A charcoal line scrawled across the paper, a splash of watercolor in just the right spot, a recreated image that evokes a memory — these are the tools that three artists use to draw a viewer into their world. Bonnie Goldberg, Anne Hightower-Patterson, and Laura Spong shine an artistic spotlight on Columbia.
These women may create their art in various forms, but they share one common element. Each of them began to paint on a full-time basis during a season of life when most would not consider a new career. Bonnie started painting nearly 30 years ago when her children were teenagers and required less attention. “I loved staying home with them as they were growing up,” she says, “but I didn’t want to be that empty nester, wondering, ‘What’s next?’” She began taking art classes at Columbia College and then attended Springmaid Watermedia Workshops in Myrtle Beach, studying with some of the country’s well-known artists. She joined the group About Face that meets regularly at the Columbia Museum of Art; this allowed her to work alongside other artists, to learn from them, and to perfect her own style.
Bonnie still relishes the memory of her first art show. “I was jumping up and down I was so excited to be part of a show.” She still gets just as giddy preparing for a show, although now the work showcased is entirely hers.
Anne was drawn to painting as a young girl, and she always painted part-time until she retired from a 30-year career as an art teacher, guidance counselor (in Richland School District One), and finally as principal at Crayton Middle School. Then she decided to pursue painting full time. She began painting at the age of 12 and credits her middle school art teacher with opening the door within her to a love of art. “The hedonistic part of me knew that I needed to have a job and make a living, which is why I went into education,” she says. Formerly, she taught art classes to adults at City Art as a way of feeding that inner need to share her creativity; currently, she teaches at the Newberry Art Center and hosts workshops throughout South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.
Laura, too, waited until later in life to begin painting on a regular basis. While a student at Vanderbilt University in the mid 1940s, she took an art course and enjoyed it so much that she sought special permission from the school to take a second course. Then life happened. “I got married, went to work for Parks & Recreation, and raised six children,” she says. “I finally began focusing on my painting around the age of 60.” Now in her 90s, she still paints on a full-time basis.
Their styles are uniquely their own, with specific preferences for oils, watercolors, or even wine as a medium. Bonnie has used all types of media except oil and often uses red wine in place of water. “I just start with a line. It may be watercolor, pencil, or ink,” she says, “and I have drawn using the ink stopper straight out of the bottle. Ink and wine create a granular effect, and different wines will create different shades of color.” She also uses other mixed media, such as string, bubble wrap, and various types of paper to create her pieces.
Bonnie is known for her abstract figurative work, using mostly female models, clothed or nude, for her pieces. She sometimes finds models just walking down the street. From an artist perspective, she observes the way someone moves. “There’s just something about the way a woman walks, how she sits, and how she turns her head,” Bonnie remarks. “You may be sitting perfectly still in front of me, but there is still something unique about the space that you are occupying.”
Bonnie has formed some long-lasting relationships with other artists and the models she has met through the years, yet she also finds inspiration from her own photographs and previous works that she has stored away. “I’ll take a photograph of a finished painting and then years later pull it out and use it as a jumping off point for a new piece,” she says.
Anne began her painting journey using oils but now paints exclusively in watercolor. “I love that watercolor is immediate, but if you have to stop and leave it, you can come back later. There’s just something that happens between the water, the paint, and the paper,” she says. “I tell my students that sometimes you win and sometimes the water wins. You have to get it right the first time.”
Fortunately for Anne’s particular style, watercolors are much more vibrant than in days gone by, and watercolor has taken on a new personality. “The colors used to be very fleeting and not light-fast like oil paints, meaning that they would fade over time,” says Anne, “but now, the permanency of the colors has increased with the newer pigments, which provide richer color.”
Her subjects focus on ordinary people in ordinary circumstances just going about their everyday lives. Anne has always been a people-oriented person and enjoys making new acquaintances. “I’m always interested in what people do when they don’t know they’re being observed,” she says. She often takes photos of people moving about in daily life, and then she translates the images onto paper with her brush and colors. “I love painting genuine subject matter in the realistic fashion with, hopefully, a story to tell,” she adds.
Laura focuses more on oils as she uses layers to create many of her abstract pieces. “Acrylics are too fast, and you can’t go back into watercolor,” she says. “With oils, I can scratch back into it and paint over it. I can come back the next day and still paint over it.”
Abstract has always been her passion. “I have never been much for drawing. It felt as though I was copying something, and that just didn’t appeal to me,” she says. And she does not rely on a subject to help create any particular piece of art. “I’m not consciously trying to paint something,” Laura says. “It’s about the shape, size, color, and arrangement. Even a title may come immediately or not until the work is complete. I can tell when I get through where I have been mentally. Was I happy or in a darker mood? It’s like writing poetry.”
In fact, Laura even wrote a haiku, a Japanese short poem, to describe how she feels about her need to paint.
Others are taking note of these talented women and their work, even on a national level. Bonnie has been recognized by the Palmetto Center for Women for her outstanding art contributions to the community, and Anne recently received one of the highest awards in America for watercolor — the High Winds Medal from the American Watercolor Society for her work entitled “Look What’s Coming.” The Top 100 are selected for the show in New York from thousands of entries, and the final winners are chosen from that group to then tour the country for the next year. Anne created the piece from a photograph that she took of two women standing in a market in the Southern Caribbean.
Additionally, Artists Network has recognized three of Anne’s works in their annual publication Splash, which lists the top watercolorists as judged in a competition; and, in 2016, Watercolor Magazine named her as one of 10 American watercolorists to watch.
Laura’s work is also receiving accolades. Just this past April, she received a Merit Award from the prestigious ArtFields, held in Lake City, South Carolina, for her piece entitled “The Reaction was Stormy.” She says, “I was extremely honored to be recognized for this piece as so many of the pieces in this show are installations and larger pieces.” The South Carolina Arts Commission honored Laura with the 2017 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts for Lifetime Achievement, the highest award for the arts in the state.
All three artists agree that the arts are thriving in Columbia. While Anne says the market is not quite as vibrant as other cities for those looking to sell their art, many wonderful artists work together here. Bonnie agrees that the arts community is continually growing, and not just through the visual arts, but with musicians and poets as well, citing events such as First Thursday on Main Street.
What is it that keeps them repeatedly returning to their easels? Each artist experiences an emotional draw. For Bonnie, art is organic. She recalls an older woman who commissioned her for a nude portrait because the woman wanted the experience of modeling nude. “It was such a moving experience for her to know that she was still relevant, even at age 86,” she says. “It’s not about what you look like. It’s what I see as I am drawing.”
Anne also hopes to connect with her viewers by depicting a story. “If people can immerse themselves in my painting and have a dialogue, that is what moves me to paint,” she says. Teaching is also an important part of what she does as an artist, providing an opportunity to pay it forward. “I had a teacher who somewhere along the way took my hand and showed me the way forward,” she says. “I feel strongly that my ability to paint and to teach is a gift from God, and all He does is require me to use it.”
Laura has a deep passion for creating art. “You don’t do it for the money. You do it just for the sheer joy that it brings to you and for the joy that you see it gives to others.” And Laura keeps that passion burning, even while undergoing treatment for cancer. She has moved her work from her longtime studio in the Vista to her home so that she can continue to paint. “I am grateful for every day that I can continue to do what I love. I am fortunate to have been able to follow my dream.”