A number of people have said that painter Joyce Thornburg’s figures have an alienlike quality “because they’re strange and they’re distorted,” she explains.
But the Asheville-based artist doesn’t take those comments as insults. “I like to show character,” she says. “I don’t care about making a pretty face.”
What Thornburg — a 10-year tenant of the Wedges Studios — does care deeply about is community, both with her fellow creatives and with the visitors who stop in to browse, meet artists and purchase works. Thornburg’s otherworldly but colorful, textural and engaging pieces have won her not only fans but collectors. “I feel blessed to be able to do what I’ve been doing since childhood,” she says. “I’ve been successful beyond my wildest expectations.”
Thornburg and other makers on the Wedge building’s second floor will open their studios and party with the public during a Groundhog Day celebration on Friday, Feb. 2.
The mastermind behind the fete is Richard Baker, a landscape artist and recent transplant to the Wedge Studios. But he did host a similar party in Saluda, where he previously had a workspace. “The Wedge is just a perfect environment for it,” he says. “You’ve got such a creative, diverse group of artists. There’s lots of positive energy, and we’re hoping that can positively effect an early spring.”
Others participating in the event include artist and philosopher Ken Vallario, mixed-media painter Julie Armbruster, portrait artist Patricia Hargrove, painter Dagmar Bruehmueller, illustrator Zinnia Nishikawa, found-object artist Frances Domingues and painter Perry Houlditch.
Like Thornburg, Baker also started making art as a child. He was born in western Tennessee, but because his father was in the military, Baker and his family lived all over this country and abroad. “Europe is beautiful. Central America is beautiful,” he says. “But there’s something so grounding about these mountains — I just love it here.”
It’s clear from Baker’s work, with light-infused pieces bearing titles such as “Linville Gorge,” “Catawba Meadow” and “Beaverdam Gap,” that his adoptive home of Western North Carolina is a major inspiration.
In 2010, Baker started painting professionally. “I wanted to do it all my life, but I had to raise a family and that kind of thing,” he explains.
Thornburg, too, delayed her entry into the art world while she focused on a full-time job. During the last five years that she lived in Miami, she began to paint every day, and when she relocated to Asheville 12 years ago, she turned her sun porch into a studio. But it was the move into the Wedge — where she initially shared her space with two other artists — that Thornburg credits for how her creative career has taken off. “It’s in part being in the public eye,” she says, pointing out that visitors to the River Arts District come from all over the world.
The artist’s expressive canvases often begin with a color, but not a specific idea. “Most of the time I don’t know what I’m going to paint when I start painting,” she says. “I will work on multiple pieces at a time. One may be very layered, labor-intensive. Another may be very gestural, and I’ll finish it very quickly. I never seem to stare at a blank canvas for long.”
Sometimes she nails something exactly as she wants it in the underpainting — the first layer of a piece, “But you can’t really work the whole composition that way, and you may have to paint over it,” says Thornburg. “We refer to it as ‘killing your darlings.’”
But it’s the process — the building of layers and textures — that most seems to interest the artist, who says she’ll begin to see a picture emerge from the strata “the way you’ll see images in the clouds.”
She continues, “The work is also emotional. … If [I] work on it over a period of days or weeks, there are a lot of moods [I’ll] layer into a given piece.”
Sometimes the emerging figures in Thornburg’s work come from other realms. Those influences are commemorated by titles such as “Spirit Figures.” (Also a writer, the painter enjoys the process of naming her work.) “I thought of myself as a folk artist when I first started,” she says. “Now I think of myself as more of an intuitive artist.”
Thornburg, who is self-taught, says she resonates with the work of Pablo Picasso, neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, figurative painter Francis Bacon and outsider artists — the descriptor for creatives who haven’t received training in their genre. But Thornburg herself, at home in her studio and artistic community, is more of an insider.
Baker’s upcoming party underscores that inclusive spirit. So what does the landscape artist imagine the Wedge Studios’ inaugural Groundhog Day Celebration will entail? “Crazy people dressed in crazy costumes,” he says. “We’re going to hand out prizes that are really not worth anything and are based purely on favoritism.”
He adds, with a laugh, “It will be fun.”
WHAT: Groundhog Day celebration
WHERE: Second floor of Wedge Studios, 129 Roberts St. wedgestudioartists.com
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 2, 5-8 p.m.