Beyond December

Susan Webb Tregay's acrylic paintings are a form of Southeastern folk art.

Susan Webb Tregay’s acrylic paintings are a form of Southeastern folk art.

“Someone once said my paintings look like a Milton Bradley game on acid,” says Hendersonville artist Susan Webb Tregay.

A quick look around her studio confirms the assertion. The carousel combinations of bright colors, meandering black lines and vivid imagery do evoke a feel of uncensored play. But, Tregay is quick to point out, “These paintings are not meant for children, or children’s books — I think of them as contemporary art for adult children.”

She began her art career creating ceramic picture frames, but started painting, in part, to fill those beautiful empty borders. She went with watercolor and eventually phased out of clay. Later, she was accepted into the National Watercolor Society and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and began teaching watercolor workshops all over the country.

In 2007 she published Master Disaster: Five Ways to Rescue Desperate Watercolors (North Light Books). “I figured everybody was artistic,” says Tregay. “For a long time I didn’t realize I had something special.”

Upon moving to Hendersonville from Rockford, Ill., four years ago, Tregay took an imaginative left turn into the realm of acrylic painting and Southeastern folk art. “Moving down here was new to me,” she says. “I really studied the line work of folk art, and that moved into my own work.”

Acrylics expressed Tregay’s new passion perfectly, but the medium presented unforeseen challenges: she found she was extremely sensitive to the fumes. Undeterred, she obtained a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2009 that allowed her to purchase a ventilation system for her studio.

Tregay’s enthusiasm for bold graphics is given full expression. Using a special tool resembling a hypodermic needle, she scratches and squeezes a series of black lines into each canvas. The lines are, she says, “lacework that holds the painting together.”

The artist keeps a thorough sketchbook and files of design and color “strategies” that she employs in her densely layered works. But her orderly technique in no way undermines her irreverent worldview: birds are painted upside down, houses bend and sway, two girls with bruised knees fly wildly on a swing set, a figure is suspended upside down from a thread attached to a balloon. “I really want people to look at the paintings for a long time,” says Tregay. “I want to stop them dead in their tracks. There’s so much to look at, they really have to put some work into it.”

The titles and accompanying texts painted onto the sides of the paintings further deepen the whimsy. “I like to collect titles,” she says. “A title just gives the painting so much more.” Culling from music, books and popular culture — including, appropriately, Eat Your Heart Out, Milton Bradley for a series of three — Tregay has a list of 1,200 that she works with. Other memorable titles: No More Decembers and No Child Left Inside. The artist points to a painting of a girl standing precariously on a bike seat while street signs caution sooner and later. “Street signs have been showing up in my work more and more,” she remarks. “With them I can get a whole other layer of content into my paintings.”

She also methodically charts the history of each canvas — for example, denoting past exhibits — so collectors know the whole story behind a purchase.

Tregay approaches painting like any job, reporting to her studio every morning by 9:30. But what makes one an artist, she believes, “is that you can keep going on. If you get bored you don’t have to quit — you can just turn the screw a little more.”

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