The Colorful World of Sanders McNeal


A story is behind every canvas Sanders McNeal paints. Those stories are told one brushstroke at a time.

Each work of art is a memorable souvenir that her decades as a successful local artist cannot let her forget.

“Each one has such a connection,” McNeal said. 

A lifelong career artist, McNeal is a nationally recognized artist who is most known for her vivid landscapes, still lifes and portraits. She has earned countless awards and honors for her four-decade career.

In 2008, McNeal was named the Honored Artist by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She was the Commissioned Artist for the USA International Ballet Competition in 2006. She was also awarded the Governor’s Artist Achievement Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts in 1999, to name a few of her more notable honors.

But before she was one of the most celebrated and sought-after artists in the state, McNeal struggled to convince her elementary school teachers of her art’s value.

McNeal spent her early years as a self-professed Delta nomad where she learned to read. She was born in Greenwood, but primarily raised in Indianola. 

Instead of writing out the words from the teacher’s blackboard, McNeal opted to translate the words into pictures to make it easier to understand.

“I didn’t really see the need to read and write because I could draw…you didn’t need the written word to understand a picture,” she said. “I think they thought I was a little slow because I chose not to learn to read. To me, that was the way to be creative.” 

Her teachers were perplexed, but her mother, Pat Adams Sanders, was understanding. Instead of chastising McNeal for not following the rules, she took her daughter aside and read to her every night. 

They read the classics such as Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“Words are like colors and they paint the picture,” Pat told her daughter.

The budding artist caught on immediately, and the motherly guidance became her artistic philosophy before she even knew it.

“I can still hear her read ‘Annabel Lee’ to me,” McNeal said. 

 She still recites memorized stanzas from Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.”

“On the shores of Gitche Gumee, Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,” McNeal begins, then laughs.

Later, her family would buy her books about art and artists to keep her interest. 

“Some kids want to play ball. I went to the arts,” she said.

The love of poetry stuck.

“I really loved the cadence of everything and I wanted my art to reflect that,” she said. “I wanted my paintings to have a cadence, a rhythm, a song, that they could give to the viewer.”

After her father retired from the Mississippi National Guard, her mother got a job working as a nurse in Jackson. Her father got a sales position at the local Sears.

The family moved to the Belhaven neighborhood when McNeal was in ninth grade, and McNeal later graduated from Murrah High School.

“I loved the teachers there,” McNeal said. “The art teacher there helped point me in the right direction.”

Her high school art teacher and her English teacher encouraged her to challenge herself. After graduation, McNeal later earned her bachelor’s degree from Mississippi University for Women in 1976 in three years.

McNeal’s art education has been a lifelong pursuit. She applied to study with a successful pastel artist, Daniel Greene, in upstate New York in the summer after graduation. 

“He had this huge barn studio. It was an incredible place,” McNeal said.

Greene, who helped McNeal master pastels and hone her portraiture technique, was a significant influence on her art.

“We got to be really close, and we just painted — it was marvelous,” McNeal said. 

From that point on, McNeal regularly preferred pastels for commissioned portraits.

“He just opened my eyes to pastels,” McNeal said.

 McNeal never let herself get too comfortable with one style or technique. She was always looking for a challenge.

She completed an intensive three-month figure study class in Argenton-les-Vallées, a small village in Western France.

Since she had spent all of her artistic time in a studio, McNeal jumped at the chance to study plein air (painting outdoors) in France.

She spent five weeks with a class of 30 other artists. She studied in plein air for an entire summer in Florence, Italy, with Marc Dalessio. 

“He really gave me some great pointers for plein air work,” McNeal said. “I give those ideas out today (to other artists) because they were so helpful.”

In between painting, McNeal walked the halls of some of the most famous art museums in the world. The experience changed her life.

“I could see art that I had only seen in art books. It was a spiritual experience,” she said. “It was a really special summer.”

In Jackson, McNeal moved to several private studios before she settled in above Hal and Mal’s, where she worked for 10 years, taking commissions and designing on the side to make ends meet.

When she was not painting in her studio, she battled the elements to capture the landscapes of Mississippi with the same techniques she used to capture the ancient architecture in Italy. 

Plein air is not always glamourous and relaxing because an artist must bring their own garbage bags and water to drink, and — depending on how rural the site will be — toilet paper.

“You’re going out into the elements….Studio versus plein air painting is a whole different ball game,” she said. “Studio is a very controlled environment. Plein air is more volatile and tedious.”

 Besides being on the Sun’s time, every brush and paint pot must be carted around with everything else. 

“Be limited, limit what you can there,” was the advice Dalessio gave her. 

Since she paints in oil, the paints do not dry out as fast. She limits herself to very few brushes and paints, mixing primary shades when necessary.

“Most of the colors I can make with a limited palette,” she said.

If McNeal does not have her easel with her when inspiration strikes, she has a camera. 

Traveling through the Delta with her husband, John McNeal, she would often get him to pull aside for a quick shot to paint later.

Once, McNeal was on a trip in Utah with friends, Jan and Lawrence Farrington, when she suddenly asked to stop the car.

“All of a sudden she just screamed, ‘Stop!’” Jan Farrington said. 

The other passengers thought McNeal might be carsick. She actually leaped out of the car to photograph a red tractor against the wintery mountain backdrop.

“Some things you kind of just want to hold on to,” McNeal said of the scene. “It was just stunning, the contrast.”

After McNeal finished painting her image, she gifted the large canvas to the Farringtons, who fell in love with the memory it brought back from that winter trip. 

“It turned out to be spectacular,” Jan Farrington said.

The painting remains a family treasure.

“That painting just brought us more close,” McNeal said.

The Farringtons first met McNeal and her husband through local charity events. 

Jan Farrington said she introduced herself to McNeal and asked her for a painting to auction to benefit the American Heart Association. The event later grew into the foundation’s largest fundraiser in the state.

“We loved her art from the very beginning,” Jan said. “She had so much talent and was always so generous with her time and effort.”

The couples became close friends through their shared love of art and philanthropy, becoming McNeal’s collectors as well.

McNeal credits her success to her faithful collectors, many of whom became introduced to her at charity auctions.

It comforts her to know where her paintings end up, and why the collectors chose one of her paintings.

“They’re like my children,” McNeal said of her works. “It’s an honor that somebody wants something that I created… That has always been my goal: I want people to look at something and say, ‘I want to make that a part of my life.’”

McNeal moved her studio from Jackson to Flora in 2017 after she and her husband moved to a farm in Flora. She renovated a building at 4841B Main Street in downtown Flora for her art space named Studio on Main.

“It has got a very warm and welcoming feel on Main Street,” she said.

McNeal said she likes the evening light and the storefront window that allows shoppers to see inside.

“I felt like this is where I needed to be,” McNeal said. 

The decades of McNeal’s artistic career have sailed by too fast for her. She often wished she had journaled more to record the small moments.

“It has been an incurable journey I’ve had,” McNeal said. “I really feel blessed that I have been able to do this… to have someone else love what you do, is probably one of God’s greatest gift.”

Find out more about Sanders McNeal and her art by visiting Studio on Main at 4841B Main St., Flora, or on her Facebook Page titled Sanders McNeal Studio and Gallery or her website at