Sanithna Phansavanh in Cabbagetown. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

“This is me trying to explore what it means to be a human,” artist and designer Sanithna Phansavanh explained as we sat together on a cool autumn morning in Cabbagetown.

Phansavanh has been a practicing artist in Atlanta for more than a decade, his dreamy portraits on display as murals and in gallery shows throughout the city. During the September 2021 installment of Forward Warrior – an annual street art festival that brings 30+ artists to paint the walls of Cabbagetown – Phansavanh was perched atop a tall ladder, brush in hand, adding detail to his newest mural “Amor Fati” while listening to tunes on his trusty iPod shuffle.

Intending to replicate some of the sketchiness that he generates in his smaller scale paper works, “Amor Fati” is the 8th mural that Phansavanh has created in conjunction with this annual street art event.

“Forward Warrior gave me the opportunity to start doing public work. I had never even considered it until Peter reached out,” he said, referring to the event’s founder Peter Ferrari.

Phansavanh also frequently works with Living Walls and the OuterSpace Project by ABV. These organizations are “like family,” said Phansavanh, who never misses an opportunity to work with them.

Born in Kansas City but raised locally by his mother, Phansavanh can recall his first dabblings in art as early as 5-or-so-years-old when he would scribble doodles of ninjas on the walls of his Forest Park apartment. “It wasn’t until I got into high school where I had this amazing teacher named Mrs. Hudson,” said Phansavanh. “She showed me the possibilities of art, the opportunity to use it as a form of self-exploration.”

Virtually all of Phansavanh’s works are figural, and most have what I consider to be a painterly quality. Even when completed in a medium such as spray paint or marker, there are hints at his background and affinity for fine art. He intentionally adds facture, which is the visual mark of the artist, into his works to infuse them with energy and movement. His perspective on art and his approach to his paintings was greatly impacted by an interview with artist Cy Twombley in which he described every brush stroke as a historical document.

“I love that idea; of every stroke being captured as a moment in time, so that’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate ever since. I want to make sure that you see the brush strokes, that you see texture, you see that movement and energy. It’s definitely something that I’ve been conscious about incorporating in all of my work. Whether it’s public work, or gallery work, that’s a conscious decision.”

Sanithna Phansavanh painting a mural during Forward Warrior. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

As for the placement of these seemingly random yet somehow perfect additions in the form of lines, bold shapes, or brush strokes, he says most of the decision to add them comes from an intuitive approach to composition. He naturally gravitates towards bright, bold colors, and it comes as no surprise to see elements that are common in graphic design such as layers and color blocking.

When he’s not painting on walls or in his home studio, Phansavanh is a professional graphic design artist. He has his own firm through which he offers branding, digital product design, art direction, and illustration. Working with clients like restaurants and hotels, local organizations such as Atlanta United, Mailchimp, Orpheus Brewing, and Coca-Cola, his graphic design work differs from his art at its core because as a designer he is tasked to solve a problem within the confines of a brand’s identity as opposed to expressing his own creativity.

And as for those artistic ideas he expresses in his artwork? It all comes back to deciphering what it means to be human. “Whether it’s me, or someone else, it’s taking the human experience and trying to interpret it. I’m trying to create artifacts of human existence.”

Phansavanh’s paintings almost exclusively feature women. When I asked why that is, he explained that the most caring and important people in his life have been women and therefore he hopes to “exalt” the female form by centering it in his works. “It’s definitely a focus on the figure and, from that, a focus on women because I find a lot of beauty, power, grace, and elegance in women.”

“It started with my mom. She’s the strongest, toughest, most fiery, and powerful person I know. She has been someone who has inspired me ever since I was a little kid.”

Phansavanh’s mother is Laotian and growing up with exposure to Buddhism has also influenced his perspectives on art. Notably, he is moved by the transient and temporary aspect of all things. He explained how this is especially true for murals; he knows that as soon as he’s finished with a piece of public art it is inevitably going to change and be altered. Whether his works are tagged, affected by the elements, or simply painted over, he knows that he must be fully present in the moment to enjoy the process and the finished work before letting go of his attachment.

You can view Phansavanh’s art by visiting his wall in Cabbagetown, checking out his contribution to the Wet Paint exhibition at ABV Gallery on display until Nov. 13, and following him on Instagram (@sanithna) where he posts new works frequently as part of his #OccupyIdleHands daily illustration challenge. He’s also currently gearing up for a bigger solo show sometime in 2022, though details have yet to be released.

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.