Some of us wonder until the end whether we did anything in this world that will outlive us.
Not Lucie Dulin. In hundreds of homes and offices across Charlotte and beyond, her legacy lives on in the portraits she painted of children, civic and business leaders and pretty much everyone in between – colorful works in oil, pastel and watercolor that capture a little girl’s whimsy or a titan’s confidence.
Lucie is 89, long widowed, struggling with macular degeneration, living in the Southminster retirement community, relying on her five grown children to look after her. Her painting now is mostly confined to dabbling in class with other seniors. But when talk turns to her art, and what she will leave behind, Lucie smiles and tells me how she’ll run into someone she knows at church or the grocery. She’ll take a moment to recognize the face, think back to when she confidently held a brush and declare, “I painted him!”
First and foremost, Lucie credits God for her artistic ability. “I thank Him for my blessings and that’s one of them,” she told me one day as we chatted at Southminster in south Charlotte. That’s about all the reverence she can muster, for in the same conversation, she said that being nearly blind “p----- me off.” Then, with a mischievous smile, she told her son, David Dulin, to “shut up” because this is her interview.
Lucie comes by her spirit, and artistic talent, honestly.
Her father, Herbert Hill Baxter, was mayor of Charlotte from 1943-49. Her mother, Virginia, was a portrait artist and sculptor who was usually too busy to clean up behind Lucie and her two older sisters. That made their home on Queens Road West a popular spot with the neighborhood kids.
Lucie grew up and built the same sort of arts-first life with her husband, Paul, a CPA and Realtor who helped found the Charlotte Choral Society and sang in the choir at Myers Park United Methodist. Yes, another artist in the family. He died in 2004.
In her heyday, Lucie was so busy making Junior League puppets and Halloween costumes, knitting sweaters for the five children, working on her pottery wheel and painting portraits that there was little time to tidy up. “Some of my first memories are the scores of faces on the easels in our living room, portraits of people I never knew,” says Albert Dulin, 65, the oldest of the five kids. Albert remembers as a child once adding his own touches to one of his mom’s commissions. It was ruined. “When she saw what I had done,” he recalls, “she didn’t cry. She didn’t get mad. She started over.”
Dentist paid with crowns
Lucie’s work is distinguished by its vibrancy, warmth and detail: A little boy’s smile. The pink bow in a little girl’s hair. The bright red scarf worn by friend and fellow church member Ruth Fisher. She often painted portraits from photographs, her work destined to hang in a formal dining room or executive’s wood-paneled office.
She’d usually get a good paycheck – several hundred dollars back in the 1950s, a couple of thousand near the end of her career, more for group portraits and full-body poses. The ones that wound up in a church lobby or college president’s office were another story. Then she’d get a wine-and-cheese reception. She painted her dentist’s children and bragged later how she was paid in crowns.
Her favorite portrait hangs in her apartment at Southminster: An oil painting of her father in his Army uniform, seated at a desk. She based the piece on a photograph taken during World War I, perhaps during a visit he made to his family back home in Boston. She loves the light and the limited colors – a spare portrait of her father as a young man.
Legacy hanging on the wall
For some inexplicable reason, Lucie says she threw out the spiral notebook filled with the names of her subjects, and how much each one paid. Her best guess is she painted more than 300 portraits, everything from retired banker Hugh McColl Jr. looking properly serious in a suit and tie to her son, David, 59, playing in the sand at Ocean Isle on family vacations a half-century ago.
A cherished tradition, preserved. “We’d spend hours on the beach, building high sand castles with moats and walls,” he says. “It was a time of solace, and being in our own world.” Each piece comes with memories as vivid as the colors on the canvas – not just for the artist but for the subjects, and the loved ones whose emotions bubble each time they pause to look again.
This is Lucie Dulin’s legacy…
The portrait of the three Barringer sisters hung on a wall in their mother’s dining room for 40 years, an especially tender presence each time the family gathered for a meal at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Lisa Barringer, the little girl on the left, is Lisa Lancaster now, married with three boys. She says her mother, JoAnn Barringer, had the girls’ picture taken by a professional photographer in 1967. But it wasn’t enough, so a decade later, JoAnn gave the photograph to Lucie and asked her to paint a portrait from it. JoAnn intended it as a Christmas gift to herself from husband Martin, who was happy to oblige (and pay for it) as he usually did.
Each time Lisa looks at the painting, she sees her sisters – Teresa in the middle, Jeannie on the right. She sees beyond their sweet expressions, to the way the sisters quit fussing long enough to put their hands on each other’s shoulders. A moment’s affection, captured. A year or so ago, the girls moved the painting to their parents’ bedroom so their mother, who wasn’t well, could look at it every day. JoAnn Barringer passed away May 25. She was 85.
Albert Dulin, a videographer, artist and musician, says his mother taught him how to draw – “to see things with an artist’s eye, to see color and line, the proportions of the human face and body.” Of all of his mother’s paintings, Albert treasures one above all. He was seven years old when he first laid eyes on it: “It’s a pastel portrait of a little girl of four, dated 1957. She’s got curly hair, a cute smile, and she’s wearing a frilly pink dress. Forty-four years after that portrait was painted, I saw it again, in 2001. That’s when I married my wife, Celeste.”
There’s a postscript.
Celeste died from cancer last October. She was 61. The portrait of her as a child hangs in the dining room of Albert’s home, in a sense, a gift from his mother.
Ken Garfield is Director of Communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, where Lucie Dulin has belonged since she was four years old. Reach him at email@example.com.