The world pours into artists and flows out upon canvases. It is etched into metal and formed into bouquets or infused into their mediums of choice. This symbiotic relationship has been occurring since ancient humans painted on cave walls, decorated earthenware vessels, and crafted reed baskets.
Throughout time, artists settled in inspiring places to absorb nature, people, architecture, and history. Envision Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women and Winslow Homer’s English seascapes. And, seeking warm sunshine and color, Vincent Van Gogh, who arrived in Arles in 1888, produced boldly colorful and energetic paintings of the countryside and its people.
From simply feeling comfortable enough in a place to respond to the muses, to using ambient color, light, and form in their work, artists place themselves where they need to be to create.
And, as such, the Outer Banks appears to be a needed place.
The coastal community overflows with visual artists working in a variety of mediums including painters, collage and digital artists and floral and jewelry designers. What inspires these sensitive souls varies.
Perhaps it is the bright red summer sunset or the purple hue of the marsh grass. Does the wind sweep the mind so creativity can flow? Maybe it is the sea’s symphony or something as simple as the taste of salt spray on one’s lips. Like sirens singing sailors to shore, the Outer Banks environment seduces artists with its beauty, motion, and history, for galleries overflow with seascapes that highlight ocean moods from slick calm waters to raucous waves.
Local artisans replicate driftwood and shell shapes to form pendants and rings. Collage creators combine sentiments with maritime images to craft odes to the coast. This haven of rest, and sometimes natural unrest, also provokes several Outer Banks artists to instill history, preservation and calming, playful vibes in their art.
When asked recently if the Outer Banks environment inspires their creative process or reflects in their art, six Outer Banks artists responded via email. Their answers were enlightening.
“The Outer Banks’ natural environment certainly affects my art,” said Deborah Hershey. “And it inspires me. The light, the smell, the air in my lungs – the endless watery horizons ... all lift me up. More than that, the faces of the people reflect the mood of the place – of freedom, of holiday, of childhood, and joy.”
Hershey is a collage artist and a painter who has created using watercolor, oils, acrylics, pastels, and mixed media. “Textures, colors, composition, the written word ... I get stoked thinking of ways to mix things up,” she said. Many of her collages are sea-themed and feature the quotes of Jacques Cousteau and Isak Dinesen; and her paintings include figures on the beach, crabs, and boats.
“Maybe it’s the Pisces in me,” said Hershey, who spends regular weeks on the Outer Banks when not in Pennsylvania, and has been an Outer Banks gallery mainstay for years. “Also, the sheer act of standing before the ocean is humbling to say the least. Puts everything in perspective. If I ever find myself NOT awed by the ocean, I suspect my life will be over.”
Awe is an emotion common to Outer Banks artists. For Frisco watercolorist and digital collage artist Linda Browning, it is provoked by natural color, motion, and light. “I live in a mixed ecosystem of woods and wetlands and am a short ‘power-walk’ to the beach, which I visit frequently – not to sit in the sun or swim, but to breathe in the colors, the movement of the kinetic waters, the light reflecting in the wash, the dune grasses throwing shadows of deep blues and purples in the sand,” she said.
While Browning uses reference photos to check proportions and anatomy in her compositions of land and seascapes, herons, egrets, swans, and ravens, her outdoor experiences supply the lion’s share of her inspiration. “For the most part, the landscape is burned into my brain, thanks to 40 years of soaking it in,” she said.
Browning also is a singer, songwriter, and musician. “The lyrics I write and put to music are almost exclusively influenced by the sights, sounds, and smells of Hatteras,” she said. “As a painter, I want my colors to sing, as well. The main goal, however, is to share my feelings of peace and awe of nature.”
Flowers, fabric, and imaginative accoutrements prompt Nancy Harvey’s nimble fingers to design memorable scenes. She is a Manteo floral and event designer who leads her business, Holiday House Weddings and Events, but also employs other artists. Harvey and her entourage create lush environments for weddings, galas, and a variety of fundraising events. “I like to be inspired by a walk in the gardens or on the beach,” she said of her process. A quiet jaunt through nature gets her creative juices flowing.
“The Outer Banks does play a role in my art,” Harvey said. “I feel, as a floral designer and an event designer, we want the floral scapes to look either as natural as possible, like you just dug up a piece of art from the ground, or we want to make it very whimsical by using natural elements.” After Harvey meets with a client, she heads to nature to see what is growing. “… what greenery, what unusual dried elements that we can bring to the event that is indigenous to our area,” she said. Color moves Harvey. “… the ever-changing color palette of the coral sunsets to the bright ochre sun rises to the cool blues and turquoise of the ocean to the gray and green marsh grass.”
In the end, to this artist, it is all about creating a fantasy land where people can relax, enter a new world – a child-like space filled with laughter and love. “When I create for a cause, I want to create an emotion – bold colors for bold emotions, subtle colors for sweetness,” she said. “Our love of nature is what keeps us inspired, what keeps the visitors coming back, and what keeps us wanting to preserve our natural beauty.”
There is nothing synthetic in Petie Brigham’s alkyd oil paintings. She works in a realistic, painterly style when creating breathtaking land- and seascapes. Outer Banks nature calls to her. She studies the environment while soaking in light, shadows, color, form, motion, and atmosphere. She then returns to the studio to paint, not from photographs but from memory.
“My color is pretty natural – not exaggerated,” Brigham said. Her images cause one to do a doubletake. How can a human being embody the sky, sea, sand, and marsh and return to a studio and replicate not only its look but its feeling? While the work is not categorized as photorealism, upon viewing it, one can taste salt spray, feel sun, and hear the waves playing out their moods.
Brigham captures the underlying motion and interconnectedness of life and its mystery. When painting a marsh, she even manages to portray seclusion – the sense of private ecosystems hidden from the viewers’ eyes. When asked what about the Outer Banks makes her heart sing, she responded, “Open spaces.” Her overall goal? “To make a painting that will bring people calmness, and which will stand the test of time.”
Louise Sanderlin is a true child of the Outer Banks, having grown up here. The local environment literally presented her first introduction to nature. “Its precious, unique ecosystem, plants, and animals hold some of my favorite memories,” she said.
Sanderlin works with sterling silver to create jewelry. “As a goldsmith I look to our environment for a lot of inspiration for my designs from actual shapes of our islands, to the animals and plants. I try and use or incorporate objects found in nature – shells, pearls, patterns from sea, and local plants, etc.” Her creations include silver necklaces shaped like Roanoke Island and buoys, seagull earrings and others crafted with tribal designs.
Sanderlin appreciates Outer Banks history, including the culture of the Algonquin-speaking people who lived on Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks and the area’s Elizabethan connections. “I am working on a ring design that was inspired from what would have been worn by the Queen in 1587 and also working on a necklace design that I was inspired to create from crabbing season – different aspects of the Outer Banks but all derived from its history,” she said.
Sanderlin works from life, photos, and sketches, but she says “memories are a biggie…” The calm, ever present gentleness of nature lifts her spirit as do the changing environments, the waters, and the known and unknown. She has collected memories and images since childhood. Regarding her jewelry designs, she wants her clients to connect to the Outer Banks in a subtle way. “I just want the wearer to remember.”
Like Sanderlin, Fay Davis Edwards spent her life on the Outer Banks. “I am a native of these barrier islands,” she said. “They are my true self.” The ever-changing nature of the shorelines, the wildlife, and the weather bring her joy. “The natural environment here is the driving force behind my artwork,” said Roanoke Island’s Edwards, whose portfolio includes paintings, and installation, photography, and projection art.
“My colors are pulled from the deep reds, browns, ochres of the marshes, and the blues of the sounds and sky,” she said. “My subject matter centers on climate change and specifically the constant flooding we face from rising seas and stronger storms. The medium depends on the particular story I am trying to tell about these changes.” Her recent body of work focused on “… telling stories of sea level rise, socioeconomics, privilege, and mobility justice for people living in flood prone areas.” Her goal was to find the best way to visually illustrate – without bias, the effects of climate change.
Edwards worries about her homeland. She thinks about the fragile shores and the effects on them through overdevelopment, greed, environmental concerns, and overfishing. She does her part as an artist and an art teacher to protect what she loves for to Edwards’ art can have a major impact. “Art is a response or a reaction to society,” she said. “It mirrors history and allows an opportunity for commentary, protest, or beauty.”
Just as the Outer Banks affects these six artists, they affect society. In the end, the viewer completes the process by soaking in or contemplating that which inspired the artist to create: sea rise, childhood memories, open spaces, a bright ochre sun, kinetic waters, air in the lungs … the Outer Banks.
252-995-3662 (for studio appointments)
Pea Island Art Gallery
27766 Highway 12, Salvo
Sea Dragon Gallery
1240 Duck Road, The Waterfront Shops
Silver Bonsai Gallery
905 US Highway 64, Manteo
Louise Sanderlin Designs
Fay Davis Edwards