Painter Elizabeth Bradford is known for her realistic depictions of nature: tree roots gnarling into a creekbed accessible only by kayak, or wisteria growing lush along a trail she hiked off the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you stand still and stare deeply into her paintings, you can hear the water rush by, feel a tug that urges you to lace up your boots and find a winding forest path.
So it seems almost impossible that during Bradford’s childhood in northern Mecklenburg County, a fence ringed her backyard, and Bradford felt caged. The frustration and obsession with what lay beyond the fence are etched in her memory, she says.
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It took convincing her parents to send her on a $850 summer travel program to the Sahara desert during college at UNC Chapel Hill, she says, to open her eyes to the majesty of the outdoors, the place she now calls her “cathedral” and the inspiration for her work.
Today, her influence in the regional art world is gaining steam, observers say, and when she’s not painting in the studio that was once her great-grandfather’s cotton seed barn, she’s likely on a camping trip, capturing scenes with a pocket camera, or visiting one of the world’s great museums.
The wild outdoors is where she culls material for the works she paints – works she hopes will remind her audiences “of the sacredness of the world we do not command and our responsibility to challenge all that threatens it.”
Forty of her paintings are on display through Nov. 19 at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum in an exhibition called “Time + Terrain,” curated by Charlotte’s Carla Hanzal. Writing is another of Bradford’s talents, and portions of her blog posts appear alongside many of her works, to help visitors understand the story behind what they’re seeing. The show is also bolstered by a specially designed school curriculum plus field trips, and underwritten by Wells Fargo Private Bank.
Hundreds of children are visiting the exhibition; some lucky groups have had Bradford herself take them through the show, then out to nature to guide them on observation and imagery. And the museum’s accompanying curriculum was designed to help kids not only embrace art but to appreciate nature’s power.
“Her approach to landscape is very important,” says Hanzal. Bradford puts herself in places that inform her perspectives as an artist, she says: “She spends a lot of time on the water, kayaking and canoeing. In some of her paintings you definitely see the perspective of people being on the water. It’s like she’s literally in a creek and looking up.”
And she has “a startling and unusual sense of color,” Hanzal says. “She’s an artist we’re going to see more from.” (Her work was part of an exhibition at uptown’s New Gallery of Modern Art a year ago, and the Mint Museum has a Bradford work – “Falling Billboard Dream” – in its permanent collection.)
Bradford, 65, lives on 25 acres of lush countryside that is her family’s ancestral farm near Davidson. Eight years ago, she completed a collection called “Two Mile Radius,” in which she painted scenes found while wandering the woods within 2 miles of her home. The works are a reminder to the rest of us not to be blind to the beauty that stands literally beyond the back fence.
Bradford, who taught art in high schools for 15 years, raised her three sons to love roaming the great outdoors – a far different message than the one she was given as a child.
“I was told, ‘No, you’re not going to go run around the neighborhood, you’re going to practice your piano and do your homework,’ ” she recalls. “I can almost remember every single time I got to play in the woods or in the creek or in a tree house. It’s almost like there were so few, they’re really vivid to me. I can’t remember any of those days of practicing piano, but I remember so much and such detail of my outdoor experiences.”
The summer she spent during college, she says, hiking and camping the Sahara desert and the Atlas mountains, changed the course of her life.
“All those days and days of doing that taught me this is not hard, this is not scary: This is really, fundamentally something you can do anywhere on Earth,” she says. “As long as I’ve got a nylon tent and sleeping bag, the whole Earth is my home.
“I wish that, especially for children. I think there’s something so comforting, psychologically, about time spent in nature. I wish it for everyone. I think we could solve a lot of our pain and problems if we spend more time outdoors.”