For three Charlotte-area artists, an early fascination with making art was soon trumped by the demands of jobs and/or motherhood.
Bev Nagy’s father told her, “Please promise me you’ll go to college and learn something you can make a living at.” The young Pennsylvania woman complied, studying psychology and becoming a trainer of staffs working with the mentally disabled in North Carolina.
Patricia Steele Raible had no extra time for art. She was “taking care of children, trying to put food on the table.” A journalism major in college, she worked at various writing-related jobs, including running her own publications and marketing company.
And when Dina Lowery told her W.Va. parents that she wanted to pursue a creative career, her mother said, “If you do that, Dina, you’ll have to move away.”
“I guess my bubble was popped.” Lowery instead earned a counseling degree at Marshall University and worked in psychological rehabilitation.
As dutiful daughters, wives and mothers, the artists let their early inclinations slip away, even though Raible recalls a college watercolor class: “When I got in there, I completely lost myself.”
Now, with their ages ranging from 45 to 62, the three have come full circle, not only embarking on second careers as mixed-media artists but winning McColl Center for Visual Art residencies and seeing their work hung in galleries, businesses and homes.
They were each jolted into their second careers by the realization of how happy they were when creating art. For Raible, 62, the moment came during a visit to a Romare Bearden exhibit at The Mint Museum a decade ago.
She and her husband, Michael Raible, were running an organic farm in Union County. “I walked into that gallery. Absolutely, it was like entering a cathedral.” She then told her husband, “I’ve got to try this.” Work on the farm was light in the winter, so she spent the time tearing up painted paper and rearranging the pieces as leaves in a Bearden-like collage.
Nagy, 54, was laid off from her job in 2005 and decided she might as well do something she liked. She’d been weaving baskets during bouts of boredom on work-related trips, so she started doing it in earnest. She rented a studio in NoDa. “I’d sit there and weave, and people would come in and sit down. I’d weave, and we’d talk.”
Unbeknownst to her, two of those people were from the Arts & Science Council, and they bought enough baskets to set her feet firmly on the path to a new career. She won the McColl residency and says of that experience, “I entered a basket weaver. I left the visual artist who specializes in fiber and mixed media.”
She closed the studio, and she and several other artists founded Charlotte ARTery, a combination support group and marketing alliance. With the help of a grant, they are seeking permanent exhibit space.
She’s working in mental disability treatment part time for an institute connected to UNC Chapel Hill, but her heart, she says, remains in art.
Lowery, 45, remembers being intrigued by a tree across the valley from her home when she was a 5-year-old in West Virginia. She asked her mom if she could draw it, but was crushed by the result. “It was the most cartoonist-looking tree.”
Her wise mother bought her charcoal pencils, paper and a book on drawing several years later. “I treated them like they were gold,” she says.
Her return to art as an adult came some 25 years later, after eight years in a rehabilitation counseling job. She started a sculpture class as a respite from the difficulties of her job. “When I was there,” she says, “It’s like this burden was taken off me.”
Soon she enrolled full-time in art classes at Central Piedmont Community College, giving her bosses at Mecklenburg Department of Mental Health two months’ notice.
She asked a teacher, “Who hires an artist to let them just paint?” and was startled by the answer: “Nobody.”
The self-described “hippie chick” who had previously rejected the idea of a career in home design as “fluff” took another look. When she discovered that it required knowledge of everything from architecture to electricity, she settled on a home design major with lots of art classes.
By 2001, Dina Lowery’s Studio of Design had two employees besides herself, and she sold her first abstract pieces right off the walls of a Homearama house’s interior she designed. That success, she says, started her pursuing galleries.
Embracing the unexpected
Playful and serious and sometimes evoking strong emotion, the women’s work, like their lives, is full of surprises.
Nagy loves anything that’s thrown out – old bicycle chains, department store mannequins. She wove a basket-like head onto a branch. It sits atop a babyGap mannequin’s body with a bamboo and rattan tail, and the branch sticks out from the head like pigtails. The angel/mermaid’s arms are raised.
At first viewing, people ask, “‘What the hell?’” she says. Then they take a better look and say, “‘That’s like, uplifting. It’s like she’s blessing you.’”
Lowery slathers Dutch gold leaf onto canvas, not for the traditional glitter, but so that when she’s covered it in gel and let it sit for 12 hours, it will oxidize and turn bright blue. Discovering what hue it’s taken on is “almost like Christmas,” she says.
Raible’s earliest mixed-media collages are reminiscent of the farm, which the Raibles no longer run. “Spring Garden” involves soft shades of pink, yellow and green, cut through by lines. “In spring, when they plow fields, there are a lot of lines (furrows) that show up,” she says.
She’s currently sculpting on surfaces with joint compound, creating a series of works that liken building a life to constructing a building. The inspiration, she thinks, comes from her architect husband’s job and from her long experience in using joint compound to renovate the family’s homes.
Art as healing
Art helped Raible deal with her mother’s 2010 diagnosis with an Alzheimer’s-type disease. A three-piece series displays family photographs and is written over with phrases from the Biblical book of “Lamentations,” starting with: “All the precious things that were hers from days of old”
Raible, who says she’s spiritual rather than religious, opened her Bible randomly and the book appeared. “I said to the universe, ‘Thank you.’”
In Lowery’s kitchen stands a 4-by-6-foot painting of a figure in a bridal gown wearing wings. The wings enclose representations of lung X-rays – Lowery’s lungs that suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2004, just two months before she was to marry.
There’s a tiny “L” on the left lung, placed on the actual X-rays by a medical technician for identification. Lowery titled the painting, “L Is for Life.”
“God,” she says, “has given me a second chance.”
Whatever their art says to them, the women want it to speak in a meaningful way to other viewers. “If I have discovered something, somebody else will discover something in it,” says Raible.
It may not be the same something, she hastens to say, but she wants the work to do for others what Romare Bearden did for her: “To reach my heart, make me think or feel, motivate me.”
Meet the artists
Patricia Steele Raible, CharlotteGallery: Green Goat, SpencerCurrent show: April 1-June 20, Sticht Building, Wake Forest University Medical Center, Winston-SalemWebsite: www.patriciasteeleraible.com
Dina Lowery, York, S.C.Galleries: RedSky, CharlotteCarlton, Banner ElkWebsite: www.dinaloweryv.com