Like a lot of people in this eclectic little town, I'm an art groupie.
I worship at the paint-stained feet of Betsey Cain, Jerome Meadows, Katherine Sandoz, Matt Hebermehl, Adolfo Alvarado, Melinda Borysevicz, Tobia Makover, Troy Wandzel and every other brilliant local who showed at last week's Taste of Art or at Slideluck or has hung work at the Whitney Gallery or Kobo or the walls of Gallery Espresso. I want to carry their canvases and clean up their messes and fill my house from floor to ceiling with their abstract marshscapes and ghostly portraits and urban swirls.
Oh yes, I heart Savannah artists. But Tiffani Taylor was my first.
One spring day in the early aughts, when I was still just another tourist traipsing along Bull Street ogling the Spanish moss and the gold cornices on the Scottish Rite Temple, I found myself loitering in front of ShopSCAD. A huge canvas of red poppies hung in the window. The more I looked, the more I saw, bits of poetry and paper doll heads and gold drips and muddy smears. I fell in.
Forty-five minutes later I was still standing there. The only other time I had the experience of being so captivated by a painting that I wanted to live inside it was Magritte's Son of Man, but only because that apple looked so goddamned delicious.
When I moved to Savannah and landed a job as the editor of the now-defunct skirt! magazine, Tiffani was the first person I sought out to interview. The valedictorian of the 2002 SCAD graduating class then painted in a tiny bedroom, struggling to pay bills with mural commissions as collectors and curators were starting to take notice of her layered floral landscapes. We talked about her impoverished childhood in rural Utah, where she learned how to find acceptance and love in what was blooming in the fields and forests.
"Nature is my cathedral," she told me back then, showing me a handful of dirt that she would later rub into a future canvas.
Candlewax, coffee grounds, old sheet music and even food stamps peeked out from beneath the delicate flowers and gold-flecked sparrows (yeah, Tiffani was putting a bird on it before it was a thing.) Hers is an alchemy that combines femininity and grit, bridging the relationship between authenticity and happiness. Also, her work is just so, so pretty.
The feature I wrote was one of her first pieces of press, and there have been many dozens since. Her artwork now hangs in private collections around the world.
I remained obsessed with those red poppies, decoupaging the refrigerator with cutouts photos of Tiffani's paintings until The Best Husband in the Whole World bought me a real one for my birthday.
Nowadays, Tiffani's lovely countenance and philanthropic efforts (she donates paintings to women's charities and started a SCAD Scholarship Fund in 2009 to help other struggling students) have also attracted attention, as has her gentle support of young artists, taking interns under her wing and encouraging their visions.
"In the Renaissance, artists were nurtured and valued, and I think that's starting to happen again now," she told me recently. "The myth of the starving artist needs to die."
Inspired by Impressionist Claude Monet, who said "It's not everything to paint; you have to sell and live," Tiffani has also cultivated another elusive muse: Business acumen.
Last year she opened the Tiffani Taylor Gallery at the north end of Whitaker Street, a gloriously sunny and strategically shrewd spot to showcase her work. Longtime patrons visit after lunch at their favorite downtown restaurant. Tourists often wander in on their way to The Lady & Sons and leave with a small painting or a piece of hand-painted pottery.
Sometimes, when it's not enough to drink my tea next to the single poppy painting in my kitchen, I like to go over and sip in the glow of an entire wall of them. Tiffani and curator Arlene Kidd (who also happens to be her mama) don't seem to mind, even if I drop a few crumbs from my Coffee Fox fig kolache.
Her poppies have undeniable broad appeal, and Tiffani has been courted over recent years by companies who wanted to market her designs for bed, bath and beyond. But she has fought the temptation to turn a quick buck, instead protecting her copyrights like baby birds, waiting until she could put up the money herself.
The gallery's first anniversary coincides with the launch of the Tiffani Taylor Lifestyle Collection, an affordable array of pillows, pendants, coffee mugs, iPhone cases, purses and other charms that make it possible for everyone to own a piece of her art, even groupies of humble means. The kickoff party is on Thursday, April 11, with delectables by It's Thyme Catering, co-owned by her BFF Penny Smith-Horton.
"I am my own investor, and I'm so proud of that," Tiffani tells me as we set our poppy mugs down onto a pair of her bird coasters. "I needed to keep the integrity of it all, to preserve the drips and splatters and every word."
The line is available exclusively at the gallery and online at tiffaniart.com, though there are whispers of other things in the works for Tiffani Taylor in 2014. Big things. Maybe even Oprah-sized things.
For now, however, her motto is "infinite possibilities," a phrase that appears in her artwork as well in conversation.
"Anything can happen," she shrugs with a smile when I suggest that her poppies might become as iconic as Van Gogh's Starry Night.
Did you know Van Gogh used to eat his own paint? Lead-based, which explains why he was so batscat crazy. He also died a pauper. The lesson there for artists and those who love them is don't snack on Cerulean blue, and don't be afraid to succeed.
Or as Tiffani puts it: "Art and business shouldn't be a dichotomy."