City Creatives: Ashley Spencer shapes interiors with murals, colors and decors

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City Creatives: Ashley Spencer shapes interiors with murals, colors and decors
Ashley Spencer’s art is rooted in nature. (Courtesy photo)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

Ashley Spencer, a muralist, entrepreneur and color specialist, has been transforming homes in Alexandria with her art for more than 35 years. Through her business, Casart Decor, she offers an array of home decor items and removable wall coverings tailored with her artistic vision.

She describes her style as having an appreciation for nature, aiming to create visuals where there’s more than meets the eye. Spencer designed an outdoor mural, themed around nature, at Jefferson-Houston School with the help of some college students who were aspiring artists.

“I like to bring some sense of order to complexity. I like to bring some visual description to the mysteries of nature that we all experience but cannot always express in words. … The realization of ‘trompe l’oeil,’ is one of my favorite styles, and tricking the eye upon more in-depth observation that gives you that sense of, ‘Oh, wow.’”

Spencer’s passion for art history and mural painting began at the age of 10 during a family trip to Europe. She said the opportunity came at the last minute when the couple that was supposed to accompany her family had to cancel, making room for her.

“I went on that trip and have been inspired by murals ever since. Just visiting some of these amazing places in Europe. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and it’s always stuck with me. … How something that magnificent could be painted in such a way and on such a large scale,” Spencer said.

Originally from New Orleans, Spencer didn’t realize how much she appreciated living there until after she left to pursue higher education at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she got her bachelor’s degree in art history.

“I miss the food and the music, and the sense of life and living life to its fullest. … That ‘joie de vivre’ that you’re never going to find anywhere else [other than in] New Orleans,” Spencer said.

And, her reason for pursuing higher education was simple: learning new techniques alongside other artists.

“I knew that learning about other artists and art history would open my eyes to great masterworks. … and their artistic styles and techniques would help me by just learning through their endeavor,” she said.

A self portrait mural of Ashley Spencer showcasing the trompe l’oeil style. (Courtesy photo)

Spencer comes from a long line of doctors in her family, including her father, who is a neurosurgeon. Early in her college career, after attending a pre-medical meeting, she realized the medical field wasn’t for her.

“I realized, ‘Uh-uh, I don’t have the stamina [or] the passion for it,’” Spencer said. “That’s [when] I knew I wanted to go into something that was art related.”

She describes that moment of realization as the best decision she ever made.

Spencer honed her drawing skills in college and learned how to look and observe through multiple different perspectives. She credited her mother and her art teachers for inspiring her.

“My mother was a great creative educator, but I had really got my inspiration from my art teachers, and then learning different types of artistic methods [like] media and wall color, watercolor and acrylics [and] linoleum block printing,” Spencer said. “I realized drawing is really the foundation for all of these creative techniques, so that’s really where my concentration became.”

After graduating from college in 1987, Spencer moved to Alexandria and took a job as a photographer at the National Gallery of Art in the design and installation department. Mark Leithauser, her boss, influenced her growth as an artist.

A Casart mural of seashells illustrated and illustrations.(Courtesy photo)

“Mark, who used to run that department, was really a mentor of mine,” Spencer said. “He’s an exceptional artist. … I love the fact that I could learn about exhibition designs through his talent.”

Spencer worked at the NGA for a year and then landed a job at Arena Stage theater in Washington, D.C. as a set designer, where she primarily painted stage sets. She said the experience she gained from learning decorative painting there was valuable for later in her career.

“It was great for set design and on-hand learning, as when I went out on my own business, I was doing decorative and faux painting.”

After marrying her college sweetheart, Peter, in 1988, Ashley was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while also expecting her first child. Given the circumstances, she changed course and launched her illustration business, The Occasional Palette.

“I was able to work from home, illustrating for publications, as well as custom invitations, calligraphy and house renderings for private commissions,” Spencer said.

Once her children were school-aged, Spencer shifted her focus to interior design, where she created murals and decorative paintings. She soon came across an interesting challenge: If a homeowner moved, they wouldn’t be able to take the wall art with them. Spencer said this inspired her next business, which specializes in removable, high quality wall coverings: Casart Coverings.

Spencer said her father instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in her.

“My father had his own [private practice], and he did always tell me, ‘Always try to work for yourself,’” Spencer said. “I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be at the time. … It’s a lot of work to run your own business, but I just wanted to be my own boss.”

Spencer said her creative process typically starts by stitching together ideas from the things she reads and observes whether it be in the newspaper, outside or on Pinterest.

“I’m always inspired by things I might read or things I might see, so I’m clipping things from magazines, from the newspaper. I’m doing my own research. I have folders and files of all these reference images that I might use for a bird in a mural. … I’ll get a lot of inspiration from looking at interior design, shelter magazines [and] Pinterest. I have a lot of visual inspiration on Pinterest – I’m pinning stuff all the time,” Spencer said.

Spencer offered advice for any artist looking to start their own business: They should first educate themselves on running a business.

“Take a basic business course before you start. I hadn’t done that, I learned the ropes the hard way and it was good learning. … But there are many details and hurdles to navigate before jumping in and swimming alone, when there might be sharks already in the water,” she said. “Surround yourself with honest, hardworking and supportive people, and remind yourself to do the thing you love, which is what my father always told me to do.”

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