Keeping Their Dream Aloft

Decorated Air Force veterans give back with a new art school

Illustrator Phoebe Blackwell and multimedia artist Don Blackwell met in the military and have lived in some of the country’s most extreme locales, from the Yukon to Hawaii. Now they stay busy in Flat Rock, uniting their passion for artmaking and teaching.
Photo by Erin Fowler

Don and Phoebe Blackwell met in the Alaska Air National Guard and served 20 years each of active duty in the U.S. Air Force. “She trained me as a friend when I began working as a guardsman, and it evolved from there,” says Don. “She was already well established when I first got the position.” Phoebe, partially raised in Homer, joined the Air Force in 1978 and worked on F4 fighter jets, in automatic flight control.

“Air Force was one of the first branches of the [military] to integrate women into fields that weren’t traditionally for women,” she tells Bold Life. Phoebe traded to admin next, worked in personnel, supply, graphics — and eventually was promoted to Master Sergeant. 

Photo by Erin Fowler

Don illustrated immaculate, detailed works of art — in pen and ink, pencil, airbrush, and even pyrography — during high school, and later studied fine art at the University of Alaska. Stationed with a rescue squadron in the Alaska Air National Guard, he worked as the boat master on a Special Operations Pararescue team, assisting in supply, medical, and drop zones during rescue missions. 

“I wasn’t a Pararescue man, but I was given the title of an Honorary Pararescue man,” he explains. A Technical Sergeant by the end of his career, he notes that “with my artwork, I helped make international impact during a joint exercise with Russia and Canada.” 

Don designed posters and patches, among other pieces, for the Air Force, but delved into a more personal endeavor, woodcarving, upon retiring to Flat Rock. He’s taught at Tryon Arts & Crafts School, among other venues.
Photo by Erin Fowler
Photo by Erin Fowler

Post Cold War, his and Phoebe’s unit was the first to do an actual exercise on Russian soil: “We Alaskans did joint Search and Rescue Exercises [SAREX] with the Russians and Canadians,” reveals Don. “For the first SAREX, I did posters which we sold to buy art supplies for the Russian children … I consequently wound up doing one for all the SAREXes that followed.” The original poster is displayed in a museum in Tiksi, Russia. (Don also designed logos and patches for the Air Force.)

During that era, Phoebe was involved in finding free housing for WWII- era Russian pilots visiting Anchorage, helped sponsor a Russian college student, and escorted a Russian pilot and aircraft designer around the Kulis Air National Guard Base. “The 1997 SAREX was held on my family’s Alaskan homestead, where Russians once lived,” she notes. 

Phoebe is a children’s book illustrator who also teaches art camps for girls.

Both the Blackwells were given an Alaska Legion of Merit award, previously given only to Chiefs and Officers, and the first such award given to a married couple. 

By the time Don and Phoebe retired from the Air Force, in 2000, they were respectively 47 and 46. Don, working in many mediums, had achieved a significant art following. The two built a cabin on Yukon Island, where they stayed until 2002. Their next adventure would also be a radical change of climate — making art full time in Hawaii. 

Don has made an impact in the medium of pyrography. 
Photo by Erin Fowler

Plans changed again two years later, in 2004, when they decided to come back to Henderson County, where Don was born and raised. And this year, he and Phoebe, an author and illustrator, opened their new backyard art school in Flat Rock, Raven’s Wing, hosting the first classes in July.

You both have a passion for teaching. What drove you to open an art school?

Don:The idea originally came to mind in 1995. The name stemmed from the number of ravens in Alaska — they’re so intelligent and funny to watch. I have taught an assortment of art classes at Blue Ridge Community College, Isothermal Community College, and served on the Board of Directors for the Tryon Arts and Crafts School. It’s what I love to do. I like to tell my students, I’m not teaching you how to draw or carve, but how to see.

Phoebe: I have written and illustrated 15 children’s books, mostly related to subjects on wildlife. People remember me from my base, Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, as the lady who was sitting on the floor painting murals [including the Pink Panther] all over base. … Here in North Carolina I started a new tradition: Twice a year, I host between four and six girls for a week of crafts and learning.  We have lots of fun. I like to do art with the children … Don works in different mediums with adults.

Don, you’re also well known for your exhibited work.

Don: My woodcarvings and wildlife pen-and-ink illustrations are sold in galleries, but I also sell commissioned pieces. We wind up with customers over at our house, but it’s because they see our work in the galleries first.

Phoebe: We enter into gallery exhibitions and host workshops. During American Craft Week, Don did demonstrations in woodcarving and I showed how I illustrate my children’s books.

Don, when did you get into woodcarving?

Don: When I retired.

Phoebe: When we first got here, we went through a period of flux. Don was really discouraged about doing art full time, and we didn’t have very much money. So…

Don: So, we took a trip to Dollywood, and while Phoebe was exploring shops, I went into a woodcarver’s shop. I saw a man carving a bust and I was like, “Wow, wow! I want to do that!” … We found tools in Hickory at Klingspor’s Woodworking Shop. Phoebe grabbed a cart and started filling it with tools — keep in mind we were fairly broke at this point. The total that day for my tools was $1,250, but when I tried to take some tools out and return them, [Phoebe] told me to stop and that we were going to do this … she always encouraged me to keep working. The first hiking stick I actually sold was only $25. I remember the guy asked, “Is that all?” So, I eventually got better and started selling the carvings all over the area. One of the biggest draws to my wood pieces is that I don’t carve the same face or subject twice.

Whose faces are you carving?

Don: [In Anchorage], I went out with my camera and found people on the sides of the streets holding signs. I told them I’d pay them modeling fees if they let me use their likeness to do a portrait in pen and ink. I reached out to veterans who were homeless or suffered from PTSD, and in the end, all original pieces were donated and two sold at a dinner fundraiser for $15,000. Proceeds went to benefit Bean’s Café [an Anchorage-based nonprofit whose stated mission is to “fight hunger for all ages”].

So your current faces came out of capturing those early likenesses?

Don: Yes, but the woodcarving faces [also] come from my imagination, or from the character of the wood.

Do you think art outreach is an important part of supporting our local community of military veterans?

Phoebe: Yes, very important. We both believe in art as a therapy and as a life-changing entity. We have been coordinating with John and Nicole Mahshie of the Veterans Healing Farm [in Hendersonville], and will be teaching veterans art in the future.  

Raven’s Wing School of Art, 79 Bronco Pass, East Flat Rock. Current classes are 8-week instructions for adults in Beginning Drawing and Open Studio. Carving classes are scheduled by request. Contact Don Blackwell at 828-606-1738 for more information. Don and Phoebe Blackwell’s work is exhibited at the Henderson County Heritage Museum Gift Shop (1 Historic Courthouse Square, Unit 4, Hendersonville, hendersoncountymuseum.com); at Firefly Craft Gallery (2689 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock, fireflygallery.com); and at The Millstone Gallery (110 North Trade Ave., Landrum, SC, themillstonegallery.com). 

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