Large-Scale Public Art, With Sanithna Phansavanh [Explicit]
The act of publicly creating large-scale murals is a surprisingly intimate experience for Atlanta-based artist Sanithna Phansavanh. Splashing life onto Atlanta’s city walls, Sanithna’s work stirs dialogue while paying homage to existential themes of identity, scale, and the power of feminine energy. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to discover why Sanintha enjoys stepping back and seeing his art come to life from two blocks away.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
What if I asked you to contemplate your very existence and then put it on display for entire cities to see? Well, that’s what Sanithna Phansavanh does when he paints massive murals as public art installations. But he does a lot more than that and we’ll explore it on this episode of The Cultured Podcast.
Michelle Khouri 0:29
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together, we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Michelle Khouri 0:48
Hello, my darling, how are you today? I hope you’re feeling joyous and uplifted and inspired. This episode is a-phenom-en-al. It might be one one of my favorites to date. Because, of course, Sanithna and I go into wormholes about time and existence, and the feminine mystique. All of my favorite things. But before we go into the episode and this amazing interview, I want to tell you what’s inspiring me this week and it ties into some of the conversation that I have with Sanithna, which you’re about to hear.
This week, I’m inspired by time. Time is one of the most fascinating concepts if you really think about it. Because quantum physicists are telling us right and left that there is no such thing as linear time, that linear time does not exist. And yet, the way that we perceive the world around us is in this very linear day: yesterday, today, tomorrow. 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m. You know, Sanithna and I talked about this Netflix show that clearly both of us are obsessed with called Dark. And if you want to know what I’m talking about, and if you want to know why my gears are turning in this way about time and/or the lack thereof, watch that show. It will send you into a loop. I’m telling you, it will turn your world upside down. But also, like, your world will continue because it is what it is. But I just like to play with these ideas that the reality around us and how we perceive it is not as real as we think it is. And to some people that’s terrifying. But to me, that’s like super fun, and I geek out. So that’s what’s inspiring me this week. Hopefully you’re still feeling joyous and uplifted and ready for a really fun conversation because we’re about to bring it down a notch into art and public art and identity and self expression. It’s a good one, y’all. I can’t wait for you to meet Sanithna now. Here we go.
Michelle Khouri 2:54
Hello. Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. This is really nice to have you here.
Sanithna Phansavanh 3:02
Thank you for having me.
Michelle Khouri 3:03
Like, no creepiness, but I’ve been following your work for a while and I’m a big fan.
Sanithna Phansavanh 3:07
Well, I really appreciate it.
Michelle Khouri 3:08
So let’s start. Who are you? And what’s your art form?
Sanithna Phansavanh 3:12
My name is Sanithna Phansavanh. I’m an artist here in Atlanta, Georgia. A lot of my work is figurative. I use a lot of acrylic, oil paint, drawing. And I do it on paper, canvas and big walls in the street.
Michelle Khouri 3:27
Big huge walls…
Sanithna Phansavanh 3:29
Sometimes they’re large. Sometimes they’re small. It’s weird. When I first started creating art, it was a very egocentric thing. You know, there’s this process where I wanted to exert myself into the world to say I existed, this is my Kilroy moment, you know, like I was here. As I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve gotten into the purpose of art, it’s more about just processing ideas for me. And so the process of movement and just exploration, that’s where I find the most joy now. Like the end product, the artifact, it’s a nice byproduct. I love the finished product. But the actual creation is what I’m most intrigued by now.
Michelle Khouri 4:07
Why is that?
Sanithna Phansavanh 4:09
Because the art isn’t permanent, you know? And going through the process of creating art for me, I end up discovering more things about…whether it’s myself or the world around me. It’s me trying to analyze the environment, whether its internal or external. And whatever I create is never going to really capture what I’m trying to discover. I’m sure you’ve talked to a lot of artists that are like, “what I intended to create didn’t actually manifest,” right?
Michelle Khouri 4:34
Sanithna Phansavanh 4:35
So there’s a little bit of that–where what I create isn’t exactly what I had in my brain. But also, it’s less satisfying to have this tangible thing in my hand now, versus what I learned from it.
Michelle Khouri 4:46
Fascinating. And it also reminds me, I like to say that art has three life cycles or lives. And it’s the idea, that moment of idea or conception in your mind, then when it comes on to the paper or the medium or comes to life in some physical way it takes on another life. And then the third is the interaction between the art and the viewer or somebody taking it in. It’s almost like it’s creating three timelines.
Sanithna Phansavanh 5:14
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great way to look at it. I love it.
Michelle Khouri 5:16
So you talked about it starting out being egocentric.
Sanithna Phansavanh 5:20
Michelle Khouri 5:20
What do you mean by that?
Sanithna Phansavanh 5:22
So a lot of my work is very…it’s…it’s all existentialism, you know? Who I am, what I want to be as a person, my legacy, all of that kind of thing. You just want to know that you matter, whether it’s yourself, to the world, to your family, to your friends, or whatever. And so that’s, that’s where I began my career. I would look at my heroes are like Picasso and Dali. And you know, people of these mythical statues. And I was like, well, I want my name up there as well. But as you go along, you realize that having that as an angle doesn’t serve your art very well, because it guides you towards something that may not be as honest as you think it is, you know? The goal isn’t to have a legend or anything like that the goal of the work now should be just trying to work through who you are, and what you’re trying to say, from an internal place.
Michelle Khouri 6:13
Is that something that you grapple with often? Or are you sort of always mulling that over?
Sanithna Phansavanh 6:19
Especially in the past probably five years, because I’ve gone through this weird arc where, you know, I wanted my art to matter. And I wanted there to be substance to it. And I wanted to sort of have this reflection of an overall narrative. But my work is very subtle, you know? The core ideas of what I’m putting out there, they’re very subtle and they’re not always very obvious.
Michelle Khouri 6:40
I could see that. Yeah. And I think that’s what’s a bit mystical about your work. There is this ethereal quality to the colors you use, to the figures that you paint and the way in which they are represented. Are those things that you, like, positions of bodies and symbolism that you very carefully curate? Do they come to you very quickly? What’s that process like?
Sanithna Phansavanh 7:04
Absolutely. Well, I don’t know if it comes to me quickly. So I am a deliberate about what I choose to share. Some of it is very off the cuff, very jazz, sort of fluidity. But there is, you know, there are certain pieces where I’ll use specific symbolism or objects to represent an idea. And that’s based in just internal thinking, and, you know, reading philosophy, things of that nature.
Michelle Khouri 7:28
What kind of philosophy do you like to read?
Sanithna Phansavanh 7:30
Oh my goodness…At the moment, there’s a lot of nihilism in my life.
Michelle Khouri 7:35
Sanithna Phansavanh 7:36
Yeah. Nihilism, in the sense that in the grand scheme of things, none of this really matters. But you still don’t want to give up, right? You still want to be positive, you still want to be constructive. You still want to make sure that what you’re putting forth is progressive and it’s building upon something. And I think nihilism in the sense that you’re recognizing the situation.
Michelle Khouri 7:56
Yeah, because it is a paradox. I think it’s like, in the grand scheme of things none of this matters and in the grand scheme of things every tiny little bat of a butterfly wing matters.
Sanithna Phansavanh 8:07
Yeah, it’s all connected.
Michelle Khouri 8:08
It’s all connected. Do you know what show you need to watch? Dark on Netflix.
Sanithna Phansavanh 8:11
Dark is my top favorite movie, excuse me, series. Yeah, absolutely.
Michelle Khouri 8:17
Anyway, we’re gonna leave that there. Great. That’s all we need to say. So talking about your work and the symbolism, and, you know, driven by nihilism, and just existentialism, let’s talk about the recurring themes that seemed to show up in your work, tell us about what you consider to be your your most dominant themes?
Sanithna Phansavanh 8:40
Probably the most dominant theme that I work with is the continuation of energy. So from creation to existence to demise, and then just that cycle repeating over and over. I use a lot of floral motifs in my work. There’s the idea that you have a seed that grows into a flower then as it decays it feeds something else. So that continuous cycle is something that I revisit a lot.
Michelle Khouri 9:03
And there’s also a lot of feminine energy that I pick up. Is that something that you purposefully inject into your work?
Sanithna Phansavanh 9:11
Yes, it’s a conscious decision. I respond best to the feminine energy. And I think that might be a reflection of how I was raised. I was raised by a single mother. All my friends, who I was closest to, were all women. They were all females. And I’ll say with my own personal experience, most of the men in my life haven’t been the most nurturing or, you know, or there…
Michelle Khouri 9:36
Sanithna Phansavanh 9:37
Michelle Khouri 9:37
Women are pretty awesome.
Sanithna Phansavanh 9:39
They’re amazing. I have no qualms about women.
Michelle Khouri 9:43
Great. Thank you very much. He gets to stay. Because there is, I mean, it’s not just literal, feminine forms, right? It’s not just literal females. But it’s, in my view, feminine palettes, like these palettes that evoke sensitivity and vivacity. And there is just this boldness about it that, for me, is evocative of the feminine power. To me, feminine energy, because you don’t have to be female to embody feminine energy, feminine energy is so bold, and it’s so powerful. And it’s so it could be so in your face while also nurturing you. So how did you get into art in the first place? Like, were you always that kid who was, like, painting on everything and drawing on everything?
Sanithna Phansavanh 10:32
Yeah, absolutely. Arts always been there ever since I was a little kid. And back then it was really just a way to keep busy. But as I got older, I understood art as a way to process things a little bit more. So it’s always been there.
Michelle Khouri 10:46
And you had a lot to process as a kid.
Sanithna Phansavanh 10:49
You know, you you work through a lot of issues about abandonment, at least for me specifically about abandonment, and, you know, purpose of existence and things like that. So even from a young age I’ve always questioned who I am and why I’m here and, you know, really weird, weird questions.
Michelle Khouri 11:05
Mm-hmm. But I do think that reading about your history, there are experiences in your youth and your own family’s experiences that I think trigger a different kind of awareness of the world around you and your own existence in it. And so do you feel like that was the case for you?
Sanithna Phansavanh 11:24
A little bit. So my ethnic background is, my mom is Laotian and my dad is Chinese, but he grew up in Laos as well. And they came over to the States through a refugee program. And so I was born in Kansas City. Between just trying to be like the Southeast Asian kid in the southeast of the US, I’ve had to sort of figure out who I am from an identity standpoint in that way. So I’ve had to process, things like that. But then there’s also just from the core nuclear family, where my dad took off, like I’ve had to sort of deal with as well.
Michelle Khouri 11:56
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, because I relate to that, in certain ways…like this idea of whenever your identity is not clear cut. So my grandparents are from four different countries, and my parents are from two different countries. And, you know, I’m a first generation American, raised very Colombian, but in the U.S. So I was like, never quite Colombian enough for the Colombians, never quite American enough for the Americans. And I think it does give you this ever sense of like questioning who you are and what you stand for. Because if everyone’s telling you that you’re not enough, or that you should be more this, or that you’re…who you are basically.
Sanithna Phansavanh 12:35
Michelle Khouri 12:36
It forces you to either conform to them or know who you are.
Sanithna Phansavanh 12:41
Yeah, absolutely. There, there are so many layers to that identity question. Because at the core of it is me being an Asian kid in the south, where from a race standpoint, there’s a binary. It’s either you’re black or white. So I never fit in from that standpoint. And then at home, you know, I wasn’t Asian enough. But then when I was in school, I was too Asian. And this is from someone who never really understood myself.
Michelle Khouri 13:04
And what an incredible tool to help you explore that, that art can be.
Sanithna Phansavanh 13:09
Michelle Khouri 13:10
It may have started as ego, but it’s really evolved into this constant exploration of self.
Sanithna Phansavanh 13:16
Michelle Khouri 13:17
So you do large-scale art and murals. And you’ve participated in quite a few public art conferences and projects in Atlanta in particular. So tell us what motivates you to paint something in such a large scale? And what are some of the differences between the small and large works?
Sanithna Phansavanh 13:37
At the core of it, what’s really intriguing is that you’re able to play with scale, right? So just bottom line, you’re able to do something very large, very impactful, and something that will engage the viewer. It becomes a part of the fabric that you are already in, right? So, you know, between the scale and inserting it into your everyday life, I think that’s really intriguing to me. As far as the differences, I guess it goes back to scale too, because you’re having to do something that reads really far away versus something that’s closer, which is a little more intimate. Most artists want to get into the details of things. But with large scale work, you actually have to step back. And so you have to change, you literally have to change your perspective. So you’re on the wall, you’re like right up close to the wall. And and you have to walk at least two blocks away just to see everything coalesced together. Right.
Michelle Khouri 14:26
Sanithna Phansavanh 14:27
The other thing that I love about large scale work is that there’s a physicality to it. You’re using your entire body. You can’t see me doing this, but I’m doing the sweeping motion where if you want to cover a lot of space, you’re going to have to use your entire body, your entire arm, as opposed to when you’re in the studio, you’re probably at your desk or at your easel. And it’s a very limited sort of radius with what you’re doing with your body. And then the other thing that I love about public art is when you’re creating work in the studio, it’s almost like this holy, sanctified thing where it’s just you. It’s a very private, very intimate thing. People don’t get to see you make mistakes. When you’re doing public work, everyone sees everything, right? People see you fuck up. When I started creating public work, I hated when people would take photos of the in between stages, because I’m like, “No, no, no, this is shitty right now. Like Don’t, don’t take a photo of this.” But now I really embrace it, because it demystifies the process of art. It’s not this magical thing. It’s a repetitive trial and error thing.
Michelle Khouri 15:29
Well, going back to authenticity. That’s the authentic process.
Sanithna Phansavanh 15:33
Michelle Khouri 15:34
Sanithna Phansavanh 15:35
Iteration, iteration, iteration. So those are the three things that I really love about public work, which is, you know, the scale, the physicality and sort of like shining a light on the process of art-making. It’s having a private conversation versus a megaphone.
Michelle Khouri 15:53
Yeah. And that’s what I was kind of thinking is that the relationship between you and the art mirrors. It reflects the intention of what the art is meant to be, right?
Sanithna Phansavanh 16:03
Michelle Khouri 16:03
So it’s like you said, it’s a lot less intimate to do these public artworks. And I imagine that it’s also a less intimate experience to paint them.
Sanithna Phansavanh 16:12
Actually, I would go the other way with that. When I’m creating public work, without fail, it engages people around me. So it starts a dialogue. When I’m painting, people come up to me, and they’re like, “why did you do it this way?” or “How did you do that?” or “What does this mean?” You know? These are just citizens who just come up and are like, “I think this is really interesting.” So in that sense, to me, it becomes a little more intimate, because I’m directly engaging people who are in that community, you know, versus when I’m doing work for a gallery show, if I’m not at the opening, or something like that. I’m just sort of putting this on the wall and I’m walking away.
Michelle Khouri 16:46
Oh wow. Yeah
Sanithna Phansavanh 16:47
There’s no dialogue.
Michelle Khouri 16:48
Yeah. So where do you see your work evolving in the future?
Sanithna Phansavanh 16:54
Man? That’s a tough question to… thanks, Michelle
Michelle Khouri 16:58
I just want to send you into an existential spiral. (laughter)
Sanithna Phansavanh 17:01
Well, it’s, it’s really funny, because I’m in this weird spot from an art making standpoint, because this past year for me, was the busiest I’ve ever been and the most productive I’ve ever been. And I got really burnt out on it. So I’ve actually taken a step back from art, because I’ve questioned a lot of the whys on art making.
Michelle Khouri 17:21
Sanithna Phansavanh 17:21
At least for me, personally. And so what next is a really interesting question because I’m not completely sure. So I’m sort of going through figuring that out for myself at the moment. But it’s all rooted in trying to make sure, again, the word authentic. I’m making sure that what I’m creating is authentic to what I want to do, whether it’s just expressing an idea or a feeling. I just want to make sure that what I’m doing has substance.
Michelle Khouri 17:47
Why do you think you got burnt out on it?
Sanithna Phansavanh 17:50
For the longest time, I romanticized creating art as my existence, right? So living by the sword dying by the sword. Creating art to sell, to subsist on. But when you get to that point where your commoditizing something that you love, it doesn’t feel right. And I’m not sure that I understand why it doesn’t feel right just yet. You know, I take commissions a lot. And that’s, that feels like a different beast. But when you’re purposefully creating work to sell, it has a different feeling to it, a different flavor.
Michelle Khouri 18:22
So if you could have your ideal existence, would you just not have to pay for anything, not have to sell anything, and just make art all day.
Sanithna Phansavanh 18:32
I mean, I’ve always created art, it’s so entwined with who I am as a person that I don’t think I could ever divorce that need of just creating art and just being creative. And, you know, being a creative problem solver and, well, just using art to process things. I don’t think I’ll ever separate that from what I do. But that idea of creating work just to have a show to sell to someone just so I can pay rent or,you know, put food on the table–it doesn’t feel right. You know, I’m revisiting a lot of times now on what art is to me and its purpose.
Michelle Khouri 19:05
Well, no matter what you decide, we’re here to support.
Sanithna Phansavanh 19:09
Michelle Khouri 19:09
And you’ll always have fans and supporters and a community that loves your work and loves you.
Sanithna Phansavanh 19:15
I appreciate it.
Michelle Khouri 19:16
Thank you for for taking the time. Where can we visit you and find out more about you and your work?
Michelle Khouri 19:33
Mmm-hmm. Yas. And that will be on Culturedpodcast.com too, boo.
Sanithna Phansavanh 19:40
Michelle Khouri 19:41
Thank you so much. We really appreciate your time.
Sanithna Phansavanh 19:43
It’s been lovely. Thank you.
Michelle Khouri 19:44
Boy…does time fly when you’re having fun. Or does it? Sanithna is a fascinating character and I’m curious to hear what you think when you see his pieces and how you interpret the work that he puts out into the world because clearly he wants you to have that freedom to just see his pieces and get from them whatever you get. So email us if you see some of his pieces and want to communicate what they mean to you at firstname.lastname@example.org. And until our next journey into the unknown, keep it classy, keep it curious, keep it cultured.
Michelle Khouri 20:47
Visit culturedpodcast.com for show notes and subscription links. The Cultured Podcast is a production of my podcast production company FRQNCY Media. I’m the host Michelle Khouri. Enna Garkusha is our producer. Becca Godwin is our associate producer. And we’re recording at the lovely Bravo Ocean Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.