CAPTURING CREATIVITY IN SOUTHERN ARCHITECTURE
Words by Ginny Ellsworth
Photos by Alyssa Rosenheck
This month’s assignment lay on my desk: Write a story about a photographer whose work is establishing The New Southern, a movement started and named by interior and architectural photographer Alyssa Rosenheck.
She travels the world photographing stunning interiors and designs, but Alyssa’s roots grip the soil of Nashville. A native Nashvillian myself, I thought I knew what The New Southern meant. The neighborhood I once called home, formerly speckled with a few bungalows and minimal retail—namely Fork's Drum Closet and Becker's Bakery—now bursts with storefronts filled with coveted brands and murals bringing tourists flocking in hopes of snagging the perfect Instagram shot. Naturally, I thought our conversation about The New Southern would be full of remember-whens and evaluations of the destination city that the Athens of the South has become.
Boy, was I dead wrong.
Prior to our interview, a digital proof of Alyssa's new book, the namesake of The New Southern movement, graced my inbox. Surprised at the number of words on pages I expected to be filled with big, beautiful interior photos, I started to read. Wow. Only two paragraphs in, this gal from Tulsa commanded my attention. The New Southern movement wasn't what I thought at all.
Alyssa’s story unfolded organically in our conversation, but of course we had to start with Nashville. “Nashville is really special,” she said. “This is the city where I found my voice.”
And she doesn’t mean singing voice. She moved to the city as a young, independent woman ready to soar in the corporate world. She wanted to be a surgeon, but found she could scratch the itch of her interest in medicine and feed her entrepreneurial spirit with a career in medical device sales. She hustled for six years, not taking one single vacation.
“As a young woman in the South, I felt a tremendous responsibility to be independent, to provide for myself,” she confessed, “and I didn’t really understand that fear was leading my decisions at the time.” Her determination to succeed in the corporate world led her to Chicago, where she spent two years. She still found herself in Nashville often, visiting her now-husband, Ben, a highly skilled head and neck surgeon.
On a dinner date in Tennessee, Ben noticed an enlarged area on her neck, which turned out to be a cancerous tumor. “When you hear you have cancer, your world stops,” she said, “and you really embrace the stillness that you may not have ever looked for before.” Alyssa resigned from her job, left Chicago, and took a couple weeks in that stillness to search her heart and dig deeply into discovering what she really wanted, instead of letting fear and obligations dictate her next move. “I just wanted to heal—from the inside out.” Her avenue for achieving that goal? Creativity.
“I picked up a camera, having never shot a day in my life,” she said matter-of-factly. “I read the manual, and I taught myself how to shoot.” She knew she wanted to shoot spaces, and what better practice than shooting the condo she was selling in Chicago?
That’s right—Alyssa wasn’t a destined-since-birth photographer. Well, she was destined to give us the New Southern movement, but that couldn’t manifest until she stepped away from the societal pressure and responsibilities she picked up along the way and began to explore her creativity. “I fell in love with the way I lost myself in the process, and how I felt even more connected to the world around me.” She choked back tears, and so did I as I witnessed the passion oozing from her. “It connected me to myself, and it gave me a new chance to live.”
She began exploring the relationship between creativity and vulnerability and found that being creative is being vulnerable. It’s putting yourself out there for all to see and choosing not to care what others think, which can be quite counterintuitive to our Southern nature. For Alyssa, fostering her creativity is not just about making something beautiful. It’s about following her intuition. She describes her process as something that has become a form of prayer and meditation for her, and through what she creates, she gets to help other women grow their businesses. “When you say yes to yourself, the world says yes to you,” she promised.
The South coaxed out Alyssa’s creativity, but so did the countless men and women who have taken the courageous leap into the vulnerable space of creating (and many more should). The New Southern flaunts elegant photographs of beautiful spaces, yes, but the pages are also rich with the stories of Southerners who have overcome pain, have stretched beyond a past of struggle, and have outgrown old ways in order to let something glorious come forward. “Our stories are our power, and when we go through really hard things, it’s a resource for others to heal,” she said.
“With The New Southern, I am not a historian. I am not a politician. It is not a political movement, but love is my activism,” she explains, adding with passion that she wants this movement, through the power of creativity, to bring healing to our world.
“Creativity connects. It connects us to ourselves, and it connects us to one another in a really vulnerable way.” She explained that through one’s art, whatever form it may take, we get a view into not only the artist’s depth, but into the richness of our differences in a way that we may not have seen otherwise, a way that brings us together.
“Within these pages, I want the reader to not only have something beautiful in their home,” she says of the book, “but I want them to open up to any page and really feel this palpable humanity.” Alyssa aims to inspire her readers to look within themselves and beyond themselves to their communities. “It’s truly something larger than myself,” she adds.
In The New Southern, Alyssa’s work comes together with more than just spaces and stories. While the interiors industry focuses on celebrating mostly style, The New Southern movement also celebrates the substance behind the style. “I want to share that there is so much more than a beautiful room; these are homes people are living in, loving in, growing in, healing in, and using their voices in to help bring communities together,” she said, her words laden with a realization of the vulnerability required of her subjects.
“Life is about silencing the chaos around you and turning inward so you can understand your next step.” She brought it full circle to the silence she embraced when she was diagnosed with cancer. “That was a gift for me. It gave me permission to live beyond what I thought was possible. It gave me the courage to start this movement.”
I asked Alyssa what she would say to those who don’t consider themselves to be creative. “Everyone is creative. You just have to let go in order to receive it.” Her own life is a testament, as she went from spending 15-hour workdays with surgeons to capturing beauty through her camera lens. “It’s truly one of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced.”
Anyone who sees Alyssa’s smiling eyes from the other side of the camera capturing her perfectly-styled frame and assumes she’s another Southern woman taking her place in this world, is sorely mistaken. Alyssa is making her place in this world—and inspiring others to do the same. “It’s about honoring the past,” she said, “and seeing how we, through creativity, can continue to come together and move forward.”
In establishing The New Southern, she brings light to this space we call earth, helping us find meaning in the shadows.