Asheville-based painter Calvin Edney Jr.’s hero is Vincent van Gogh, but while studying the Dutch master has greatly informed his approach to creating works of art, Edney doesn’t want to mimic his idol.
“I want to paint like Calvin Edney, and I’m trying to do that,” he says. “I don’t want everything to be real smooth and orderly — blue skies all blue and the green pasture all green. I want it to have some dirt and bacteria and all that stuff.”
The 85-year-old Madison County native primarily focuses on outdoor scenery but occasionally cycles in still-life portraits of flowers or pieces of fruit. These days, he paints from photographs due to difficulty standing for extended periods of time, as well as a disinterest in fighting mosquitos. But whatever he decides to feature, his aims remain consistent.
“The truth in the painting comes when you first realize you’re painting what you want to be there, and not what is there,” Edney says.
Though Edney has long loved the arts and had “the time of [his] life” frequenting art shows and Broadway plays while living in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he didn’t begin painting until later in life. As a young man, he hopped between such area colleges as Mars Hill and Carson-Newman, “just playing around and cutting classes and not making the grades.” Ultimately, he wound up serving with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in peacetime.
Stationed at the front door of Central High School in 1957 when the Little Rock Nine first integrated the previously all-white institution, he was subsequently assigned to protect several of the Black students, namely Ernest Green, who became the first of the group to graduate.
Edney then married, moved to Florida, had three children and began working for Winn-Dixie, which transferred him to Asheville in the late ’60s. He says he enjoys the grocery business because, as with painting, you work with your hands. And, while assigned to produce, he got to flex his creativity, “painting” with the colors of various fruits and vegetables as he put them on display.
In early July, Edney retired from groceries for what he says was “the sixth time.” After Winn-Dixie, he went on to work for Bi-Lo and finally Ingles, where he worked in the meat department. Despite his recent decision, he says that he may not be quite done with it yet.
“I love the grocery business,” he says. “I can’t work like I used to — my body’s just not taking it. But everybody in this store down here at Merrimon Avenue, I know a great many of the people that come in there, and I know all the employees in there. It’s like family to me.”
Edney’s painting adventures officially began at the age of 56. One day downtown in Fain’s Department Store (now home to Mast General Store on Biltmore Avenue), a woman at the cash register showed him a book of her paintings, and Edney had an epiphany. The woman soon got him started with acrylics and pointed him to art classes, which eventually led him to courses at UNC Asheville, where Jos Vandermeer proved an influential teacher. While at UNCA, Edney was introduced to oil paints, which he’s stuck with ever since.
“Oils hold the peak, they mix together well, they feel good with a brush and they give you enough drag,” Edney says. “They’re also somewhat forgiving. If you make a mistake, you don’t have to tear the whole thing down and start over again.”
Edney continues to paint whenever he can, and his dedication to the craft has resulted in multiple exhibitions, including one at Vanderbilt University. His most recent show, May 11-July 3, was at the Madison County Arts Council, where he says the organizers essentially gave him the respect of a hometown hero.
“It was one of the better shows in my book — ever,” Edney says. “I’ve been treated nice at all my shows, but I can’t get over how they treated me.”
Creatives in the Crowd focuses on local artists, both established and new, spotlighting unique stories and innovative artistic approaches within our creative community. Unlike much of our Arts & Culture reporting, these stories are not tied to upcoming events, exhibits or releases. The feature strives to represent a diverse range of voices, experiences and artistic mediums. If you’d like to nominate a community member for consideration, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line, “Creatives in the Crowd.”