Creative Expressions

Talented local ladies hone their artistic spirits

By Melissa Andrews

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Life-like stills, stimulating abstracts, subtle hues, vibrant colors — each piece of artwork tells a story but it’s the eye of the beholder that creates the narrative. That’s the beauty of art. It invites the mind to uncover the meaning, to delve into the story behind the fine lines or broad strokes. Perhaps it’s completely contrary to what the artist intended. But creativity is a funny thing — to each, his own.

To be sure, the creative spirit is flourishing in Columbia, as is evidenced in the fabulous new galleries that continue to pop up on the bustling streets of the city. Colorful signs welcome visitors in to observe the wonderful works that flow from the artists’ fingertips. For other local talents, the home studio is the haven for creativity. For Page Morris, Marian Fishburne Soule and Jan Swanson, Columbia has been an inviting home for their art practices for nearly 20 years.

Page has loved art since she was young, and in 3rd grade, she had an epiphany: she needed to paint. Clearly an extremely patient person, Page didn’t actually begin painting seriously until her children were older; however, as a child, she honed her creativity through her love of clothing and color. “I knew I wanted to be creative, and it led me naturally to the arts,” says Page. When her three sons, Frank, Montgomery and Bosie, reached high school, Page picked up the paintbrush, which led to classes and workshops and the opportunity to explore her style. “I was fearless. I hadn’t majored in art, so there were no rules, and I was able to try new things,” she says.

It was a rainy day, a beautiful rug and her mother Ann that led Marian to pursue art. While she and Libby, her roommate, were visiting her mom one dreary day, Ann asked her if she could take the flowers on the rug and paint them on some pillows. Marian obliged. On her next visit, Ann asked her to paint a bouquet of complicated flowers on a pillow. Again, she did. “I just picked up a brush to see if I could do it,” says Marian. “I was thrilled, but I never thought it could be more than just a hobby.” 

Jan took a slightly different path to end up with a brush in her hand: the corporate world. “I just found that I didn’t fit there and when I left, all my creativity came out … and I have been painting ever since,” she says. Jan opened The Bus Stop Gallery, where she began to meet a number of local artists and show their work. Her love for art intensified, as did her painting.

Each artist went through a variety of mediums and methods along the way, taking the time to experiment with color, texture and paint until they found their niche, the place where they felt the most comfortable creating. Page started in oils but didn’t like the fumes associated with it. She now paints in acrylics, layering colors, playing with textures and using loose brush strokes to create what she says is the opposite of realistic. “I think that there are a lot of artists who can dupe a photo, but my intention is to see things a little differently and let the viewer do the same. I try to loosen it up,” she says. Page is a colorist and paints what she loves, which is often focused on landscapes and flowers. Her full vases of luscious flowers draw the viewer in to the beauty of the color and composition of the piece.

Marian’s artwork has come full circle, beginning in watercolor, moving to acrylics, then oils, back to acrylics and now, again, to watercolor. After taking a class in Boone, N.C., Marian learned a technique to paint watercolor on paper without having to put it under glass. She has been doing this ever since. “When the paper dries, it is very tight and, instead of sinking into the paper, the paint sits on top of the fibers so I get brilliant colors, which I then cover with varnish,” says Marian. She, too, is a colorist, with an eye for the vivid. Her love of bright, true, right-out-of-the-tube color is demonstrated in her paintings of boats, buoys and bees, among other subjects. “I almost cried when one or two paintings sold,” says Marian. “I wanted them to sell but I didn’t want them to sell.” Her boat and buoy paintings give Marian the most satisfaction, as she can mix and match so many vibrant colors. 

Jan’s approach is as diverse as her style. She works in mixed media, oils, as well as paint and paper on wood panels. Jan started taking classes, went to workshops, and the painting just happened. “My father was super creative and sold fabrics. I think that’s where I got my creativity,” she says. Jan is led by inspiration — whether it is a box on the side of the road, a building, an animal or even a shadow. She began painting shadows of her dog for her fellowship. Her paintings take on various lives during the process as illustrated when a recent painting that began as an ironing board ended up as a lamp. “I start with one thing and go where it takes me,” she says.

For every artist, knowing when to stop, when that painting is complete, can be one of the hardest, most painful parts of the process. Each artist has his or her own way of knowing this — some on their own, others only with the input of fellow artists. “Knowing when your painting is complete is the artist’s thousand dollar question,” says Page. “I paint with seven other artists, and one of the beauties is being able to talk about it, share information and get input. Usually when I feel like I can’t do anything else to a painting, I stop. But that is always the artist’s dilemma. I asked an art teacher who is hugely successful this question, and she still doesn’t know when she is done.” Page sometimes finds the best thing to do is turn the painting around and look at it with fresh eyes a few days later.

Marian also finds the group studio setting to be valuable when trying to determine if a painting is finished. “I will tweak a painting until it is awful,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to go to someone and say, ‘What do I need to do?’ Sometimes they will simply say, ‘Put the paint brush down and sign it.’ Or they will tell me what needs a little more work.” This feedback from the studio has greatly helped Marian in her painting process. “It’s the best way for me to do things,” she adds. “Before I was painting with the group, I wouldn’t finish a painting because I knew I would go too far.”

For Jan, getting a painting just right is absolute torture. “I can’t rest until I know it is right, and deep down, somehow I know when it is really done,” she says. For her, the process of getting it right is a stressful one, but in the end, the feeling of accomplishment and creating something she really loves makes it all worth it.

Asking for input is not for the sensitive and doesn’t always feed the ego. Even after all the years of painting, these artists still get nervous when displaying their work. For them, it’s baring their souls. “I think a creative person is naturally vulnerable because you have to put yourself out there, but we have to take risks,” says Page. 

Marian concurs. “I think most of us are a little reticent to talk about our own work,” she says. Her eyes naturally go to a place that she thinks she could have painted better or differently. And while experience does bring a sense of comfort and confidence, Jan agrees that it doesn’t calm the nerves. “It’s like having a part of yourself out there for people to critique,” she says. 

It’s also further motivation to never stop learning. Through lessons, workshops or tireless hours honing their skills, these artists are committed to always becoming better. It certainly helps to have a bourgeoning arts community in Columbia where artists, aspiring talents, connoisseurs and the everyday art enthusiast can peruse galleries to gather inspiration, purchase a piece for the home or simply take in the talent that surrounds them. There are so many opportunities for Columbians to view the unique pieces of the many talented artists in the community, such as 701 CCA’s Columbia Open Studios, art galleries, museums and local shops. 

These outlets truly showcase the talent that Columbia has to offer. For these three artists, they feel they are often in their home away from home. Marian finds displaying her work in the gallery to be extremely gratifying but does caution that she is an artist. “We do get some people who come into the gallery and ask us to help them design and lay out a room,” she says. “Art is supposed to engage your mind. It doesn’t necessarily have to match the sofa.” But what an added bonus when it does.


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