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Art Colony Georgia owner, four-time breast cancer survivor doesn’t let challenges slow her down

Sara Oakley opens art studio in midtown Gainesville to collaborate with other artists

POSTED: January 8, 2017 1:30 a.m.
Erin O. Smith/The Times

Sara Oakley works on a painting at the Art Colony Georgia on Main Street in Gainesville.

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Sara Oakley finds beauty around her. Whether it’s a scenic landscape or a captivating person, Oakley’s art sets her free.

The 62-year-old art studio owner is also a breast cancer survivor. But she doesn’t let it define her.

“Breast cancer was a hell of an inconvenience for a while, but it was never what I thought about,” she said.

That is a mighty feat for the woman who has battled four bouts of breast cancer. The first time happened when she was merely 18 years old.

“Breast cancer came along when I was a teenager and alone in a strange town,” she said.

The second and third times were more difficult.

“It came along when I had a 1-year-old,” Oakley said. “It came along when I had three young children.”

Luckily, surgery and treatments worked. Or so she thought.

For 20 years, Oakley was healthy. But it came back again.

“Even though it was a vastly more intrusive experience, it was a walk in the park (compared to when I was) dealing with a young family,” she said.

Following a double mastectomy, doctors found a large uterine tumor. But that had an unexpected benefit for her.

“So here I am halfway to a sex change, what should I do?” she said. “I could pick.”

But she didn’t pick. Instead she chose to remain neutral.

Furthermore, Oakley said she’d always liked androgynous people, particularly those who are intentionally androgynous. Especially captivating to her are women with short hair and men with long hair, pretty skin and eyeliner.

“The people who blur the gender lines have always been so much fun for me to look at,” she said.

When most people look at Oakley, they will see an artist who works as a licensed real estate agent to pay the bills while her art studio fuels her passion.

“I am so excited by art, painting, drawing, teaching,” she said. “I always have been. That has been my driving passion.”

Her passion has led her to opening the Art Colony Georgia, her fifth art studio with shared spaces for artists at 514 Main St. SW in midtown Gainesville.

Art Colony Georgia is located in the former Flip Your Dog yoga studio. The large building accommodates 16 spaces for artists, with four slots still available. Rent is $125 a month and includes use of a classroom area if the artist wants to teach a class.

Oakley doesn’t use the studio to earn an income. Instead it’s a way to make friends, share costs and collaborate on ideas, she said.

“This town already has a really rich art heritage,” she said. “I guess I’m being selfish. I want a place to paint and I want friends. This is how I meet friends in the same mindset.”

Having a collaborative group such as the Art Colony enables the artists to get into juried art shows easier. The artists can share costs, time and show equipment. Set up and break down also is quicker with more hands on deck.

And while the studio is not a formal gallery, it will have openings once a month.

This business model and the physical setup, however, have evolved during Oakley’s 40 years in the art business.

When she opened her first studio at age 24, she rented a big room in an office building and had fellow artists to join her. But the Oklahoma City space’s configuration had too many people in too small of a space.

Her second studio was in an old train station with small rooms for everyone. This arrangement hindered collaboration between artists.

In her third studio, Oakley built horse stall walls. The 4-foot-tall walls allowed artists to see each other but cramped their space. Artists had to stand in someone else’s stall to look at their work without being on top of it.

At her fourth studio in Colorado (which is where Oakley lived before moving to Gainesville), she divided the workspace along the perimeter of the room for better usage. It’s the same plan she’s used in Gainesville, with a shared work area in the center of the room.

The physical arrangement as well as the community-driven plans seems to be working. Several area artists have committed to working in the studio, which is a little different than her previous art studios.

“All the towns I’ve been in either needed an art community from scratch or needed a handoff from a more senior generation who was tired of doing everything themselves or they just weren’t doing enough,” she said. “So an art colony gives the impression that this is where you go to make art, to play, to see artists.”

And artists are already collaborating such as floral designer Ginny Early and photographer Sarah Ingram.

Early, who owns Enemies of Average, and Ingram are partnering their two spaces in the studio.

Ingram, who works from home all hours of the day and night, plans to use the space to structure her work schedule.

“I thought having a space to go to would make me a little more scheduled,” she said. “Having a place to be inspired by other people and interact with others, as well, kind of feeds my creativity.”

Early agreed. She also operates her business out of her home and is excited to have a space to meet clients.

“It will be so nice to be with other artistic, creative people and just have that feedback from each other and inspiration.”

But the bonus for Early is the studio’s midtown location.

“Having a place to go and learn to do something creative in a casual setting will be really, really cool,” Early said.

Living and working in Gainesville is also fueling Oakley’s own creativity.

“I love it here,” she said. “I love the colors, I love the forests. I love the trees — they’re so stinkin’ tall.”

The former illustrator paints most days each week, but has no art in her own home. In fact, she sells everything she creates with the intention of making money to buy more art supplies.

“There is no high in the world like selling a piece of art,” she said. “You can get just as thrilled selling a piece of art for $50 or $5,000. They liked your stuff enough, not only to write a check for it, which is always hard to do, but to take it home and live with it.”



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