Recently, I tagged along on a tour of the Pfister’s incredible Victorian art collection led by artist-in-residence, Stephanie Barenz. Also on the tour was Virginia Shirley, an artist from Madison, Mississippi who was at the Pfister with her husband, who was in town for business.
Viriginia is a painter herself, as well as a potter. Her work has been exhibited in more than 20 museums and commercial galleries, as well as numerous juried art competitions. Two pieces of her work are included in the permanent collection of the Cottonlandia Museum in Greenwood, Mississippi.
“I like to paint really large or really small paintings,” she says.
“So you like extremes?” I ask.
“I must,” she says.
We both laugh at this.
During the tour, Stephanie showed us dozens of paintings. Some had a romantic theme, including one with a cherub kissing a woman and another that featured many “hidden” abstract hearts. (Stephanie later reminded me it was called “Admiration,” by Edouard Richter.)
I thought of this painting again and again when I was listening to my interview with Virginia and transcribing it so I could write this blog. I did not realize it when we chatted in person, but when I was intently listening to her recorded words, I noticed how many times she said the word “love” or referenced the concept.
The word did not pop out in our conversation; instead, it was softly woven into her lovely Southern-coated speak like the hearts in that painting.
It started when she told me when she fell in love with painting.
“Do you remember when you were in kindergarten and they put your daddy’s old shirt on backwards, buttoned it down the back, and put a paint brush in your hand and an easel with a big piece of white paper in front of you with some pots of tempera paint?” she asks me, her blue eyes shining. “They did it to me and I realized ‘this is it.’”
Then she told me she loved her community.
“I really love the people. They are really nice and welcoming. That helped us make the decision to move there. There are lots and lots of cultural activities in Madison for a small city,” she says.
And the more she spoke, the more her love for painting soaked through our dialogue.
“Painting lets me lose me. I will start working on a painting and suddenly hours have passed and the world has gone by and I haven’t worried about anything, I haven’t watched any news. All is good,” she says. “Painting gets me away from all that stuff I don’t really need to be worrying about anyway. And I’m a much nicer person to live with, if I paint every day. My husband will tell you that.”
And then she spoke of another part of the love: the pain of the process.
Recently, a young artist said to her, “Don’t you just love painting?” And she said, “I do.” And then the young artist said, “Isn’t it just fun all the time?” And she said, “No, it’s not really fun all the time.”
“I felt bad for saying it and started thinking about why I said that. I had two or three days of solid thinking and I realized it’s because if it’s fun all the time, I’m not challenging myself and I’m not growing and learning and painting better,” says Virginia. “At some point you’ve got to push it and it becomes very, very frustrating until you almost get to the point of it being done and finally, when it’s almost compete, you can breathe again. That’s what I love.”