One artist's quest to capture her travels led to these stunning portraits of wild women.
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Nature Valley

Amanda Sandlin is only 27, but she's lived in a van, on a ship, and on both ends of the world.

And not in a clichéd, "quit your job and pursue your dreams" sort of way. In fact, through hard work and determination, she's found a way to make adventuring her job. You could almost call adventuring her family's business.

Photo by Kris Holbrook, used with permission.


“I grew up on cruise ships,” she explains, where her mom taught arts and crafts and ballroom dancing. Beginning after first grade, she was homeschooled — or, rather, “shipschooled” half the year, and homeschooled on a farm in Pennsylvania for the remaining time.

“It’s pretty bizarre,” she laughs, looking back on how unusual her upbringing was.

Amanda's unconventional start in life led her to develop a courageous spirit — one that would take her to places that most only dream of.

"It’s so easy for me to be moving," she says. Though she returned to the mainland for high school and college, it took only a few months in the traditional work world for Amanda to realize that she belonged back out on an adventure.

This time, she turned to the outdoors, reading about and watching people who went climbing, biking, surfing. “I grew up traveling but I never really did much outdoors stuff,” she says. "I started thinking, 'I would love that kind of life.’”

Photo by Gianni S. Visciano, used with permission.

Finally, she decided to stop longing for it and start living it. "I packed up my car and my cat, and I drove to San Francisco."

Throwing caution to the wind, Amanda chased her desires wherever they led her — all the way around the world.

But not before getting a writing job at a company whose employees worked remotely, allowing her to travel and climb wherever she chose. When she tired of weekends in Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, she took off for New Zealand.

After a year, she returned to the States, but her adventures were far from over.

“That’s when I was like, you know, I’m single, I don’t feel like anywhere is home to me, so why don’t I just build out a van and travel until I find the place that feels good?”

Photo by Amanda Sandlin, used with permission.

In her van, affectionately named Penny, Amanda looped her way all over North America.

"I started in Florida and went up the east coast to Maine. Then I drove out to Colorado, up through Oregon and Washington to British Columbia, and I stayed there for a while," she remembers. "I drove down to southern California, up through New Mexico, and then made a loop back to Colorado."

She decided to settle in Denver, where she lives now with her rescue dog, Dewey.

Though she's no longer traveling full-time, Amanda is by no means back on the beaten path.

While out on the road, her work shifted gradually from writing into design and now, she's a full-time freelance artist.

Photo by Amanda Sandlin, used with permission.

"It happened pretty naturally," she says. As her work assignments became more and more visual, she started teaching herself graphic design and creating projects of her own on the side.

Image via Amanda Sandlin.

She began posting her projects online, and people started seeking her out for commissioned work. "That's how I got my freelance clients," she says. "They came to me."

Soon after, she left her remote job to live off her art alone.

In her art, Amanda strives to capture the spirit of adventurousness — her own, and that of women like her.

Image via Amanda Sandlin.

“I’m really inspired by the women who are willing to venture into the wilderness, whether that’s mountains and forests or weeding through the difficult stuff you’re doing on the inside,” she says. That exploration inspires the portraits she draws of wild women.

Image via Amanda Sandlin.

“I draw a lot of women with their hair blowing in the wind. I think I like that motion of the hair,” she says.

“You know when you’re walking outside, on a ferry or something, and your hair keeps blowing and you keep trying to put it back, bobby pin it, put it in a ponytail, but it keeps blowing in your face, and finally there’s that moment where you just let it go?" she asks.

"It’s like a complete release, and that, to me, is the type of feeling that I aim to capture in my artwork.”

Image via Amanda Sandlin

Perhaps most interesting about Amanda is the fact that she doesn't think of herself as brave.

In fact, she thinks that anyone, really, could do what she does. Adventuring, she says, is not necessarily packing up a van named Penny and heading out on the road. "The wilderness is the internal and the external and being OK with not being OK."

The satisfaction that she has gotten from being free to be outdoors, on adventures, to climb across the country and capturing art in nature, is well worth the struggle required to make her lifestyle work. And, she says, she hopes that others are inspired to find ways to pursue their own adventures, too.

"It's scary to make a change, or to chase after what you want," she says. "But it's never, it's rarely easy. It's never going to feel only good. But it's a challenge, and that's what makes you grow."

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.