Soft Toys, Edgy Visions

Kay Duggins took the road less traveled to an art career.
Portrait by Rimas Zailskas

For Kay Duggins, art and life are pretty inseparable. Her distinctive pastel-bright images are part of her day job as the founder/proprietor of Hendersonville’s Bo-Kaye’s gift shop, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this spring. The shop serves as a gallery for Duggins’ work, which, besides the paintings, can also include origami cranes adorned with beads (and accompanied with their own gift boxes), collaged works made from bits and pieces of almost anything, or her handmade “button books” — accordion-folded, illustrated creations with huge buttons for covers. “When I get an idea, I just do it,” says Duggins, who added the “e” to her shop name because she “thought it looked better.”

If Trees Could Talk

Her art was born in 1965, shortly after her daughter. With her husband and their six-week-old infant, Duggins moved to Asheville from her native Washington State to be near her father — whom she had never met — and his family. “As a young mother, I wanted safe, washable toys for my children, so I started designing and making soft toys, which became Bo-Kaye’s Originals,” Duggins says. The business thrived for 25 years, but she’d always dreamed of having her own shop, and by 1989, Bo-Kaye’s Gifts and Cards appeared in the old Atha Plaza in Hendersonville. (The shop moved down the road three years ago, when the former site was sold to make way for a supermarket.)

Duggins’ only art training was courtesy of a friend who once gave her a lesson in using pastels. Otherwise entirely self-taught, she was always encouraged as a child to draw, a habit she carried into adulthood using her own kids as subjects. Bo-Kaye’s seemed a good way to share her art with customers — the idea was sparked by a blank wall in the shop and a suggestion from a visiting sales rep that she should do something with it. Huggins entertained several ideas — a painted mountain scene framed with old window shutters, an old barn door she could decorate — while watching the sales rep clear unsold greeting cards from the racks. 

Royal Sea

She thought, why not use the cards to make a collaged artwork? “The sales rep plopped that big bag of cards down in front of me and said, ‘Here they are, go for it!’” she remembers. The result, some days later, was a collection of collage paintings featuring the cards, which eventually led to a call — and an offer — from an executive of the nationally based greeting-card company.

“They wanted to feature my art in the lobby at their headquarters, but I decided not to do that,” Duggins says. “Probably a big mistake, but I had done the art for my customers to see.”

Today, Duggins works in everything from acrylics (since 2005) to pastels and pen-and-ink. She’s illustrated a couple of coloring books, and has had a book, Heartwarming Soft Toys, published by Mother Earth News. During the early years of Hendersonville’s Bearfootin’ days, Duggins’ “Miz Bea” painted bear statue not only won second place, but saw her through surgery and post-operative treatment for breast cancer. “I stayed home and worked on Miz Bea for two-and-a-half months,” Duggins remembers. “It was something good to focus on.” 

Happy Tree

Art again came to her rescue after she fell from a stepladder in 2011 — her head injury was serious enough that she had to learn to paint all over again; now she produces work infused with more spiritual overtones. Angels, goddess figures, and delicately rendered natural forms began to appear on her canvases. “I was given new eyes to see beauty in ordinary things,” says Duggins.

She works entirely from instinct, rarely creating any of her work from direct observation, whether it’s a rendering of a stately tree against a deep blue, star-studded sky or a pastel portrait collaged with bits of costume jewelry. “I don’t think ahead as to what I’ll do,” Duggins says. “I go through periods of time without doing art. I always say, if I’m not feeling it, I can’t draw a stick figure. But when I’m ‘in the zone,’ I think I could be blindfolded, because it feels like I’m painting from my soul. It’s an amazing feeling.”

While most of the artwork in Bo-Kaye’s is done at Duggins’ home studio, she sometimes works on smaller pieces in the store. And with the store’s customer base built up over 30 years, Duggins has no need for gallery representation. “I always wanted a welcoming shop where customers become friends,” she says of her dream, which just keeps coming true. “How many people can be in business for 30 years and truthfully say they love going to work?”

Redbuds in the Fog

Kay Duggins, Bo-Kaye’s Gifts & Cards, 1034-D Greenville Hwy., Hendersonville. For more information, call 828-692-6325 or see
Bo-Kaye’s on Facebook.

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