Nearly every day, artist Mary Gilkerson drives to a rural area in Lower Richland County to ride or take care of her horse. On many of those days, she also stops to do a painting of fields, edges of swamps, barns, the remaining walls of an old country store. She’ll pull off the side of the road, set up and paint for an hour or so.
She’s ended up with hundreds of these paintings, which make up From the Edge of the Highway: 300 Daily Paintings, on view at if ART Gallery in the Vista through Jan. 4. (Full disclosure: Gilkerson was for many years the freelance art critic for Free Times.) On Saturday, Dec. 21 at 11 a.m., she’ll be at if ART to demonstrate her process.
Her paintings of this landscape, mixed in with some images from the Congaree National Park and Edisto Island, fill several walls in the recently opened exhibition. The pieces, most 4 by 6 inches, were all done during the past two years — including a stretch of a painting a day (at least) for 150 days. About half were painted on site, with the rest done in her studio based on sketches or photographs.
Some places, she’s a bit obsessed with.
“There’s this little dip in the road,” she says, pointing out several paintings. “I’ve painted it at every time of the year and every time of the day, just about.”
It is the same spot, the same pavement, the same trees, but it’s a different spot each time.
These paintings are mostly of places many would see as flat, either green or brown, and mostly uninteresting. But for Gilkerson, the more time she spends the more interesting the places become — and the richer with artistic possibility.
Sometimes the differences are obvious — the bright green flush of early spring versus the grays and purples of the winter twilight. Some, especially those from Edisto, are more traditionally pretty paintings of marshes, a scattering of palmetto trees or puffy clouds in blue skies. More common, though, are flat fields, sides of a barn, a chunk of curved country road, a line of power poles.
Many of her paintings can be seen as more than one thing. What looks at first like a bridge is what’s left of an old country store. The bare cypress trees could be utility poles drooping with tangles of wires. Two fence posts might be distant smoke stacks. Many border on pure abstraction.
Gilkerson grew up in Columbia. As a child, she played on family land about 10 miles south as the crow flies from the places she now frequently paints. She earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of South Carolina and has been an art professor at Columbia College for 23 years.
When she was younger, she distanced herself from the Southern landscape tradition and traditional Southern values — especially those involving the role of women. In graduate school, she developed dark and mysterious works that meshed painting and photographic collage. The pieces often had landscape as part of the background, but never as the main focus. She did these works for about a decade, during which time the landscape became more and more important.
“I realized it was more interesting than what else was going on,” she says.
From the Edge of the Highway runs through Jan. 4. at if ART Gallery, 1223 Lincoln St. For details, visit ifartgallery.blogspot.com or call 256-0068.
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