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Fear no dog: Sally Ham Govan is an amazing artist to know

Buddy by Sally Ham Govan

Buddy by Sally Ham Govan

Dogs – they filled my days of summer in 2008. Living in a little cottage in Tuckaway Cove in Tennessee, my neighbor’s German Shepherd, Lab, and King Charles Cavalier often came to visit.

And then there was the day I drove into Knoxville to see Sally Ham Govan’s “Dog Show” at the Blunt Mansion Gallery. It was official then that the dog days of summer were upon us, but in such a pleasant way. Walking into that space and seeing the walls lined with dogs in repose, dogs in action, and well, just dogs – this became a defining positive art moment of that time period.

I had not met Sally until her reception, but somehow, we’ve stayed in contact over the years. She was part of a special club of folks who had worked at Whittle Communications where Ken spent a great deal of his professional life. She is now a senior editor/graphic and web designer at Middle Tennessee State University.

Well, the thing you should know pertaining to her “Dog Show” is ever since I graduated with a BFA, I’ve sought out art I’m interested in looking at – not art that someone told me I should like and revere. Sometimes I wonder if I formed my esthetics out of rebel notions. Well, shortly after I graduated, I decreed that images that have animals in them are art. There are so many great artworks that feature animals.

And the thing about Sally’s show – I totally fell in love with her dog drawings.They are Art with a capital letter A.

And still to this day, I get a thrill out of seeing what she creates (I also really enjoyed her MFA work from the University of Hartford, from which Ken is also an alumnus).

So, I sent her the interview questions you’ll see below and her answers are amazing. This is a person who is gracefully juggling a full-time career, life and art. She gives form to the idea that the sum of a person isn’t a job title, but how one creatively spends their time and energy.

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© 2016. Sally Ham Govan.

Sally’s words:

1. Do you feel you are more of a fine artist or an illustrator or is there a murky line between or connecting the two – and why?

A. I prefer the philosophy of my University of Hartford professors: I’m an artist. That simplifies things.

I do a variety of work. I have not really worked professionally as an illustrator. I have always done representational—figurative—art. I have created art that depicts scenes. I have not ever created any abstract art that seems to have substance or weight. I have seen abstract art that I can admire for its aesthetics and design. I can’t spend much time looking at most of it because there’s not enough to hold my attention.

2. When I first met you, your subject matter revolved around dog and cat imagery, are you still working in this genre and what inspired you to work with such subject matter?

A. When my father was in a nursing home, I drew portraits of him and the other residents, whom I saw and got to know on my many visits. After his death, there was a void from the previous caregiving, and I began making and exhibiting more drawings in earnest.

I always loved drawing the figure most of all. I had grown up afraid of dogs. On Christmas Eve, I couldn’t think of anything to give my brother as a present, so I made a drawing of his dog from a photo. He loved it, and other people started asking me to draw their dogs. I enjoyed drawing them just as I had the human figure in so many life drawing classes. Once I started photographing and drawing dogs, spending more time looking at them, studying their individual characteristics, learning the different breeds of dogs, I was no longer afraid of them. It was a profound lesson in the power of art therapy.

I still draw dogs by request, on commission. My favorite recent drawings involve a figure, or more than one dog, in a setting or situation so there’s more of a story rather than just a portrait. I’ve done a few painted dog portraits in acrylic, with lots of color. I’ve enjoyed creating digital scenes that have more complicated details. I’m planning a new one that I hope to complete this summer, which may start a new series.

3. What are your current inspirations?

  • The college wanted more marketing pieces produced, so I have developed a magazine that I edit and design and transformed the annual report, which I enjoy reinventing each year. Those have received a couple of recent collegiate publication awards and have taken up a lot of my creative focus and energy.
  • We recently watched a British TV mystery series, Rosemary and Thyme, about two women who design gardens for fabulous estates in Europe—quite interesting.
  • Our house was new when we bought it, so we’ve been spoiled for a long time, not having to repair or renovate anything. After 20 years, things had started looking a bit worn, so we’ve initiated clean up/paint up/fix up projects. I obsess over one project at a time, so for months we’ve been getting estimates and poring over Internet remodeling sites. Finally we’ve settled on simple, economical, minor DIY refinements that feel right and aren’t breaking the bank.
  • Last year we took a big trip. Planning for months – all the details of logistics, sights to see, places to stay that looked inspiring – was an exciting design project of another sort.

4. You are a senior editor/graphic and web designer and a design professor, as well as an artist. What is the biggest challenge in being true to each of these aspects of your life?

A. I don’t feel I am true to any of them. I am spread too thin—jack of all trades, master of none. My official full-time title is senior editor. I add “designer” to it informally to let people know all that I do. For many years I was a designer and art director and always felt that an editor was my boss. With degree concentrations in graphic design and drawing, and since I had edited my high school paper and been a reporter and editor at a newspaper during college vacations, it seemed a natural fit when I took a job designing magazines. I then learned from years of reading copy editors’ notes how they deleted lines of copy to fit a layout. When I began freelancing for a while, I jumped at the chance to start editing as well as designing (books and academic journals), so my next full-time job was as a university editor — who could also design layouts. I love being in total control — ha! — designing the entire content of a publication, from concept to print production, so everything works together as a whole. I do get bogged down in production—there is no one to delegate to.

My dad had inspired me early on with his admiration for creative innovators like Charlie Chaplin and Richard Wagner. (I wrote a high school research paper on Wagner’s innovations.) My husband had studied videography and respected Orson Welles. Those creative geniuses didn’t just write, or direct, or act, or produce, or compose, or design sets—they conceived and created the entire project. I desired to emulate them in my own small way and found that my true enjoyment comes from being a sort of “director,” endeavoring to create what Wagner called a “total art work.”

Once, in a state of career confusion, I took a battery of tests at a center that helps people find the most suitable career. Their theory was that everybody has certain skills, and to be fulfilled one must use all of one’s skills. They told me mine was the most difficult case—so many skills that it’s almost impossible to find a job using them all. Such a person usually has multiple hobbies or side gigs because a one-skill job would be too boring. They advised me not to just accept a job advertised in a classified ad, and that a smaller company or even self-employment would probably be more suited to my needs. Because I have craved the security of a salary and benefits, I’ve had to cultivate work situations—small pockets within larger organizations—where I can continually build on the job description to incorporate multiple responsibilities. This requires very understanding bosses who are willing to let me innovate and grow—as long as I still accomplish what needs to be done. (Ken Smith was such a boss!)

5. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned from becoming a college professor?

A. I have been teaching graphic design, typography, and 2D-computer illustration as an adjunct instructor at a university—just one class a semester, one evening a week (and the rest online), so I can manage it with a full-time job.

  • It’s an enormous amount of work. One can always do more work preparing for a class and finding new ways to reach students. It leaves very little time and energy for creating your own work.
  • Researching examples of the best work and trends, both historical and current, to show my class has revitalized my own work with both inspiration and new skills. (It reminds you what had made you want to do this creative work to begin with, after so many years of just meeting deadlines to pay bills.) Just as I grade student projects, suggesting improvements, I am pushing myself more to continually refine my own projects, not settling for the first solution. It’s impossible not to get inspired yourself as you show your students quotes and video footage of design and illustration greats like Milton Glaser saying “go for the wow.” It reminds me as I am doing my own work: go for the wow.

6. If money were not an issue, how would you spend your days?

A. We are working to figure that out now as we begin to think about planning for “retirement.” It becomes harder as years go by to live on an organization’s schedule. It seems unnatural spending hours at an office, completing tasks that can sometimes seem redundant or irrelevant. One naturally starts to seek more spiritual fulfillment and ways to care for the body as physical stamina gradually and perpetually declines. One considers how to spend the time and energy remaining. Quality of life becomes more important. A recent article summed it up: “Time is the new money.” Our creative project currently is conceiving ways to live with less money. I would need to set up a schedule and create projects that seem meaningful. Taking the past week off from work has been wonderful: relaxing, getting enough restful sleep, walking outdoors when the temperature’s most pleasant, taking care of the house, and spending time with my mother, soaking up her wisdom and even improving my bridge and Scrabble skills. In order to be creative, one requires spare time and “boredom” in which the imagination has room to play.

To learn more about Sally’s work visit:






The Unwinding Path is the blog of L.S. King – photographer, want-to-be printmaker and sometimes hypnotist. By day she is an arts communications officer at a rural university (translation: photographer, writer, and media content provider), and most of the rest of her time she is an MFA graduate student at Radford University.


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