We may think we leave the world of our childhood behind, but those long-ago days shape the world we inhabit as adults. In some cases, the memories become art. Hendersonville painter Cynthia Wilson’s nationally recognized landscapes evoke her childhood home in rural Alabama, where, as a young girl, she settled with her family outside Birmingham.
“I grew to love the woods and gardening with my grandmother,” Wilson says about those years. “She’s the one who instilled in me a respect for the environment and a desire to cultivate quiet places with ferns, trillium, lady’s slipper [orchids] and other native plants.” They appear frequently in her work, together with a motif of leaves in various stages of their life cycle. The leaves came to represent a more transcendent reality of birth and death after the passing of
Wilson’s mother and the memory of a pond her parents had built at their home.
Brilliantly colored leaves floated there, before disappearing to the pond’s bottom to nourish future life. “This is what living and dying is about for me,” Wilson once wrote, “and I believe that we all learn lessons from nature that tell us how we can create more meaningful lives.”
During childhood, she learned how to deal with the loneliness engendered by an isolated environment — and her solution back then eventually gave rise to a completely different direction to her work. She calls them “Oddments” — a growing collection of assemblages using parts of dolls and other found objects.
“My dolls were magical companions that I was sure could come to life at night,” Wilson says. “The Oddments came from a desire to make magic out of ordinary objects.”
Infused with a sly sense of humor, the Oddments play with traditional ideals of female beauty using deconstructed dolls’ bodies mixed with mundane objects such as cigar boxes, keys, and Scrabble tiles — the detritus of everyday living. “When I found the dolls’ heads, I wanted to give them new bodies,” Wilson says. “In the process, they began to tell stories that sometimes had a message, sometimes were just meant to be what they ended up being.” Among the collection is “Gentlemen’s Club,” for which she dismembered a Barbie doll (“I never had much empathy for Barbie dolls,” she confesses) as a comment on superficial beauty and the darker truth it can conceal. Considering the Barbie in pieces, Wilson observes: “Maybe she’s not as lovely as she appears.”
The first Oddment began when Wilson was in a show at Flat Rock’s Hand in Hand Gallery that included works made from recycled items. It came at a time when she had grown vexed with the approval-seeking world of juried shows, corporate commissions, and the business side of artmaking in general. “I needed some relief from taking myself and my art way too seriously,” she says. “It wasn’t intentional at first, making the Oddments, but I was thinking about different ways to tell a story besides the way I’d been doing it in the past, through painting.”
Although rooted in a response to nature, the Oddments stand in contrast to Wilson’s other work on canvas, in landscape and more abstract forms. Working in watercolor at first, she now favors acrylics. “They’re so much more exciting,” she says. “Thin layers of transparent color can be overlapped, just like in watercolor. They can be used on canvas, they can be used with different mediums to get different effects, and are generally so flexible the possibilities are endless.” Her landscapes particularly capture the intimate beauty of the Appalachians — a beauty she fears can slip away too easily.
“I want to preserve that beauty in hopes people will see the value in maintaining native plants and trees and the quiet spots here in these mountains,” she says.
Wilson works from a studio incorporated into the home she and her husband Greg built after discovering Hendersonville 17 years ago. Her first workspace was downtown, on Fourth Avenue.
“But with a home studio, you can work as early or as late as you want, and you can wear the worst possible clothes you own without being seen,” she says. It’s a luxury she especially appreciates after her years as a graphic designer for advertising agencies and magazines, jobs she took after earning her arts degree from Auburn University. “Thankfully I was able to start painting full-time 30 years ago,” she says. “I love what I do.”
Cynthia Wilson’s work is represented by Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, The Art House Gallery & Studio in East Flat Rock, and Design Gallery in Burnsville. clwilsonart.com