Bayou Artist: Polly Spence
Polly Spence identifies her work as “Christ-centered.” She hopes to share the message of His grace with others through her art.
Photography by Brad Arender | Article by April Clark Honaker
Polly Spence grew up watching her dad create beautifully intricate pen and ink drawings. Her dad was a lawyer and later a judge, but when he wasn’t upholding the law, he found time to express himself creatively. “I was fascinated and wanted to do it too,” Polly said.
Throughout grade school and high school, Polly was always drawn to creative things and found herself decorating for dances, helping with parade floats, crafting cards and designing t-shirts. “Art has been my passion from a very young age,” she said. But Polly didn’t start taking painting seriously until it was time to decorate her home. At that point, she decided to try creating the style she wanted and succeeded. Although she studied public relations at Ole Miss and never received any formal training in art, Polly has effectively taught herself. She has also learned indirectly and informally from other artists, including fellow Monroe-born artist Meredith Pardue, whom she greatly admires.
As Polly developed her style in the early 90s, Tish Bailey Miller, a local designer, took interest in Polly’s work and Polly was able to sell her first painting through Tish’s store, Inside Indigo. Then, Robin Bailey Hamaker, Tish’s sister and a fellow designer, saw Polly’s work and was able to connect her with a gallery in Covington, Louisiana. During this time, several pieces sold and Polly’s career as an artist took off. The Bailey sisters’ encouragement and connections have continued to be vital to her success. “They’ve taught me to own what I do,” Polly said, “and to know the value of my work.”
or eight years, Polly also had the privilege of teaching art at River Oaks School in Monroe. This experience allowed her to be closer to her children and to not only educate the students but also herself. “I was very intent on teaching them about the masters, so I studied a lot,” she said. She aimed to create projects for them that were relevant to the masters but also fun and engaging with a contemporary flair.
Polly’s own work is recognized for its lyrical abstraction, a style that expresses the artist’s emotions and larger spiritual outlook. According to Polly’s artist statement, her art “is full of abstract climates and feelings that are elegant in movement and soothing to the eye.”
Although her paintings are often abstract in design, they always have a spiritual undercurrent. “My artwork is always about testimony,” she said. “Creativity is my spiritual gift and passion. Art is a ministry, medium and opportunity I use to share my heart for Christ.” Her work is commissioned directly by clients or through designers she works closely with. When she works with a client, she likes to get to know them, discover a verse for them, then paint her interpretation of the verse.
This process of painting the verse is also deeply spiritual. “It’s almost like I’m representing Christ through my work,” she said, “and I want to do a good job, so I have to take myself out of it.” She has a small studio in her backyard and likes to let the space get spirit-filled.” In that space, she hopes to get spirit-filled, too and said, “That’s where I hear God speak. That’s where I get direction. It’s a refuge. It’s not work.” For Polly, art equals prayer, rest, solitude and communion. She said, “I live to get up and go hear what He has to say.” Each time, she’s surprised by what she hears and what He leads her to create.
“My work is Christ-centered,” Polly said. At the same time, she has created work for clients with different beliefs. Given the abstract nature of most of her work, she can be sensitive to these beliefs, but Christ will always be present in her process.
When considering how her art has changed over time, Polly thinks of her work as “before Norah” and “after Norah.” Norah is Polly’s two-year-old granddaughter. Mere weeks after Norah was born, she lost her mother Megan suddenly to an aneurysm. Polly remembers receiving the call from her oldest son William, Norah’s dad, and the shock she felt to learn that Norah’s vibrant, beautiful mother was being kept alive only by machines. In the hospital, Polly met with an onslaught of grief, negative thoughts and fear for her family’s future. “Life as we knew it had just pulled the rug out from underneath us,” she said.
Yet, in the moment when she felt most overwhelmed, she heard a voice say, “Polly, I’m right here.” She heard the words again and again until she realized grace was offering His hand and inviting her dance. “Grace was providing everything I needed at the exact moment I needed it,” she said. Although Polly feels words can’t fully describe what it feels like to know Christ, she said, “When I first met Christ, I felt like I’d swallowed sunshine.” Afterward, she felt a new sense of purpose, which was to help others find the light.
After losing Megan, Polly and her family endured five other losses in what felt like an unrelenting wave of death. “My life had become an obliteration of the way things used to be,” she said. But Polly slowly came to realize that God was not her security from the storms of life but instead her security through the storms of life. “We claim our unique journey,” she said, “because it’s God’s way of molding us to be more like his image.” She aims to live life as a gift and embrace all of life because, as she said, “Grace teaches us to be grateful and have hope for the future.”
Over the last two years, Polly has helped care for Norah, and they spend a lot of time together. Although she has less time to paint, Norah and the events since her birth have played a significant role in the direction of Polly’s art. After Megan died, someone invited Polly to do a live painting of Jesus, and since then, word-of-mouth has led Polly to do more of these paintings at women’s retreats, churches and Christian schools. She often couples the paintings with her testimony and includes other artists and artforms such as drama, videos and interpretive dance to convey the message.
“It’s been an accidental ministry,” she said, “but it’s very powerful, and I love doing it.” Recently, she had the opportunity to do the painting for two of her elderly neighbors for their 68th wedding anniversary. The couple live next door to Polly and are homebound, but both of them spent their lives involved in the Catholic church, so Polly and her family wanted to bring church to them and help them celebrate their anniversary by performing the Jesus painting just for them and their small group of caregivers. The couple were deeply moved by the gesture and the painting. “It was so sweet,” Polly said. “Both of them had tears streaming down their face, and I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything. It was so special and such a huge blessing.”
olly’s art is continually connecting her with new people, whether it’s a design client or those she meets through her live Jesus paintings. “I think my work enriches my life through the people I get to meet—through the relationships,” she said. The Jesus painting has the power to deeply move people and break down walls. The process of sharing her story encourages others to share theirs, and authentic connections are formed. “It’s a gift to get to know people on that level,” Polly said. “They feel like family—like you’ve known them all along.”
olly acknowledges that she wasn’t the first person to do live Jesus paintings. “I was inspired to start doing it by other artists that paved the way,” she said. “To me, it’s an opportunity to be on mission to share the gospel, as an artist.” In sharing the gospel, Polly has also watched others become inspired to pick up a brush and share the gospel in a similar way.
“I’ve been humbled to find that from my willingness to be vulnerable enough to step out of the comfort zone of my quiet studio into the arena of performing a live painting, others have found the courage to do the same,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s the beautiful domino effect of discipleship. It’s not about God making a big deal out of my story. It’s about me courageously using my story to make a big deal out of Him.”
When Polly did her first live Jesus painting at a women’s retreat, she had Lauren Daigle’s song “Light of the World” playing in the background. After the retreat, the painting hung over Norah’s bed where, as a baby, she would gaze at the bold, contrasting lines of His face. During this time, Polly decided this first painting would belong to Norah one day, so when Lauren Daigle visited LifeWay Christian Store in Monroe to promote her new album, Polly took action. She gathered the giant painting and Norah into the car and headed to meet Lauren.
After hearing Norah’s story, Lauren wrote the following note to her on the back of the painting: “The Lord has numbered your days, sweet girl! He has knit you in your mother’s womb. He has called you for a PURPOSE! Trust Him in all things! I hope you look back on Jesus every day of your life and see His sovereignty colliding with his faithfulness! Your Miko [Polly] has paved a way for you built on love!” The painting now hangs in the hallway of Polly’s new house but has been marked for Norah and will be hers when the time comes.
“I’ve learned so much in these years with Norah,” Polly said. “Before Norah, I was very insecure and controlled in what I was painting.” Now Polly has learned to be herself, and painting has become a beautiful release. “It’s the freedom to create what I want to create,” she said. Polly uses a variety of media, including acrylics, gel medium, inks and oil pens, and her recent work is very loose, bold, bright and free. It’s a reflection of the new life and freedom she’s found in her relationship with Christ.
Although Polly is able to finish some of her works, quickly, such as the Jesus painting, others take more time, but Polly never discards a piece because it doesn’t turn out as planned. “There’s a feeling at the end that it’s complete,” she said, “but I never give up. I just keep going. That’s part of the fun—letting it evolve.” Polly believes people evolve in a similar way—that God’s plans are already laid for us and that everyday is like a treasure hunt. She believes God uses different situations to shape us into who we’re supposed to be.
One of her favorite Bible verses is Ephesians 2:10, which reads, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Polly heard a sermon by Pastor Chad Merrell that made this verse resonate deeply with her. Merrell explained that the Greek word for masterpiece (or workmanship in some translations) is poiema. This word is such a poignant reminder to Polly of her connection to Christ and of His connection to her work. “I feel like artists express themselves through their work in the same way God expresses Himself through his creations,” she said. “He often uses difficult situations and moments of weakness to shape us into who we were meant to be—to find our true selves and true freedom. The freedom I feel with my work has directly evolved from the lessons of faith I have learned from my life experiences.”
Every artist creates work for a different reason, but Polly believes art can change lives. She views the grief she’s experienced as a privilege. According to Polly, it’s been an honor to have been shaped by loss and to hang in God’s gallery. Now she hopes to share the message of His grace with others through her art. “I hope that I’m somehow a vessel of hope or a vessel of truth,” she said. “I’d like to be known as the beginning of hope for another.”