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Former first lady Betty Foy Sanders' art reflects her love of state

Betty Foy Sanders has been painting her beloved state of Georgia since most of what's now metro Atlanta was farmland.

Sanders, wife of former Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders, is an avid artist who has seen every square inch of the state during her political travels. While her paintings have evolved over the years from straightforward realism to more abstract work, her subject has remained the same - Georgia.

"I've seen all the nooks and crannies, all the islands, all the state," Sanders said during a recent interview. "I am a lover of my state."

A retrospective of her work will be on display at Trinity Gallery's space in The Bank of America Plaza from Friday through Sept. 29. The show will feature two paintings from each decade since the 1960s - when her husband was governor - as well as 14 of Sanders' most recent works. An opening reception with the artist will run from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday.

Trinity Gallery spokeswoman Susan Kendrick said Sanders' singular subject matter piqued the interest of the gallery.

"We thought it would be a good opportunity to focus on an Atlanta artist that had a lifetime of work that was really evocative of the state of Georgia with all its changes," Kendrick said.

Natural beauty

Sanders, 79, has never much enjoyed shopping or playing bridge. Instead, she prefers to spend her time outdoors, gardening, fishing and playing with her grandchildren. Her art reflects her love of nature, and her latest body of work actually incorporates rocks and minerals - such as amethyst, shell and quartz - into the pieces. She was drawn to working with rocks when she visited a gem and mineral show in Tucson, Ariz., with her daughter.

"I couldn't believe what beauty was coming out of the earth," Sanders said. "I thought, 'I've got to be able to do something with this.'"

The three-dimensional pieces are vivid in color and much more abstract than her earlier paintings of nature scenes. The works evoke brilliant sunsets, rocky outcrops and shimmering water.

Sanders has been painting since she was 10 years old, when her mother, noticing she had some creative talent, signed her up for art lessons. She earned her art degree at the University of Georgia and has painted steadily for the past 40 years.

These days, she paints in her studio at the Buckhead home she shares with her husband, or in a studio at their home on the coast. It's not uncommon for her to spend five days a week working on her art. Sanders treats art as career, not a pastime. She spends as much time as it takes to finish each piece to her liking.

"Every painting doesn't turn into a masterpiece. You have to experiment, try different things, back up and go again. You always have to stretch yourself," Sanders said.

The exhibition is also a way to celebrate Sanders and her philanthropy work, much of which has involved her art, Kendrick said. Over the decades, Sanders has chaired fundraising events for the High Museum of Art, sold her work to raise money for the Governor's Mansion fountain and donated pieces to schools and museums across the state. Sanders also created the Betty Foy Sanders Scholarship in Art Award at Georgia Southern University in 1985. The university later named its fine arts department after Sanders.

"The main thing I have accomplished with my art is being able to give back," Sanders said. "Coming up to 80 years old, I think it's just remarkable what I've been able to do."