Coast artist has found success later in life by painting music

Elizabeth Shafer paints on stage as an orchestra plays
Elizabeth Shafer paints on stage as an orchestra plays Elizabeth Shafer

Music is often termed the universal language, but as with painting, it is interpreted in different ways by everyone who encounters it.

At least one Coast artist has aspired to capture music and display it on her canvas. Elizabeth Shafer’s abstract interpretations have met with success throughout the South and beyond.

Schafer, an Indiana native and 20-year Bay St. Louis resident, took a roundabout path to her art, graduating from Florida Tech in 1985 in cceanography, then taking a position as a private contractor for the U.S. Navy at Stennis Space Center, conducting environmental research. It was then that she decided to take up painting; painting a subject about which she was most passionate — music.

“Music,” she said, “has a resounding influence on all peoples, and no less so with me.”

She determined to translate the emotional impact of music onto canvas in hopes others would find a commonality of response.

To her delight, they have. Her work was featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s On Main Street traveling exhibition through the South in 2007, with her pieces interpreting the sounds of blues music.

NEA fellowship

She earned a Mississippi Fellowship National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2005, recognizing her as one of that state’s outstanding artists of the year.

She accepted an Andy Warhol grant in 2006, something ordinarily offered to groups rather than individuals. But it was her group show at the William Clinton Presidential Library that opened the door for her to perform with the Arkansas Symphonic Orchestra through the Clinton Foundation (2006) and Thea Foundation (2007).

There, she painted onstage as the orchestra performed, interpreting various instrumental sounds. Best of all, she said, her paintings from those performances were auctioned to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“Everyone has their gifts,” she said, “but not everyone is blessed to appreciate their own gifts. But to be so blessed as to understand your own gifts, and then to be recognized for them, is a truly humbling experience.”

Fascinating process

Her process is as fascinating as you might expect.

She began focusing on the various musical instruments, then on the sounds those instruments made and her emotional responses to them.

The sounds of particular instruments, she said, are different depending upon which style of music is played on them. According to her perception of the imagery of sound, Carlos Santana’s rock ’n’ roll music translates to reds, pinks, yellows, purples and oranges, tropical South American colors, rendered in larger, frenetic strokes.

By contrast, blues musician BB King’s music constitutes a more introspective style, conforming to earthy tones such as green, gold, passionate reds and various shades of blue, rendered in thinner, softer lines.


Such interpretations become evident in her portrayals of Native American and rock ’n’ roll music, which she recently exhibited at the Smith and Lens gallery in Bay St. Louis. She represents Native American drum-circle music by blending curving red strokes representing huge kettle-drum sounds with lengthy natural greens and emotionally vibrant golds.

For rock ’n’ roll, she paints larger more frenetic and multi-layered slashes of purple, gray, burgundy and black. In these we see Schafer’s acrylic paint representations of the distinct aspects of each type of music, and the emotional effect they had on her.