Sara Ward Conley, noted Nashville artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was born on December 21, 1859, to Dr. William and Eliza Ward. Following an education at Nashville's Ward Seminary (a school for young women founded by her father), she received scholarships to study art in Paris and Rome.
Ward returned to Nashville and pursued an art career as a teacher and painter of portraits and murals. Among her works are two portraits of the William Blount family for the Blount Mansion in Knoxville and an impressive mural for the Battle Creek Sanitarium. In 1883 she married John W. Conley. She was widowed early and her only daughter died in childhood.
In 1896 Conley was named architect of the Woman's Building for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. In contrast to the open, barn-like design of the other Exposition buildings, Conley's Woman's Building included two floors connected by a grand stairway and featured a library and model kitchen as well as separate exhibit rooms decorated by women's groups from various organizations, counties, and cities.
Conley also chaired the Centennial Arts Committee, which selected art works for display at the Exposition. Conley's pastel portrait entitled Portrait of Elia (also known as June Rose) was among the works exhibited in the Parthenon galleries.
The Tennessee Centennial Exposition was Conley's last major project. Stricken with typhoid fever later that year, she was confined to a wheelchair for the remaining forty-seven years of her life. Conley continued to teach art until her death on May 6, 1944. She is buried in Nashville's Mt. Olivet Cemetery.