A gift for art

When Zone one contemporary gallery owner Connie Bostic approached painter Marie Hudson last year about exhibiting in the gallery’s upcoming Women of a Certain Age show (like Hudson, all the artists included were over age 60), her answer was a resounding “no.”

“Actually, it wasn’t just ‘no’ — it was ‘Hell no!'” remembers Hudson. “I tried to explain to her that … I did not want to be just a woman painter. And I did not want to be ‘a woman of a certain age.’ I just wanted to paint as an artist.

(Speaking of attaining “a certain age,” Hudson says she grudgingly gave in and got glasses, a couple of years ago. “I thought I was the best-looking thing in town, until then,” she reports, with inimitable candor. “I had no idea I had any wrinkles.”)

Her refusal to participate in the Zone one show — an offer most artists would jump at — was vintage Hudson: She has always approached art on her own terms.

Hudson enrolled in her first art class, at Warren Wilson College, when she was in her late 40s. Up until then, she’d worked in and owned a succession of gift shops in Asheville, first working in one at the Grove Park Inn, then buying a shop in the Battery Park Hotel, which she ran for 13 years. Hudson’s last store was housed in downtown Asheville’s Inn on the Plaza. But when Radisson bought the hostelry, as Hudson puts it: “I was out on my rear end. I was crushed, and I felt like my whole identity was gone.”

But there was another side to Hudson’s identity that, though long-suppressed, was still very much with her. Hudson — a striking woman with a bawdy laugh, a high blond bouffant hairdo, and a low tolerance for bulls••t — has been drawing since she was in grammar school. “I grew up during the pin-up era,” she remembers, “and [got] really popular by drawing all these gorgeous female figures — copying them out of magazines.” She also made a hit by doing other people’s homework for art class. “My cousins always won first place in school art projects, because I did the work for them,” she says with a laugh.

In those days, getting credit for her work just didn’t seem important, she explains. “When I was growing up, being an artist wasn’t really very … open to women. The opportunity wasn’t there — we didn’t even think about it. You went to high school … you took a business course or a nursing course, and went to work as a secretary or a nurse, and that was it. … Or, you got married. That was the other option — in my economic bracket, anyway.”

And that’s what Hudson did. “I was married for six years and he died, and a couple of years later, I remarried my [high-school sweetheart], and then we were [in a situation] where both of us had to work. He had a daughter to support.” She threw her energies into her gift shops.

But even working 9 to 5 did not completely subsume Hudson’s drive to produce art. She began creating cards and hand-painted T-shirts for sale in her shop. And, toward the end of her tenure at the Inn on the Plaza, Hudson finally decided to enroll in art school. “I decided if was ever going to truly dedicate myself to my art, it was then or never,” she relates. “I didn’t want to just keep playing like I was an artist; I felt I needed technical training to actually be one.”

She started with beginning drawing classes — and ended, some 10 years later, completing graduate studies in a program she helped create: Warren Wilson’s Painting Research Center. Along the way, she took first place in several art competitions — once beating out none other than her primary professor and mentor, Dusty Benedict.

Hudson pooh-poohs the notion that she was born with some innate talent for art, however: “I was simply born with the desire, and that’s the important thing. It’s been with me since about third grade.” That kind of desire often takes on a feverish life of its own. From the time Hudson opened her River District studio some 10 years ago, her drive to create has all but consumed her. “I came in here seven days a week [at first] and worked long hours. I painted and I painted and learned and learned, and I’m still learning,” she declares.

As for Hudson’s inspiration, she says it springs from some mysterious source, which she professes not to understand. “I don’t want to do pretty pictures,” she emphasizes; “I just do what’s inside me. I don’t know where my work comes from when I’m doing it, but later on, it takes on meaning.

“All the talent in the world is not going to [matter] if you don’t have a passion, and mine is overwhelming,” she continues. “I eat, sleep and drink my work. And I’m blessed to have such a passion, and be so focused, at this stage of my life.”

Ever since her days of drawing voluptuous pin-up girls, women have been Hudson’s favored subject matter (though she stresses that she doesn’t want to exclude anybody from understanding or enjoying her work).

“Obviously, I’m a woman,” she notes, “and I paint what I know.” Many of her recent works, with their long, elegant faces, could be self-portraits.

But these female forms have little to do with Marilyn Monroe-like, cheesecake appeal. Her figures are ethereal, surreal — often fluidly elongated, to the point of stretching off the canvas — and draped in asexual, flowing garments that sometimes seem to merge with their bodies. Hudson frequently uses pale colors — grays, whites, faded blues — to render her subjects. Many of them possess kinetic, swirling funnels in place of feet, or else their bodies simply fade off the bottom of the canvas, in gushing swirls.

“An Apple From the Tree,” a series of four paintings, features pensive, ghostly, Eve-like figures, each holding a single, tempting apple; and “Hold My Hand (The Fear Will Go Away),” depicts three almost-ghostly women, whose bodies appear to funnel up, tornado-like, from the ground. (Hudson’s works often include a trio of female figures — mirroring, she says, the three women who have studios in the warehouse where she does her work. “I always think of a group of women being able to accomplish a lot more than just one alone,” she notes.)

“I think [this work] is trying to say something about women without concentrating on body parts, or sexuality,” Hudson explains. “I feel that the figures are emerging into the world. … The feet [are often] swirling up from the inner earth — that’s basically where I come from. I start from the bottom and bring them up from the earth. … I try to capture the essence of the feminine, instead of just an outward appearance. Everything comes from the inside.”

Many of the figures have a wispy feel to them — but all possess powerful, almost clawlike hands. “Those strong, determined hands represent the fact that, despite their seeming delicacy, these women can do anything,” Hudson declares.

The artist has numerous one-woman and group shows and awards to her credit — not to mention the UNCA program which brings students to her studio to learn, firsthand and hands-on, what it means to be an artist. But her upcoming solo show at Zone one has special significance — particularly given her refusal to participate in Women of A Certain Age. “It means so much to me to have this chance to do this show on my own,” she confides, admitting that she felt a bit daunted by the prospect, at first. “The first couple of weeks, it was a struggle,” she remembers. “It was, like, ‘I can’t do this.’ And then, just overnight, [the paintings] just started pouring out. Everything I saw left an impression, and the paintbrushes seemed to take over, and my whole life just suddenly …” she pauses, laughs, and then continues, “I just became wonderful.

Hudson feels uncommonly lucky to be able to finally make her living creating the work that charges and enriches her life like nothing else. “I don’t care what anybody says,” she proclaims. “I think women have to work twice as hard to be accepted in anything, particularly art.”

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