Better late than lifelike

The large painting now in Blue Spiral 1′s front window sings into the street, its lyrical colors flowing with vibrant energy.

The painting is something of a window itself into the life of its intriguing creator, an example of a lifelong dream made manifest.

“Joyance,” an abstract, is the work of Mary Charles Griffin, who completed her master’s in studio art at Western Carolina University in 2000 — more than a half-century after she originally started college in Greensboro.

Griffin wanted to study art when she left her hometown of North Wilkesboro in her teens bound for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, back when it was still exclusively a women’s college. Her family, however, pushed her toward something more practical. So she began a major in business administration.

Then World War II came along.

Griffin left school and took jobs in Greensboro first as a cashier at Duke Power and then at a GI flight-training school, where she eventually obtained her a pilot’s license — stopping just short of the training she needed to become a commercial flier. Instead, Griffin signed on as secretary and promotions director at Transylvania Music Camp in Brevard.

Griffin eventually returned to Greensboro to complete her university education, paying her way by working for the federal government’s Soil Conservation Service, as an instructor at Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio and as a fund-raiser on behalf of Bennett College, another all-women’s institution.

After graduation, she took a job at a psychiatric hospital, where she met her future husband, a doctor. The two eventually had three daughters, and relocated to the Asheville area. And through it all, Griffin did all those things a good wife of her generation was expected to do. She did not paint.

In the late ’60s, though, Griffin did become a political activist: She was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the 20-member Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women; served as president of Buncombe County Republican Women; sat on the board of the National Federation of Republican Women, the Mamie Eisenhower Library Committee and the state executive committee of the Republican party; and was also state chair of Women for Nixon and Agnew.

For 29 years, she volunteered: for handicapped children, for the Asheville Symphony board, for numerous other causes.

Still, though, she did not paint.

And then, every once in a while, she began attending painting workshops at Margaret Harvey’s Asheville studio. Finally, in 1984, Griffin began serious study with Janie R. McWhirter, attending her private class every Tuesday for eight years.

Then, in 1996, Griffin’s mother became ill, and Griffin moved back to North Wilkesboro to care for her until her death three years later.

When the aspiring artist finally returned to Asheville, it was time to do what she’d wanted to all her life. To that end, Griffin rented a River District studio and enrolled in WCU’s master’s program. Robert Godfrey, then head of the university’s art department, says Griffin’s age was not a factor for him in considering her admission to the graduate program.

“She came with a lust for painting in her eyes, and a real understanding of the place of her work in contemporary art,” he reveals.

“She was,” Godfrey adds, “fearless — filled with a youthful energy and enthusiasm. She was looking for a challenge.”

As far as choosing a genre, though — she’d been set on that for more than half a century.

Griffin became passionate about abstract art when she saw the earliest examples back in the 1940s and ’50s, and her love never wavered.

“Driven to Abstraction II,” the smallest work in her current exhibit at Blue Spiral 1, is flooded with swirling, golden light and accented with tiny slashes of blues and brick reds.

A number of pieces, meanwhile, are built around the idea of a fallen tree: “Wind in the Fallen Tree,” “Lost Habitat” and “Fallen Tree #3″ all suggest twisted, broken limbs — the dread of loss and death.

By contrast, “Caught Napping” gives us gently moving pools of pale oranges and muted flesh tones — its colors are soft and fuzzy; its title is perfect.

The artist herself, on the other hand, has clearly awoken to her life’s calling.

[Connie Bostic is a freelance writer living in Asheville.]


The work of Mary Charles Griffin is showing in Gallery 2 at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave.; 251-0202) as part of New X 3 (New Artists, New Works, New Near), running through Saturday, Feb. 28.

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