February 2021

Feel the Vibrations: Fans see her as an abstract expressionist. But for J.R. Sandifer, it’s a means to share her spiritual energy on canvas.

Author: Tim Wood | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

n the surface, J.R. Sandifer is as much of an oddball fit for Lowcountry living as the art she creates. For decades, interior designers have labored to perfect the coastal chic look, full of sand and ocean color palettes, seashells in bottles, and paintings of docks leading to the water and vessels gliding toward a perfect sunset horizon. It’s a definable vibe, a joyous calm that envelops us as we exit the interstate and follow the Yellow Brick Road to Nirvana that is U.S. 278.

Abstract art is anything and everything but definable. Local galleries don’t clamor for the genre because their clients haven’t historically been interested in hanging it on their walls. But vibes and tastes morph and evolve. Twenty years ago, the high-octane-living Saudi Arabia native behind the artist’s nom-de-plume would have never imagined herself living in the off-ramp of life that is Bluffton.

“Now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. My journey has transformed me and given me the courage to share my energy through my art,” Sandifer said. “You won’t see just one thing in my work, but hopefully you will feel an energy.”

She knows that may sound New Age-y to some—that her pieces are as unpredictable as her ever-changing hair color. But Sandifer is slowly finding a following ready to embrace her enigmatic expressions as a welcome adventure in these heavy times. “The air is thick in society right now, and so I keep the vibrations above that thickness,” she said.

The genesis of those vibrations began in Dhahran, a major hub of the Saudi Arabian oil industry on the Persian Gulf coast north of Qatar. Sandifer’s father answered a magazine ad for Aramco Oil and uprooted his wife and young son from the U.S. to work for what is today the sixth largest company by revenue in the world.

American Aramco staffers and their families lived in the same community, much like a U.S. military base. “Seeing camels on the way to the beach, hearing prayer calls ring out five times a day, that was normal, all I knew,” Sandifer said. “It was me, my parents, my brother. The rest of our family was oceans away. So, friends and keeping busy after school were everything.”

At a time when Flashdance and Footloose were stateside sensations, Julie Rae Sandifer was drawn to constant motion. She took up dance at age four and won numerous competitions as a child performer. Academics increasingly became a struggle, as her teachers saw that frenetic energy as lack of focus and diagnosed her with ADHD. The labels and the pressure led Sandifer to a string of bad decisions as an early teen.

“School was always challenging but it became harder. I was mischievous, I found trouble,” she said.

Back then, Saudi public school ended after ninth grade, and then it was off to boarding schools in Bahrain or other countries to finish schooling. Sandifer’s father was ready to retire, and the idea of boarding didn’t sit right with her parents. So, the family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The abrupt adjustment to American life only created more inner turmoil for Sandifer. “I partied very hard. I just wanted to experience so much of life, and much of that was trouble. My parents blame themselves, but I don’t. We’re all on a certain path,” she said.

That path led Sandifer to Orlando and the University of Central Florida. She waited tables and frequented the O-Town club scene at first. Then a friend introduced her to Ashtanga Mysore, a disciplined style of yoga. The strenuous workouts led to more than just a physical rebirth.

“You learn one pose at a time and don’t progress until you master each pose. I found a structure, a purpose there that changed me,” she said. “I had this thirst for spiritual knowledge. It led me to meditation, vegetarian eating and plenty of spiritual coaching.”

An Introduction to Painting course at UCF led her to another awakening. “We were supposed to paint an orange. I just couldn’t do it,” Sandifer said. “I just can’t draw or paint things. But this one girl in class, she said she loved my painting. She said the imperfections made it all the better.”

That encouragement fueled a new passion. Sandifer began working with textures and letting the emotions of the moment flow on to canvas. A friend in Orlando saw one of her paintings in her apartment and encouraged her to
take her work to an art gallery, where Sandifer sold one of her creations for $45.

“That was incredible. That’s where J.R. Sandifer was born,” she said. “I wanted a name that had a bit of mystery to it, so I used my initials and Julie Rae became J.R.”

Despite the newfound success, two straight moves quickly put art on the back burner. First, Sandifer moved to Delray Beach, where she focused on teaching fitness classes. The second move was for love, as an OK Cupid online date blossomed into romance and marriage to musician and videographer Trevor Harden in 2011.

“When Trevor brought up moving, I was shell shocked. I thought, ugh, the South Carolina Lowcountry. I’d gotten used to a fast pace of city living and all it has to offer with arts and culture,” she said. “I figured a small town wouldn’t have as much of that. It’s the sticks; everyone would stare at my weird hair. I could never have seen myself as domesticated.”

Disdain quickly turned into adoration, as the ocean and endless lush greenery was like a Pac Man power pellet for the newly minted Julie (Sandifer) Harden’s soul. She went all-in on Lowcountry life, began waitressing again at night and soon became an in-demand fitness and movement class instructor at Oldfield, Belfair and Berkeley Hall before being wooed by Colleton River.

Art was one of the few things in her new life that was not fully clicking. “I took my work to galleries around the Lowcountry and got a lot of rejections. They said I wasn’t good enough. Abstract just wasn’t in demand here. So, I focused on dance and teaching and on helping Trevor build his business and us building a family,” she said.

She also continued her spiritual enlightenment, finding Gary Bodley and The Teachings of Joshua. “It’s about the Law of Attraction and about having power over fate through spirituality, through positive thoughts and achieving higher vibrations,” she said. “I began to realize that life wasn’t happening to me, that all the events in life are happening for me.”

Equipped with newfound spiritual guidance, Sandifer turned back to painting as she and Trevor grew their brood—a six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter to go with Callie, her 16-year-old stepdaughter who lives with them for half the year.

“Dance is the core of my soul, it’s like breathing for me. Painting was more of a forced commitment,” she said. “I told myself I’m going to paint two times a day, just for me, and I did it.”

She posted her work on Instagram, ready once again to show the world her J.R. Sandifer side. “I’ve never been just one thing, one label. Why be just one flavor of cookie? That’s boring,” she said with a smile. “I’m a dancer, a choreographer, a wife, a model, a mom, but I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. Money has never driven me; this wasn’t a profession. I wanted to pass on my energy and hopefully make people stop and feel something different.”

Seeing her work online drew a budding entourage to Sandifer’s artistic cookie jar. An interior designer friend suggested an informal showing of her work at Colleton River earlier this year.

“I paint large canvases, so these were taking up space at the house. I was just about to start giving them away on Facebook, so I loaded up 15 paintings and brought them to my friend’s house instead,” she said.

The socially distanced patio display drew more interest than she could have ever dreamed. She sold nine canvases that day, some for as much as $600.

“These folks are telling me I’m underpricing these, but the connections I made and the encouragement was worth so much more than money,” Sandifer said. “Turns out that abstract is suddenly on trend for home decorating. I was just beside myself. Is this actual happening?”

She turned to Trevor for help designing a website and used the Artrooms app to digitally superimpose her work against an array of country and metropolitan home décor styles and palettes. She even took on her first-ever commission work.

“That was scary. I don’t have a plan or a color in mind when I paint. I am a conduit for channeling energies and go wherever that leads,” she said. “But it worked better than I imagined. I just asked about the décor where my work will be seen and stayed with those colors.”

Sandifer is starting to believe her artwork could truly be a career path. Trevor (“he’s the logical one and I’m the feeler,” she said) is helping with the business side of things, which increasing means updating the site with the word “SOLD” next to her creations. Validation of her talents for sure, but more important, a confidence boost that her efforts are making an impact.

“Shipping these 30 by 40 canvases will be a challenge, but I’m up for anything,” she said. “I’m approaching galleries in Savannah, Charleston and Atlanta—maybe some art shows when we get past COVID. The hard times, the turmoil, it’s all brought me to this place. The idea that I’m passing on this energy, that it will live physically with someone else, it’s exhilarating.” 

For a sampling of J.R. Sandifer’s portfolio and to purchase her artwork, visit jrsandifer.com.

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