For the first time in 13 years, Debbie Whitsett answered a gallery’s call for artwork. Her sculpture, “The Dinner Guest,” an owl with a mouse on its head, was accepted into this summer’s “Wit and Whimsy” exhibit at the Clay Center of New Orleans.
Since she was a teen, the Charlotte native struggled with calling herself an artist. She attached the title to people who met certain criteria. Although she painted, sculpted and drew commissioned work for friends and family, Whitsett didn’t call herself an artist until she was in her 40s.
“I finally realized that a piece of paper or how important a school or instructor was had nothing to do with my abilities to be an artist,” said Whitsett, 63. “That took way too long for me to figure out.”
Whitsett held various jobs before marrying and raising a family. She worked in advertising, printing and became the first female dispatcher for North Myrtle Beach Fire Department in the 1970s. In 2012, she opened Olive’s Mud Puddle, a ceramic studio large enough to fit six adults, in Indian Land, S.C. It was named for Olive, one of four ducks her family owned. Olive was the smallest and smartest of the team.
In 2013, Whitsett moved to a larger studio on Fort Mill’s Main Street. She held painting parties in the back and her brother, Scott Ray, sold coffee in the front. At the time, Local Dish and the Fort Mill Barber Shop were the only storefronts on the street. Since then, Whitsett’s seen many restaurants and stores open, bringing more walk-through traffic to downtown Fort Mill.
Three years ago, Whitsett bought Olive’s Mud Puddle from her brother. The charming shop serves locally owned HEX Coffee, handcrafted drinks, wine and local beer. Whitsett mimics the whimsical nature of her art in the shop’s interior. The mismatched sofas, chairs and tables set a warm and opening vibe. Whitsett supports local artists such as Debbie Rasberry, Todd Baxter and Kathryn Hughes by displaying and selling their pottery and paintings.
Whitsett teaches ceramics, painting and pottery wheel classes in the studio space in the back of Olive’s Mud Puddle. A favorite among customers is Bob Ross Night, named for the creator and host of the popular television show, “The Joy of Painting.” Whitsett helps customers paint along with one of Bob Ross’ videos. In other classes, customers create yard sculptures or functional pieces such as coffee mugs and chip and dip bowls.
Her success with the New Orleans gallery encouraged Whitsett to enter her sculpture, “Terra Madre” to Southern Arts Society Inc. Gallery in Kings Mountain this summer. On July 20, she received the Merit Award for the piece.
Whitsett answered questions for the Observer. Her comments below have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s something you’d want people to know before they see your work?
Although my piece “Terra Madre” is a statement about the state of the earth and our world today, most of my work aims to lighten the heart. I feel the world is hard to take sometimes. We all need that moment, that chance to lighten up and take time to see the humor needed to enjoy life. Life is short, and the older I get, at least for me, I feel the need to laugh, especially at myself.
When did art first have an impact on you?
My grandfather and my uncle were both artists, so I just thought that art was a part of life. However, as a young girl, my family went to Brookgreen Gardens near Myrtle Beach where they have an enormous sculpture garden. I was in awe of the magnanimous sculptures and the human body in sculpture. I never thought then that I would be sculpting one day myself.
What’s something about you that would surprise people who know you or your work?
As a stay-at-home mom, before I worked with clay and ceramics, I made over 200 birdhouses that looked like the customer’s house for Wing Haven in Charlotte.
Feeling at home with saws and a hammer, I built our own treehouse in the backyard overlooking a pond that I dug myself, as well. The treehouse was adorned with stained glass windows, a “Captain Kangaroo” Dutch door, cedar shakes and a porch to view the sunset.
Who’s someone in your genre we should keep an eye on, and what moves you about him or her?
Terry Shipley is a great ceramic artist with vibrant colors and design. I love the clean crisp lines, bold colors and whimsical nature of her work. It just makes my eyes happy.
Who in Charlotte has most influenced your work?
When I was 13, I went to a special class at Myers Park that was instructed by Dean Barber. He took us on field trips to sketch things from the Greek Orthodox Church to lobsters in the tank at a grocery store. It was like an eye-opener for my life as much as it was for drawing and painting techniques. He was paramount in pulling the bold out of me.
Olive’s Mud Puddle
Where: 229 Main St., Fort Mill, SC
Details: (803) 552-9255 or https://www.olivesmudpuddle.com/
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters
You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/