head from the Qur'an asking, "Which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?"

Saunders then began to rediscover her passion as an artist. In 2001, she returned to the states and took up a position teaching art to college students in Washington, D.C., for the next eight years. While there, Saunders began her tutelage in Islamic calligraphy in 2005 under Mohamed Zakariya, a famous calligrapher known for his skilled hands and patient teaching.

"It was important to me to learn Arabic. In Islamic culture, the highest art is the written word," Saunders explains. "When I first read the Qur'an, I wanted to illustrate the whole thing. There was a quest to understand the language it was written in, which started my search into Arabic." Although Saunders has been an artist her entire life, she says that Mississippi has its own creative culture to offer.

Saunders opened her new exhibit, "Art From Reality: An Ongoing Journey," Dec. 12 at the Mississippi Arts Center. She is excited to bring her part of the Muslim culture to the Jackson area.

"Art is so much about self discovery," Saunders says.

Saunders reflects this philosophy and the beauty of Islamic culture in her work, using aspects of transparency and paths, showing different elements of Muslim faith. For example, several of her pieces display the number 5 in some way or another, reflecting the daily prayer ritual of Muslims throughout the world.

Saunders also has an "obsession with the sky," as she calls it. Her Jackson studio includes a convenient skylight, allowing her to draw inspiration.

"I usually just wake up in the morning with an idea, but if I have trouble, I check the notebook, check the sky. Something always hits me," she says.

Although Saunders enjoys all of her works, "Joyful Abundance" is her favorite piece. Full of vibrant colors and swaying lines, the work enfolds Allah's name throughout the piece in smooth, bright motion. In the Muslim faith, God has 99 names; Ann's mixed-media piece titled "Attributes and Reflections" includes 40 of them including The Merciful, The Forgiving and The Redeemer.

Before she embraced the Muslim faith, Saunders' work was dark and mostly colorless: a bleak palette of black and white. Without inner inspiration, Saunders, although talented, found her work to be lacking in life.

Soon after the Hajj, Saunders renewed her passion for art and began use color in her work. Today, her paintings are filled with vibrant greens, blues and pinks, along with shades of orange and purple.

"It guides me; it influences me," Saunders says of her faith. "It inspires me.

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