Sasha Spielberg’s Watercolor Pet Portraits Fuel Her Obsession with Dogs
The musician, actress, artist, and podcaster paints to honor her great past loves: the pups in her life.
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Sasha Spielberg is no stranger to seeing the words “Steven Spielberg’s daughter” right next to her name in headlines, but the musician, artist (watercolor pet portraits are her specialty), actress, podcaster, and honorary fourth HAIM sister didn’t build a 71K following on Instagram and multi-faceted career based on who’s in her family tree. She does, however, have a little bit of fun with her family connection, telling One Joint With in 2018 that she almost made her stage name “Spielberg’s Daughter” based on those aforementioned headlines. Instead, she decided to go with “Buzzy Lee,” a nod to her effervescent personality and her late paternal grandmother, who had the nickname first.
Now, the 32-year-old has made a space for herself in the entertainment industry. She recently celebrated the March 31 release of her new album, Internal Affairs. She’s also been playing upcoming shows in Brooklyn and LA and writing her third album, working on her podcast Free Period with Alana Haim, and painting dreamy watercolors of people’s best animal pals.
Spielberg’s projects do have a common theme: She’s revisiting various parts of her past and coming to terms with them. While Free Period might have a more obvious link, Internal Affairs features songs that were written over the course of 2017 to 2019, when Spielberg was in a relationship in which she didn’t feel like herself. Her “Cinderblock” music video, which features many adorable pups, gives us access to her deeply curious and always whirring mind, as she opens tabs labeled everything from “What Are Sea Monkeys” to “Quiz: Do you Have OCD?” and “The Best Chocolate Cheesecake Recipe.”
Thankfully, in her husband, artist and photographer Harry McNally, Spielberg has found a partner who can help her juggle it all, especially her creative projects. He even directed her NPR Tiny Desk Concert from her childhood bathroom.
When The Wildest talked with Spielberg in February, she told us about why she does pet portraits, her new album, and one very special, gorgeous green jumpsuit. During our photo shoot, she posed alongside a dog named Tigre, whom she also painted. Tigre has since been adopted through Pup Culture and Adopt a Pet, and his new parents have been gifted Spielberg’s watercolor portrait of him, but there are still plenty of other pets on Adopt a Pet who need homes. Maybe, once you welcome your new family member into the fold, you can commission a watercolor from an artist we know...
Dogs often appear in your art, in both the music video for your latest single, “Cinderblock,” and the watercolor pet portraits you make. Is there a particular reason that you’re drawn to dogs?
I think what’s so interesting is that I used to have a really big fear of dogs, when I was younger. I was very sensitive to loud noises, so I was afraid of balloons because I would anticipate them popping. And I was afraid of dogs because I would anticipate them barking. I was very, very debilitatingly scared of dogs until the end of high school. I remember I was at my friend’s house, and she had a cute older brother. I was holding hot tea that had just come out, and they had this big German Shepherd, who was kind of hanging out next to me as I was flirting with the brother. The dog barked, and I jumped so intensely that the hot tea went all over my face. It was scalding. My face was fully burned. And the brother was like, “Are you OK?” And I was like “Oh, yeah, it’s totally fine!” He was like, “It’s boiling tea; are you OK?”
So, how did your relationship with dogs change?
We always had dogs growing up, and I loved my dogs, but again, scared of the barking. Then I don’t know what happened, but there was a switch. I got my first dog — me and my boyfriend at the time — this three-legged German Shepherd named Hamlet, and that was my first love. [Hamlet] felt like my dog. Ever since then, I’ve just been absolutely obsessed-in-love with dogs — every single kind of dog. I just adore them. With every boyfriend I had, I had a dog with that boyfriend.
It’s also very heartbreaking because I don’t have any dogs currently. My husband and I are between New York and LA, and we’re just not getting a dog anytime soon. I’m just painting them every day, and it’s actually making the obsession worse because I don’t have one. But yeah, with every partner and big relationship of my life, there’s always been a different love of my life, which has been the dog. I guess I’m just mourning the loss of those dogs through my paintings and through my art.
There’s a joke in one of the early seasons of Gilmore Girls that the person who did the table settings for Sookie’s wedding did “Steven Spielberg’s daughter’s Jack Russell Terrier’s Bark Mitzvah.” Have you heard about this?
That is incredible! To be honest, I must have known. I never watched Gilmore Girls. I know Sookie is Melissa McCarthy, right? I know that — I’ve seen some episodes. I did not have a Bark Mitzvah. I wish I had. I want to do that with my next dog.
When did you start doing pet portraits and why? Why watercolor?
I was mainly oil — I started art classes at five, and I started with pastel, and then I went to watercolor, and then you graduate to oil. Watercolor I always loved — I had this portable watercolor kit. The clean-up is just nothing like oil. There’s no turpentine. It’s just water. I kind of stopped painting once I got to college, and [watercolor] was a way to continue my love of painting.
Over COVID, because I didn’t want to set up oils, watercolor was the next best thing. I started painting portraits of friends, then when I was done with the portraits of friends, because sadly, you know, when I gave them to friends — it wasn’t flattering. I went to dogs next. Something clicked, and I just was so connected to the subject of the dog. It was a whole new world, and it just clicked.
What’s your process? Do you work off of photos?
I work from photos because it’s hard to paint live — you saw the music video; it’s hard to make dogs sit.
How did you develop your style? I’ve noticed that you use some unexpected colors (at least unexpected for painting dogs), like blues and greens, in your pet portraits.
With my human portraits, I always used blues and greens. That’s how I learned how to paint skin tones, using blues and greens, or primary colors. I felt that when I was using blues, reds, greens to make skin tones, I would lean heavier on the greens and blues. It was always what I was drawn to, so I think that translated to pets. There’s so much fur, and it actually allows for so much texture that you don’t get with skin. I just had so much fun with the colors there.
There’s a book that I read at a very young age called Monster Mama. If you look at those images, it really does feel like splattered paint in a portrait, using so many colors. These layers of green underneath the hair — I’m just always inspired by that.
Do you write the clever descriptions underneath each pet portrait on your website? Because those are so cute.
My husband, actually. I have to give him credit. He writes most of them, and we name the dogs for anonymity, of course. There’s not a real dog named Lexapro. That’s just my dream name for a dog.
Going back to your “Cinderblock” music video, how did you come up with the concept?
I always had this idea for a video, of just a portrait with very slow zoom out, and I’m super still and delivering this intense performance to camera, but as the camera pulls out, my arms are shaking trying to control a bunch of dogs on leashes. That was originally the idea, but what happened was the dogs were almost too well-behaved, because they’re professional-actor dogs. There was one naughty one. I was loving that one, because I was like, “Keep going, keep being naughty, keep putting me in these situations.” The idea behind it is striving for perfection, being OK with imperfection, and finding freedom in imperfection.
Was the naughty dog the Golden Retriever? Because I thought I saw that one make a break for it.
No! The naughty dog was the Pit Bull mix that had a black spot on its eye, and it was black and white. I think the name was Lucy. And Lucy just wanted to play with the other smaller dog that was seated — not in my arms. Because that was Lucy’s first time meeting that one, and she just really wanted to play.
What’s your second album, Internal Affairs, about?
It is a continuum of [my first album], Spoiled Love. It’s sort of a part two, but it’s made with a different perspective. With Spoiled Love, I was so in it, and each song was made to feel like a diary entry or a secret or a whisper. I was very raw. There is a Venn diagram, and they do share about five songs. There are five crossovers, but those songs are sung with more distance. There’s more production, and I’m really narrating it, rather than living it.
You said that you worked on this during the pandemic. Your music video features you showing and then closing all the browser tabs on your phone, which is such a personal touch and something we all kind of went through as we lived fully on our screens at that time.
No, absolutely. I think the loneliest I’ve ever felt was actually in the previous relationship. Actually most of the songs were written in 2017/2018/2019. It was recorded over 2020/2021. But it is me clearing my history, so to speak, because I am. There was a world where I would just discard these songs because they felt older and from another time, but I wasn’t willing to do that. Rather than sitting on these songs, I’m clearing my history by putting them out.
How did you come up with your stage name, Buzzy Lee?
Buzzy was a funny nickname that I was given in college. I wasn’t known as Buzzy, it was just one friend who just said — because of my personality. The second, Lee, is my grandmother’s name. At first, it was just going to be Buzzy, and then it didn’t feel right to have just one word. She had just passed, so I wanted to honor her. I feel very connected to her; she and I are probably the most alike.
It’s funny. I didn’t think much about it. Actually, that’s a full lie — I thought so much about it, but again, it’s the imperfection. I was never going to come up with a name that I was happy with that wasn’t my own, because it feels so weird to come up with a stage name. I landed on Buzzy Lee with Nico, my producer.
In addition to your album, you also have a podcast with Alana Haim called Free Period about the awkward teenage years, which features special guests. What made you decide to use your diary as source material?
Oh, my god — my diary is my biggest inspiration, to this day. Because you know why? It’s a reminder that I’m the exact same person I was at eight years old, nine years old, 10 years old. I’ve remained so consistent.
With my past partnership (the one that the songs are about), I was so unable to access that ten-year-old, 11-year-old, 12-year-old, because I was trying so desperately to be someone for that partner that I wasn’t. The diary was such a grounding force in my life because I could look back at entries and see myself again. And when I met Harry, my husband, it felt like I was meeting him as my younger self. It felt so much stronger.
Alana has said that you’re the fourth HAIM sister. Any plans to perform with them again, like you did last year?
Yes, absolutely, I will perform with them again. We had the best time. I am the fourth HAIM sister — there’s just nothing else to argue. I am 100 percent the fourth HAIM sister.
I noticed that you also wore the beautiful green outfit from your music video when you were onstage with the HAIM sisters. What’s the significance of that outfit?
My dream in life is just to have a uniform every day — or five replicas of the same outfit. I have a friend who does that. It’s incredible. I want that. With my band, with Theo, my brother, before I “went solo,” I would play around with outfits. We opened for bands that just kind of had one outfit, and I thought that was so cool. I almost felt a little lost. One day, I would wear jeans and a T-shirt on stage, and then the next day I would wear a crazy five-layer cupcake dress, so I was kind of finding my identity through my stage outfits.
When I was first asked to play these shows, I told my friend Abby — she’s a creative designer, director, model, artist — and she said, “I want to make an outfit for you.” She told me her thoughts: “I imagine you sitting on a piano bench, and you have a train. The train is covering the bench. You’re just sitting there in this beautiful green train.” Then she partnered with Turner. She’s a stylist, identity engineer, and image archivist. They brought in Seth Pratt, who is an incredible costume designer. He does costumes for Euphoria and Lizzo. He’s just so talented. The three of them worked as a team to create that outfit for me.
I think it’s too fantastic to ever put away, so I’ve just made it my uniform for this record cycle. And I think for the next album, I’ll do a version of it. I’ll have another version made in a different color and variation.
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Alicia Kort is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She’s currently the senior commerce editor at Apartment Therapy. She’s been published in StyleCaster, Electric Literature, Newsweek, Interview, Brooklyn magazine and more. In her free time, she runs, reads, and spends time with her dog-nieces, Maya and Lady, and her cat-niece, Pepper.