Sara Moseley & the Aesthetics of Memphis Music

Artist and Art Director Sara Moseley followed the music all the way to Goner Records.

Sara Moseley stands smiling in colorful room with checkered wall and many knick knacks behind her.
Sara Moseley by Brandi Rinks

According to Sara Moseley, she didn’t set out to become the art director at a record label in Memphis, Tennessee, or to work in the music industry at all. She was raised in the panhandle of Florida and attended Santa Fe College in Gainesville as a science major, with plans to attend medical school after. “I liked science, but the thing about liking science and being a scientist is that they are two different things,” said Moseley. “I’m a shitty scientist because I’m very right-brained. I’m more proficient in using my hands to make things.”

Moseley grew up enjoying art and drawing, but never considered it as a career path. However, during college her calculus class-induced stress dreams inspired her to make a change, so she took a job at their art gallery. She enjoyed the gallery work so much that she switched gears and enrolled in art classes while continuing her gallery position, where her boss, an alumni of the now-shuttered Memphis College of Art, often spent time talking up the city of Memphis and his alma mater. During a class trip to Ringling College of Art and Design in nearby Sarasota for portfolio reviews, an MCA representative in attendance saw Moseley’s work and offered her a full-ride scholarship on the spot. Having heard her boss speak so highly of the area and school, Moseley accepted without hesitation. “I put everything into my Chevy Cavalier, sold everything that wouldn’t fit, and drove to Memphis,” she said. 

“I’m a shitty scientist because I’m very right-brained. I’m more proficient in using my hands to make things.”

Once at MCA, Moseley focused on illustration, comics and animation with aspirations of moving to Los Angeles to work at Cartoon Network as a storyboard artist after graduation. She wrote, illustrated and animated short films for three years at the art school. Once MCA’s financial woes began to affect student resources, she quit school, entered the service industry and rented her own studio space at the Art Factory in Cooper Young. Moseley said it was a “typical restaurant work to sustain an art habit” situation, but during that time she made contacts and friends such as Karen Carrier, owner of The Beauty Shop Restaurant and Bar DKDC, and Frank McLallen, a midtown musician in bands such as Jack Oblivian and The Sheiks and Tennessee Screamers, both of whom played a part in her path to becoming a record label art director.

Two graphic designs and one physical design in front of leaves by Sara Moseley
Some artwork and designs by Sara Moseley

Moseley continued refining her work in her studio in between shifts at The Beauty Shop. She describes her aesthetic as silly and colorful, saying the term “too much” has never entered into her thought process. Her inspiration draws from artists such as Japanese graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo, vintage packaging and 1950s comics, and says she takes a more pen and ink illustrative approach to design than other more “painterly” artists, probably because of all the years she spent storyboarding comics and films at MCA.  In 2017, Moseley put together her first gallery show at Crosstown Art’s 420 Gallery entitled “Just So You Know” that ran for several days and included an artist talk. “I figured out that you actually don’t need anyone’s permission or some stupid made-up degree to be an artist,” Moseley said. “No one has ever asked me if I have a college degree.” Her self-funded and self-curated gallery show was a success, and the first event in a pattern that appeared in Moseley’s art career where just showing up and making things happen on her own terms was a crucial step on a path she didn’t even realize she was taking. 

In 2018, Moseley was having drinks with McLallen and his bandmate from The Sheiks, Keith Cooper, at Bar DKDC while they planned the band’s annual holiday shows. After hearing that the band hadn’t planned anything special for the occasion, Moseley suggested a “Christmas in Space” theme, offering to take the lead on the decor and props. Taking inspiration from Memphis musician Harlan T. Bobo’s classic “Merry Christmas Spaceman” album, meshed with imagery from 1950s space race era comics, Moseley spent months designing the event, including the poster, backdrops, a framed curtain, and hand-made alien Christmas tree props. On Christmas Eve, after working the holiday dinner shift at her restaurant gig next door, she installed the scene at Bar DKDC with the help of the band until the early hours of Christmas morning. The performance was such a surprise hit that The Sheiks’ Christmas in Space has taken place every year since, often packing out Bar DKDC so much that there’s barely standing room. In 2020, due to the pandemic, they released a video instead, on which Moseley also did the art direction and execution. Moseley said the Christmas in Space experience is what she credits with orienting her career down its current unexpected path, with more bands approaching her to do album work and posters soon after, including her first festival projects such as designing the art for the 2019 GRRL Fest fundraiser benefiting the Southern Girls Rock Camp. “If I had to give advice to people about how to start, I feel like most of it is just showing up and doing it,” said Moseley. “There’s a lot of room for someone to come in with new input and creativity.” 

“I figured out that you actually don’t need anyone’s permission or some stupid made-up degree to be an artist. No one has ever asked me if I have a college degree.”

Moseley used her skills and initiative in a similar way with a web-streamed fundraiser telethon for local video rental store and event space, Black Lodge Video, during the pandemic. At the time, she was working at an insurance agency and fighting a creative rut, so she approached the store’s owners about putting on a pre-recorded fundraiser telethon with them, featuring multiple bands performing, tee shirts for sale, and ending the night with a movie screening. She met screen printer Will Loren during their collaboration on the telethon T-shirts, who she would work with again in 2021 on shirts for a show at B-Side featuring Optic Sink, Silver Synthetic and Model Zero. The poster Moseley made for that show was so striking that people kept asking to buy a shirt with the design, so she worked with Loren to print shirts, and nervous that no one would buy them, she also went the extra step to create a large lighted Devil head display to feature them at the merch table. 

Zac Ives and Eric Friedl, the owners of Goner Records, were in attendance and asked Moseley if she’d like to meet with them to discuss her work and a possible opportunity. After years of making solid creative connections in midtown Memphis by displaying her talents and approaching others with her ideas and willingness to put forth the extra effort to take things over the top, the dynamic had reversed and the opportunities were now falling into her lap. At that meeting a few days later, Ives and Friedl asked if she’d be interested in doing design for their annual music festival that brings artists and attendees from all over the world, Gonerfest, which Moseley smartly negotiated into a full-time position that would allow her to quit her job at the insurance agency. 

A crowd before a stage at Gonerfest20
Photo from Gonerfest20 courtesy of Brandi Rinks

Gonerfest 18 was the first large-scale event that Moseley was fully art directing, so she did a lot of learning on the job. Artist Jeff Mahannah did the poster design that year, and she made large wooden cutouts of the imagery for stage decorations, designed all the festival merch, banners, ads, made streaming graphics and took over the label’s social media. Her efforts were a success, and she continued thriving in her position, eventually taking over art direction on GonerTV, which also required teaching herself video editing and production along the way. “I feel like I’ve literally taught myself everything that I do currently in my job,” said Moseley, who swears by Youtube as a resource for artists. 

“If I had to give advice to people about how to start, I feel like most of it is just showing up and doing it.”

For Gonerfest 19, Moseley used her own designs for the festival branding, which took on a bewitched candy theme she said was inspired by cults and the Brach’s Candy heiress disappearance scandal of the 1970s. Moseley’s art direction and aesthetic is striking due to the odd inspirations and small details she includes in her work, shown when she went as far as finding a specialty candy-maker to custom-make lollipops that matched the festival decor for the attendee gift bags that year. 

For Gonerfest 20, Moseley worked with painter Stacy Kiehl for the graphics, and took lessons learned from the large stage decorations of previous years to lighten the weight and size of the backdrop signs for installation and transport purposes, while adding additional details and elements such as color-changing lights to avoid minimizing the impact. This year, the giant glitter skulls with light up eyes Moseley hand-constructed in her home studio hanging on either side of the Railgarten stage were so popular that Goner Records had multiple attendees offering to purchase them on the spot before the fest was even over. In addition to doing art direction for Goner Records, she has recently completed projects for Memphis Made Brewery, worked on the redesign of materials for several local parks, designed the album art for an Aquarian Blood album to be released in 2024, and even created props for nationally televised programs such as “Young Rock” and “Women of the Movement.”  

Moseley has a mix of art school education and self-taught skills, and is now well-versed in such a wide variety of art techniques that she can do anything from illustration to sculpture, screen printing to prop and set design, video editing to painting, and over the years has used that range to instill her aesthetic into the history of Memphis music and culture in such a discreet, unpretentious way that she rarely gets the name recognition deserved for the finesse and vision required to pull off such large, successful projects. Despite her clear success, respectable job title and steady work in the art field, Moseley remains humble about the role her initiative and myriad of talents played in her career path. “I don’t really know how I got here,” she said. “I’m just kind of taking it day by day.”

You can follow Sara Moseley at @cakeslime.