Artist known for her animals discusses her deeper drives
Elizabeth McAfee would prefer not to be known as “the rabbit lady” or “the cat lady,” even though her art has prominently featured those animals for many years. “Now I may be moving into ‘possum lady’ status,” jokes the artist, referring to her recent string of paintings that pay homage to America’s only marsupial. “I’ve avoided the temptation to brand myself because I don’t want to be boxed in from going where I want with my art. I don’t like cynical marketing.”
For the Hendersonville artist, depicting cats and rabbits and opossums singing, playing soccer — even declaiming Shakespeare under a star-studded night sky — is one way to counter the harsher and perplexing realities of daily life, starting with her struggles as a teacher of freshman writing classes at, first, Mars Hill College (now University) and then UNC-Asheville, after earning her MA in English Literature from Brown University.
“My husband was teaching high school at the time, as well as trying to write, and to supplement our incomes I sat in at the Village Galleries when the owners were out of town.” The former Biltmore Village venue sold high-quality prints of nationally known wildlife and nature-study artists, and it occurred to her she could produce similarly themed work.
“I had been drawing, coloring, and painting as a sideline for most of my life,” explains McAfee, “but had not yet found my voice.” From her literature studies and teaching, she was well familiar with the “write what you know” dictum for beginning writers, and began to wonder if that couldn’t apply to visual artists, as well. “Since high school and beyond I’d been exposed to the world of great ideas, and wanted to be part of it.”
Her family history while growing up in Anderson, South Carolina, included her grandfather’s folk art, her great-grandmother’s oil paintings which hung in the house, and her own father’s painting from his college days. She also read her father’s art books, attracted to the effusive imagery and brilliant palettes of Henri Rousseau and Hieronymus Bosch. Her parents took note and arranged private lessons for her with an art professor at Anderson University, where she learned the rudiments of painting in oils and watercolors. (Later, she would discover and adopt the vibrant colors of acrylics as her preferred medium.)
But her Southern family’s bone-deep conservatism didn’t envision a career in the arts as a suitable vocation for young ladies; a degree in “Home Economics” was the more proper goal. Even more discouraging were the results of a career aptitude test Elizabeth took as high school graduation loomed, which predicted she was best suited to be an accountant, or perhaps an undertaker.
By the mid-1980s, McAfee was in a career crisis, feeling as though the world was passing her by, when she attended a Jungian-inspired lecture by the editor of the Asheville Arts Journal about how the creative mind worked. “It was like the heavens opening,” she recalls. “I saw my own personal issues and the religious and cultural stereotyping about male and female roles clearly for the first time. I saw I was being overly analytical as one of my weaknesses, and understood my attraction to warm and fuzzy animals as an antidote.” For McAfee, the creatures can be vehicles for imagery involving opposites — night and day, sun and moon, raw nature and urban civilization — and for commenting on modern culture, from Dylan to the Age of Aquarius.
McAfee once formatted her work only as framed wall art. She had a juried slot at Bele Chere for 20 years and a booth at the Village Art & Craft Fair for 30, designing a poster for the latter event in 2004. (After their three-decade stint in Asheville, McAfee and her husband moved to Hendersonville in 2005.)
More recently, her work on cigar boxes has proved especially popular. It was a practical response to enthusiastic buyers of her framed work whose wall space was becoming constricted. “Several beautiful boxes that I’d bought at a cigar store sat around the house for several years before I decided to play with them,” she explains. Decorating the boxes with collaged images from magazines and posters, she realized that the delicate edging on many of the boxes would complement her own work. “Not only could the boxes be hung in very small spots, but they could be propped up or sat on flat surfaces,” she notes. “But all my paintings have helped me clarify my thoughts — and share my joy.” It is, she maintains, “a mysterious and glorious world.”
Elizabeth McAfee’s work is represented by Art MoB Studios & Marketplace in Hendersonville (124 4th Ave. East, 828-693-4545, artmobstudios.com). The gallery will hold a special event featuring McAfee’s art boxes on Saturday, July 18, from 1-4pm. For more information about the artist, including home-studio appointments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.