Sarah paints a bright future in the US

2 May 23 | Profiles

Even though she now lives in Austin, Texas, Sarah Rose de Villiers still keeps her torches charged, just because… ‘Eishkom’ left its mark.

SA-born artist Sarah Rose de Villiers (28) is an ‘accidental immigrant’ who ended up in Austin ‘because of a boy’. “Paul Ehrlich, to be specific, and he’s the best travel souvenir ever! It’s my favourite love story, but maybe I’m biased,” Sarah laughs.

The couple met while backpacking in the Philippines and had only five days together before they had to part ways. Paul returned to Chicago to study medicine, while Sarah moved to Prague to study art.

“We would FaceTime during his study breaks and after my waitressing shifts at an Irish bar – often talking until the sun rose on my side,” says Sarah. They spent the next three years meeting up around the world, from Hungary and Argentina to Chile, SA and the US.

In late 2020, after eight months apart, there was a window for travel during Covid-19 and Sarah booked a two-month trip to Austin. “The plan was to conduct my master’s interviews virtually, complete my thesis and return to SA to submit it. But plans changed. The ‘SA variant’ of the virus jeopardised my return flight and, with Paul’s medical residency, regular travel to each other wouldn’t have been possible.”

The couple FaceTimed Sarah’s dad to ask him what he thought about them getting married. He said: “Some people never meet their soulmate, some do and miss the opportunity to live the dream. You know when you have met your soulmate. Don’t miss the bus if you need to catch it. Your mum and I are right behind you – or at least a continent away!”

One month later, Paul and Sarah married in an Chicago bookstore, with a protea bouquet made of book paper and family ‘Zooming in’ from around the world.

“I arrived in the US with one suitcase of my deepest winter clothes and art supplies for my thesis, and suddenly I was building a life in America,” says Sarah. One year later, they had a second wedding in SA.

“This time, we had a church ceremony, real proteas and a proper ‘opskop’ with all my people.” Sarah was born in Johannesburg and grew up in Somerset West. “My soul’s home is Pringle Bay – a magical coastal village where we spent most weekends as a family. The fynbos, freedom, sneaky baboons and enchanting rock pools had a huge influence on who I am.”

Her interest in art was sparked as a child when she and her siblings were encouraged to draw, explore and play in colour. “I guess the difference between me and most people is that I just never stopped. 

I loved that I could translate images from my mind onto a blank surface. It’s like going for a walk without a map. I love every step of the way, no matter where I end up.” It was while she was studying journalism at Rhodes University that she realised how much she needed art. “I was navigating a community riddled with barriers, violence and differences. Drawing became my way of processing my experiences, bridging language barriers and connecting with people. “Later, when I travelled – to China, Italy, India, Portugal, the Philippines, Spain and South America – painting became my way of appreciating the place and its people. I loved gifting the sketches and watercolour studies to people I met along the way.”

Creative with words too

Sarah obtained a Bachelor of Journalism from Rhodes University, with merit, in 2017. She then used her visual journalism portfolio to apply for the third year of the Bachelor of Fine Arts programme in Experimental Media in Prague (Czech Republic). The honours course focused on conceptual art. In 2018, she was awarded a First Class Honours from Prague College (accredited by Teesside University in the UK) and also earned a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate from the Language House. After a year of travelling South America and Asia, and exhibiting in her hometown, Sarah embarked on a Masters in English Studies at Stellenbosch University. She started working on her thesis – ‘A Kaleidoscopic Portrait of Human Migration in the Cape’ – as the Covid-19 pandemic broke. It married written and visual storytelling to create a broad and intimate story of human movement. “The wicked irony is that while researching, writing and illustrating stories of migration, I was en route to becoming an immigrant myself,” says Sarah. Her thesis was awarded Cum Laude in 2021 and she graduated in absentia because a week after submitting the 220-page document, she married Paul. “My education history is a lot like my hair – with twists and turns and some wonderful surprises. I never formally studied painting, but I have had great fun using art as a language for storytelling and in my studies. My dad seems to think my grand plan is to break all the rules,” Sarah laughs.

The bigger picture

Sarah started working on bigger paintings when, during a university holiday, her mother asked her for a large painting of an aloe. “Then I saw a fiercely beautiful woman in Stellenbosch who was working as a car guard. She had brilliantly green eyes and I was compelled to ask to paint her. I realised I loved portraiture and that eventually led to me returning from six months of travelling in South America with a backpack full of painted portraits of people I met along the way.” 

The paintings were exhibited in The Drama Factory, a Cape Town theatre owned by Sue Diepeveen, who saw them on Sarah’s Facebook page. “She told me: ‘Come hang your sh*t up’,” Sarah laughs. Terri Coyle was the next woman to open her space to Sarah’s art. Her homegrown exhibition ‘South African Birds & Botanicals’ was hosted at Terri’s guest lodge SW1 in Somerset West. After the show, Sarah travelled to Indonesia, Malaysia and the US, and then embarked on her Master’s in English – always painting in between. During this time, she painted an illustrated alphabet on the wall of an orphanage in Bali, a cat mural in her hostel in Borneo and a few stick-and-poke tattoos on friends.

Comparing the US to SA, Sarah says: “It’s nice to have electricity… barring that time an ice storm swept through Austin and left us without power for four days. But truly, it’s incomparable. I grew up with mountains behind me, the ocean in front of me, vineyards to the side and family all around.”

She says her accent is often mistaken for Australian, New Zealand or British. “I’ve even been asked what country in SA I come from. It gets tiring repeating my story and basic geography, but it’s also an honour to be the first South African many of them meet. I’m proud to represent my country and inspire people to visit the land of proteas and rusks.”

Thriving in the US

Sarah says it was ‘difficult landing in a vacuum’ when they arrived in Austin. “I had no network, connections or community. Paul went straight into his residency programme, and I was stuck at home waiting for a green card and wondering how I had gone from a student surrounded by family and running up Helderberg mountain, to driving on the wrong side of the road in a city with drive-through ATMs.”

“My first ‘phew, I’m not alone’ moment was at the South African Bazaar in 2021. It was a market of South African vendors, hosted on Heritage Day, featuring everything from pannekoek and bobotie spices to ‘sokkie’ and rugby. I was surrounded by familiar accents and phrases like ‘shame’ and ‘now now’. I loved it!” At the bazaar, Sarah sold many of the artworks that had kept her sane through this ‘strange chapter’ of her life.

She received follow-up commissions that encouraged her to keep painting. “As my community and connections grow, my art has a wider reach and I’m fortunate to see the same people returning for more artworks or commissions. A ‘Sarah Rose artwork’ has become a family tradition for some and the ‘go-to gift’ for others. It’s a profound honour, and it gives me indescribable momentum.”


Over the past month, Sarah has exhibited with Creative Action, a non-profit organisation she works for as a teaching artist. “I teach visual art at various community sites around Austin, including an afterschool programme at an elementary school and a local recreation centre for seniors and adults with intellectual challenges.” She has also been accepted to teach English literature and composition at Austin Community College. Sarah still visits SA and came home in March for her sister’s wedding and to ‘top up my inspiration pot’.

Does she still keep any SA traditions alive?

“Like having a good sense of humour and dipping rusks in my coffee? Until my dying breath,” says Sarah. “I look forward to spending Heritage Day at the South African Bazaar and I acknowledge South African holidays in my own little ways, run on Africa time and call traffic lights ‘robots’. I also always keep our torches charged – Eishkom left its mark.”

Innovation fits young entrepreneur like a glove

Innovation fits young entrepreneur like a glove

While Brandon Hiemstra turned to America to find new markets for SA-grown macadamias, a woman who grew up in rural South Africa is establishing herself in the business world, thanks in part to a USA programme that empowers female entrepreneurs.

read more
Macadamia dream started on a Lowveld farm

Macadamia dream started on a Lowveld farm

Brandon Hiemstra grew up in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, an area abundant with fruits, nuts and vegetables. The city is surrounded with rich agricultural activities and in the past ten years the Lowveld has become one of South Africa’s major hubs for macadamia farming.

read more
No one wears the pants in the McLean-Bailey household

No one wears the pants in the McLean-Bailey household

When an internationally recognised television personality, emcee, speaker, entrepreneur and philanthropist, and a former Manchester United legend and England goalkeeper, soccer commentator, presenter and global circuit speaker team up, one can only expect fireworks!

read more