There came a day some years ago when Hendersonville painter Beverly Kies found herself in a bit of a crisis. She, her husband, and their two daughters had returned to Kies’s native Atlanta from Colorado, where Kies had pursued a successful career as an interior designer for nearly 30 years. But by the time her daughters had grown into teenagers, Kies realized that an important part of her younger, pre-motherhood years was missing. “I was desperate to get back to my painting,” she recalls. “I realized it was either going to be painting or Prozac.”
Making art had been such an integral part of her childhood that she was giving art lessons to neighborhood children by the time she was ten years old — and charging a quarter per student, to boot. By then her mother, the painter Harriet Warshaw, had recognized her talent and sent her to study at the Atlanta School of Art (now that city’s High Museum of Art). “I knew early on that I wanted to pursue my love of drawing and painting,” Kies says, adding that during her years at Ohio State University, she studied not only those two forms, but pottery, jewelry-making, and sculpture. But it wasn’t until she resumed her artistic explorations on her return to Atlanta that she found her passion in pastels, instilled by the pastel artist and fellow Georgian Mikki Dillon. “Mikki taught me everything a pastel artist needs to know and encouraged me to develop my style,” Kies says. “And I discovered that pastels were the only medium I wanted to use. The immediacy of pastels and layering of the colors worked well for me.”
Pastels are the misunderstood medium of the art world, often associated with a gauzy, muted palette and a chalky canvas. But Kies’s work puts the lie to such notions with its brilliant colors, dimensional modeling, and near Pop Art vitality. Landscapes glow with the colors of the Appalachian scenery Kies discovered on moving to Hendersonville’s Laurel Park 12 years ago; animals, a favorite subject, are vibrantly rendered in deep shadings and unusual tints.
“I like to believe that I paint the animals as they see themselves,” Kies says. So distinctive are her animal portraits that she’s been commissioned by a growing population of pet owners for portraits that uncannily capture the personalities of their subjects, from the intense gaze of a miniature schnauzer to the unquestioning loyalty of a golden retriever. Cats study the viewer inscrutably. Horses with electric green, blue, and red coats buck and trot across the canvas. It’s hard to remember, in fact, that these are all rendered in pastel. “There’s a common misconception that pastel is colored chalk,” Kies says. “But [it’s] pure pigment held together with a binder, rolled into sticks, and dried. And there’s no drying time as in other media like oil, acrylic, or watercolor.”
Kies uses a layering technique to produce the near-three-dimensional nature of her canvases. In the way oil painters mix colors on a palette, Kies mixes her pastels by adding layers of similar color values to a more delicately rendered underpainting. “The more layering that is done, the more the painting starts looking dimensional and not flat,” she explains. “The technique takes time to master and understand. It starts with a good underpainting, and I build up from there.”
She’s worked in other media, particularly acrylics and oils, but her enthusiasm for pastel is so infectious that this fall, she’ll begin teaching classes in pastel as part of Blue Ridge Community College’s continuing-education curriculum, an outgrowth of private classes she offers in her home studio. “I love sharing the knowledge I’ve learned from this medium,” she says. “And I love when a customer looks at my paintings and knows it’s a Beverly Kies.”
Her peers have honored that reputation with both international and national awards, recognition from the Southeastern Pastel Society and the Appalachian Pastel Society, and with representative work forming part of private collections all over the U.S. “My husband finds it most difficult to think of gifts for me after so many years,” Kies says of their 44 years together. “He’s learned that a colorful box of new pastels is much more thrilling to me than a box of chocolates — although I’ll gladly accept the chocolates, too.”
Examples of Beverly Kies’s work can be found at beverlykies.com, and at Firefly Craft Gallery in Flat Rock (fireflycraftgallery.com) and Thompson Garden Gallery in Tryon (828-859-3185). Her studio will be open during the Henderson County Open Studio Tour on September 17 and 18. Visit openstudiotourhc.com for more information.