Art can elevate the artist and the viewer alike. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards.”
Local artist Ashely Hahn feels a spiritual connection both in her artistic process and in capturing “the beauty God has provided us,” she said. “Whether it is a drawing or painting, I get lost in my artwork. Stress just falls away, and I find my Zen place. With everything going on in the world, this is a beautiful thing. Whether the subject matter is a portrait or a landscape, I believe everything we see is a gift from God, and I want my artwork to exude that. And I want to put a smile on other people’s faces and give them something to enjoy.” Hahn went on to explain, “A commission at first feels like a job, but when I get a clear vision in my head, that vision becomes a piece of art.”
Hahn’s art career has been a delicate balance between honoring both her talent and her commitment to her family. “I studied architecture at Clemson University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in design. I worked for an architecture firm in Bluffton, but then came babies, and I knew my focus needed to be on my son and daughter.”
But when her daughter Ava was about three years old and her son Warner was about six years old, Hahn got the idea to do their portraits, which reawakened her love of detailed renderings. “I have been painting really my entire life, but when I worked at the architecture firm, I truly enjoyed beautifying and drawing the clients’ homes more so than the business end of things or actually building the space.”
Hahn went on to say she is thankful for her architecture background because it trained her to be very precise with her renderings when it comes to scale, realistic portrayal, depth, shading and shadowing.
“In architecture school and when I worked in the business, I really had to fine tune my drawing skills and be very exact. I also incorporate math into my work because of my background. People say you will never use algebra when you are older, but I use it every time I sit down to work on my art. When working from a photograph, I correlate it to a bigger scale on the paper to make it more proportionate. Maybe it is a two-to-one scale, but I set pinpoints and do the rest by eye.”
Explaining her artistic process, Hahn added, “I work with the client to select a photograph. It’s important to select the right one. Not all photos work. I then go into the basic outline.”
Next, Hahn homes in on the subject’s eyes. “Not to sound cliché, but the eyes really are the window to the soul,” she said. “I spend the most time getting the eyes right because the eyes are what convey the subject’s emotion at the time of the photograph, and that’s what needs to be captured.”
Mary Bach’s husband Keith commissioned Hahn to paint a portrait of their son Sammy and daughter Lilly. “I could not believe it,” Bach said. “If you put the photos beside the drawings, it’s dead on. I mean it’s crazy. It was the best present Keith could have ever given me. I remember taking those photos. Lilly is holding this doll my mom gave her, and Sammy’s hair is standing up straight in the back. I now have those moments forever. There are a million things I could say about Ashley and her talent, but I’ll sum it up with one word: spiritual.”
Mark Cooke had a similar experience with Hahn painting a portrait of his and his partner’s pug Cooper. “I started the process with Ashley and doing the portrait a few months before Cooper passed away. Cooper was deaf and blind, having problems with food, and we were essentially his protectors. I wanted to give my partner a rendering of Cooper as a gift,” Cooke explained.
Cooper, who passed away one month before his seventeenth birthday, was almost like a mascot at Windmill Harbor’s tennis club. “Ashley is not a passerby type of person. Every Thursday when she would play tennis, I would walk by with Cooper. She would put down her racket, say hello and turn Cooper’s head from side to side studying him. It was as if because he was her subject, she was going to do everything in her power to connect with him and get the drawing right.
“I look at Cooper’s drawing every day, and it’s like he is saying, ‘Thank you. This is a very cool thing that you did.’ It is very moving and precious to us,” Cooke continued. “With Ashley, each subject is precious, and her work is beyond art. I remember walking by the tennis courts one day and she said, ‘Cooper’s ready,’ and for a minute I paused and then realized what she was saying. Cooper’s portrait is one of our dearest possessions, and it will be handed down to the people we love and be kept safe just as we kept Cooper safe during his life and sickness.”
Hahn admits she feels honor bound to get her commissions perfect for this very reason. Because time can feel fleeting, “a portrait captures a person or a pet in that moment and becomes something timeless that can be passed down from generation to generation,” she said. “There is something so special and powerful about a hand-drawn or hand-painted piece of artwork versus a photo.”
Hahn went on to talk about the importance of creating movement and depth in her artwork to intimately bring the viewer in and create an interaction with the subject and the viewer.
“Art has the ability to uplift people. For me personally, the paintings and drawings I have done of my family uplift me. No matter what the day holds, I can look at these pieces of artwork, and they put a smile on my face. Ultimately, that is what I want to give to others.”
Though Hahn works with several mediums, her favorite medium is oil. “Where we live is so beautiful and so full of color,” she said before stopping and pointing to some plants out in the yard. “When I look at these plants, I see blue, yellow, and orange—not just green. Oil allows me to manipulate the color, depth and shadows. Plus, oil will stay wet for a few days, so it is workable. I can step away from a piece and then come back and add and blend, giving more time for correction.”
It’s by stepping back that Hahn completes the final step in her process. Both contemplative and sensitive by nature, she says that stepping back gives her clarity and closure. “I take a step back maybe for 24 hours and then take a picture of the piece so I can see it from a different perspective. It’s then that I decide what needs to be tweaked, and then I sign my name, spray with fixative and look forward to giving it to the client.”
When asked if it is difficult being an artist, Hahn smiled and said, “Not here in Hilton Head and Bluffton.” Again, a sense of her faith and her passion for using art to elevate lives is evident. “The patrons and fellow artists and artisans here are so supportive. We encourage each other to keep going—to keep doing something daily, even if it is just a scribble—to continue growing as people and as artists.”
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and owner of Female IQ (femaleIQ.com).