“I remember waking up in ICU in an Atlanta hospital and being truly amazed I was still alive.” It was 1998. For years, Wendy Whitson had suffered from adult-onset asthma, often with severe episodes that landed her in the hospital. “I went from being physically very strong to always being on the verge of an attack.”
Despite grueling testing that even included a bone-marrow biopsy, the cause of her asthma remained frustratingly elusive. In late 1999, she and her husband, John, moved to Asheville. Gradually, over two years, her physical ailment began to abate. (She credits mountain air.)
In the Piedmont, as a child, she watched her great uncle Joseph Wallace King paint. His studio was the old blacksmith shop in Winston-Salem. Whitson remembers a space filled with portraits, the smell of oil paint, and north-facing skylights. “I hoped one day I would be an artist,” says Whitson, who also took private lessons in Whiteville with the well-known watercolorist Martha Burns.
Later, she made a darkroom in the basement of her dorm at Salem College, and worked as a photographer for three newspapers in four years before she finally transferred to Eastern Carolina University, where she earned a degree in fine art. “I painted with all mediums at East Carolina, but mainly worked in oil and watercolor,” says Whitson. Once again, though, she put her real dream on hold and embarked on a long career as a graphic designer.
From 1981–1998, Whitson never picked up a brush. In fact, it was only in 2002, after living in Asheville for a couple of years, that her health had improved enough for her to take a series of art classes.
“Every week, I would tell the group, ‘I want to paint again.’” Impulsively, near the end of the course, she signed a one-year lease on a studio in the River Arts District. “I was committed to finding out if it was still inside me.” (In 2011, Wendy and her husband purchased a building at 357 Depot Street in the River Arts District and named it NorthLight Studios. Here they created studio spaces for her and for other artists, currently Angela Alexander, Cheryl Keefer, Bill George, Bernadette St. Pierre-George, Sarah Faulkner, and John Faulkner.)
Part of this early discovery process included switching from oils and watercolors to acrylics. Although she didn’t like it at first, she soon found if the landscape was not going well, she could wait a few minutes and rework the entire thing. She also began adding different mediums to change the consistency of the paint. “I love to use handmade paper, even sheet music, and sometimes mica on the surface of my canvas. I love texture.”
Not easily satisfied, however, she worked for an entire year before creating even one canvas she liked, “experimenting constantly,” she says, trying to capture the area’s scenic beauty. The mountain air had done its work, but other mysteries remained. “The structure and order of nature,” she muses, remains “subliminally hidden” underneath any landscape painting. “It’s symbolism presented within a framework … it all fits.”
Wendy Whitson, NorthLight Studios, River Arts District (357 Depot St.). Whitson also shows her work at Seasons, an artisan showcase at the Omni Grove Park Inn (omnihotels.com). For more information, call 828-423-4567 or see wendywhitson.com.