Poster girl: Artist travels long road to win Seafood Festival competition

Jacob Fuller
Sara Lierly has been painting for only five years. She hopes winning the Destin Seafood Festival poster competition will be a milestone in her career.

Artist Sara Lierly envisioned a boardwalk made of waves of piano keys and lined with flower beds full of shrimp and crabs, tiny fishing vessels and pop-up tents on the edge of emerald water, under skies of blue, rose and yellow.

The inspiration for Lierly's image was the Destin Seafood Festival, and the painting she created will serve as the official poster for the event this year. Relatively new to the full-time art business, Lierly hopes the poster will serve as a major milestone in her career.

Lierly began painting in 2008. It would take years of battling with alcohol and creative blocks before she learned to open herself to a higher creativity that would take her artwork to a level worthy of a full-time career. 

A Destin destiny

Lierly grew up in Sapulpa, Okla., a suburb of Tulsa. She always felt an energy pulling her away from her hometown, but it wasn't until her first visit to the Emerald Coast at age 16 that Lierly knew where the tug was leading her.

"I remember feeling like I'd come home to a place I’d never been before, and promptly informed Mom that I would move here someday," Lierly wrote in a bio for her Etsy webpage.

At age 23, she decided it was time to head home. So she left college halfway through the semester, after changing her major from pre-med to studio art. She packed what she could, including the $1,500 she had saved, into her truck and headed for the Sunshine State, not knowing exactly where she was going.

"I was young, and really I just wanted to live by the water," Lierly told The Log.

Lierly made her first home in Orlando, and then in the Atlantic island town of Satellite Beach, where she worked on a charter fishing boat and earned her captain's license. Then one day, she and her partner, Sarah Mae, packed their belongings and headed out on the road.

They soon ran out of gas money in Destin, and settled down for a while. Lierly found work as a deck hand on the fishing vessel Miss Nautica. They didn't stay long, though, before they felt the itch to get back on the road. They headed out in 2007 and spent a year exploring the western United States.

Will paint for food

In 2008, Lierly and Mae returned to Destin at the onset of an economic recession, with little money and no jobs. A few weeks later, Lierly was sitting at Landshark's Pizza Company, wondering where her next meal would come from. The owner mentioned to her that he needed someone who would accept pizza as payment to paint the walls in the bathroom at the restaurant. He asked if she was an artist. Lierly, who had done very little painting at the time, was hesitant to agree, but liked the idea of earning food.

"I was like, 'Well, I wouldn't really call myself (an artist)… I guess I'll do it,” she remembers saying. “ ‘If it's bad, we'll just paint over it.' "

The owner and Lierly were pleased with the final product. Though she'd discovered she had a talent, Lierly wasn't ready for a career in art just yet. She began working at Dewey Destin's, while getting occasional artwork jobs. Her on-and-off struggle with alcohol hindered her creativity, though, and she did little painting over the next three years.

Then, sobriety helped usher in a big, though not immediate, breakthrough. A few months after getting sober in January 2011, Lierly pulled out an old canvas and some paint. The result was what Lierly called "the worst 5-year-old's painting ever."

"I was just frustrated. Then I heard this voice (say), 'Just let go. Just quit trying. Just quit forcing it.' Then, the next day, I heard that same voice say, 'Turn your extra bedroom into an art studio,' " Lierly said.

Lierly obeyed, and the next day she made the room into a studio. She didn't enter it again for nearly half a year.

"I walked past it every day for five months and thought, 'I wonder if I'll ever go in there and do anything,' " Lierly said.

Tapping the source of divine creativity

Then, in October, a new creative energy began to flow through Lierly. She sat down one night and completed three paintings, all of which she liked. The key, Lierly said, was that she quit trying to paint, and let a divine creativity flow through her.

"When that channel is open and moving freely, it's always a spiritual experience. To me, it's meditation. I heard once that creativity is no different than prayer. It's all the same. That is absolutely my truth.”

From that night, Lierly began to slowly cut back her days Dewey Destin's to focus on her artwork. Now, she works one day a week at the restaurant and makes her living with her paint brushes.

Winning the Destin Seafood Festival poster contest was one of the goals Lierly set for her work his year. She beat out five other artists to win the competition.

Her mother, Reesa, was with Lierly when she got the news she had won the contest. Reesa was so excited, she ran outside and began yelling to the sky.

"I said, 'OK, mom. My neighbors are out here, too,' " Lierly said.

The painting will be for sale on posters, prints and t-shirts at the 35th annual festival. Lierly will also have a tent set up where she will sell some of her other pieces of artwork.

Anyone interested in seeing Lierly's work can check it out at She sells her work online at She also has a company called Art Saves Apparel, which sells t-shirts featuring her artwork to raise money for charities, including Bikers Against Child Abuse and Blue Ocean Institute. The T-shirts are available on the Etsy site and