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Time + Terrain: Bradford Finds Muse in NC Roots

by CV staff

August 8, 2016

Photos: (top) "Mountain Island Lake Beech" acrylic on canvas, 16x20; (middle) "Creekside at Dusk,"  20x16  acrylic on canvas; (bottom) artist Elizabeth Bradford.

A lot of native North Carolina artists will tell you that their roots are evident in their work. For painter Elizabeth Bradford, those claims can seem almost quaint and droll by comparison.

The Davidson-based Bradford traces her lineage back to settlers there in the late 1700s, and she still lives on farmland  that was part of their holdings, including her current home, first acquired by her great grandfather in 1890. Those long-standing ties to the land manifest in her painting, which highlights the state's vanishing wilderness in meticulous but spirited acrylic and oil studies that focus on the intricate and formal patterns found in nature. Several will be featured in her upcoming exhibit—Elizabeth Bradford: Time + Terrain—at Blowing Rock Art and History Museum from Aug. 13-Nov. 19 (presented by Well Fargo Private Bank). An opening reception takes place Thursday, Sept. 1, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

The UNC Chapel Hill graduate and former high school art teacher, who now spends 40-60 hours a week at her craft, has shown throughout the Southeast and beyond, though her work resonates particularly well with North Carolinians. Bradford answered some questions via email for Charlotte Viewpoint about her work, her North Carolina heritage, and her upcoming show at BRAHM.  

You mention in your artist statement that you are descended from North Carolina farmers—how do you see the continuum between the post-war farming era you grew up in, the naturalists' preservation tendencies, and the urban, technological South? Can the three co-exist?

My ancestors first settled on Huntersville Concord Road in the late 1700s. Their holdings and their descendants' holdings sprawled out from that point over to where I now live. My home for the last 40 years was acquired by my great grandfather, Will Bradford, in 1890 when he was 30 years old. My grandfather and my father were both born in my bedroom. The farm my brother and I now live on was home to a bustling group of enterprises around the turn of the century. There was a general store, reopened and restored by my bother and sister in law, Grier and Kim Bradford. There was also a cotton gin and a sawmill. As a little child in the 50s, I was witness to the vestigial farm culture that survived after World War II, as well as the New South urges toward modernization, suburbanization, and population growth. Too, there was a huge shift in the way people made a living. For generations, Bradford men and women had tended the farm, but my father’s generation drove into the city and made their livings in other ways. These ways of being overlapped, coexisted, ebbed and flowed. When I was little, the drive was to appear modern. Wonder Bread would have been the cool thing to buy. Homemade bread would have been a little homespun—almost embarrassingly old fashioned. People wanted a Beacon blanket, not a feed sack quilt. And of course, in the way of all things, the pendulum swings the other way and now we take huge pride in our farm-to-table foods, our love of old craft ways, our preservation of practices like bee keeping and raising chickens. 

You call your paintings elegies for a natural world that has certainly diminished over the last century—what is your hope with your paintings in general, and with the exhibit Time + Terrainin particular?

I really hope that people look at the wild places I paint and are stirred to reverence. I hope that my seeing subtle hidden treasure, and underscoring it, causes people to also see it. Not just the obvious, like a great sunset, but the small things like the sky fragmented and reflected in the water, the baroque woven quality of limbs and vines, the structure and dignity of an ancient tree. I also target a kind of mood in the work. I want the peace that descends on me in the wild to descend upon my viewer as well, and for that viewer to see—this is church. This is the Really Big Cathedral. 

How did you land on the exhibit's title Time + Terrain in any case? What did you want the paintings to convey via the title? 

The title of the exhibition was the idea of (former Mint Museum curator) Carla Hanzal, its curator. She was really interested in the way my work expresses time…I used to call it the “slow accretion of detail.” These images aren’t arrived at with anything resembling efficiency. They are time-intensive and are at their best when no limits are put upon their realization. Terrain, for obvious reasons—I’m obsessed with the land. I believe that’s almost hard-wired into my genes as I am the offspring of generations of farming folk who watched the weather, the rise and fall of the ground, the things that grew and didn’t grow, the rotation of the earth and the seasons.  

How do you choose the sites you decide to paint? Is there something in each spot that speaks to you specifically as a painter or naturalist? Or are the two inseparable?

Over time my criteria has changed. Initially, when I was a young person in a community of older retiring farmers, I was engaged in trying to capture their way of living on the land—the way a farmer grows things.  Now all those wonderful folks are gone and I’m proud I captured their barns, their row crops, their flower beds, their skill. I’m glad there are, out there, little memorials to Harris’ famous knack for growing the best cantaloupes, and Sarah’s remarkable frothy cloud of baby’s breath against her stand of yellow lilies, the rhythms of Joe’s barn as it began to sag with age.

Now, my focus has changed. I’ve wandered away from the cultivated earth, searching for Mother. I find her in the national and state parks, for starters. A few years ago two brilliant outdoorsmen who are long-time friends agreed to school me in backpacking. They go once a month to a remote location and I get to tag along. One of them is a biologist and he’s always teaching me amazing details about what I’m looking at. So that has come to feed my work—and the work and being a naturalist are indeed inseparable.  

Your connection to the land here in North Carolina clearly informs the work—have you found as deep a connection painting in other parts of the country or in topics not associated with nature?

Time + Terrain includes paintings drawn from sites as distant as the Everglades and Cumberland Island in Georgia. I’m fond of saying that my camping and backpacking experiences have always made me mindful that the whole earth is my home. If I have a tent and a sleeping bag, I can nestle into the very ground of anyplace on earth, and I have done that, in many amazing places. If I’m in the city, and there are no trees, no rocks or soil to capture my imagination, my second favorite subject for work is my interior landscape. It’s terribly hard to access—and not as delicious to contemplate as the natural world. It requires more rigor and more imagination, so there is not a lot of that work out in the world. The Mint Museum has an all-time favorite piece in its collection which is just such a painting.

Could you elaborate a bit on how the needlework traditions of Southern women, and the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 70s inform your work?

There is a tradition that goes back deep in history, not only in the South, but all over the world, that involves women doing needlework. Colonial era schools in the United States taught women to sew, to cipher, to create images via samplers. Sewing was a necessity. It’s hard to imagine that a lot of the very fabric clothing was made of had to be hand woven 150 years ago. When I moved to my farm in the 70s the barn that’s now my studio still had a spinning wheel in it. The christening gown all my children wore, handed down from my mother’s christening, was, every stitch, hand-sewn. The time when needlework was important is not so distant. So, as a small child, my grandmother didn’t offer me a box of watercolors but, instead, embroidery floss, and some coarser thread to make tatting—a kind of lovely handmade lace.  I used my embroidery skills to make pictures and grew pretty skilled at making those kind of marks.

Pattern and Decoration was coincidental to the beginnings of the Women’s Liberation movement and it embraced “feminine” ideas like patterned fabrics, beauty and color in the face of the art world’s obsession with Minimalism. Not unlike fabricating a quilt, P&D included frequently the idea of collage, of embroidery, beading, and general lushness. It felt like home to me, as a young artist who’d tried unsuccessfully to curb my lust for complexity in order to fit into the fold.

Are there landscape artists or naturalist painters who influenced you along the way? Were there any artists along the way who mentored you or became lifelong influences, and if so, what about them did they pass on or teach you?

I felt at home when I looked at the work of Neil Welliver. I was never lucky enough to be able to study with him, but lucky enough to meet him once. He stopped in the middle of a crowded appearance to really talk to me about life. I keep a postcard of one of his paintings around at all times. We are different, but I’m his offspring. It’s probably best I didn’t study with him as our art DNA is so aligned, I might never have found my own voice. I was hugely assisted in my growth as an artist by the thoughtful, challenging, stimulating instruction of Herb Jackson. Herb taught me so much it’s hard to know where to begin. Most importantly, and most uniquely, perhaps, he taught me how to talk about art in concrete, crystal clear terms. He also hassled me whenever I tried some slacker approach. I’ll never forget some of his one-liners: “When are you going to stop drawing on toilet paper?” “There’s no excuse (ever) for not making art”. “When are you going to get a studio?” He’s my wonderful big brother, and his generosity to other artists is under-appreciated.

Your paintings often have a watercolor feel to them; which properties in acrylic and oil do you find contribute to your subjects' look and feel?

For the most part I am self-taught. It was like the School of Rock, only it was the Elizabethan School of Art. The course of study began with a decade or so of drawing only, in colored pencils on paper. That was followed by a decade of painting in gouache, an opaque kind of watercolor, and since then, acrylic on canvas or board. The decade of working with the funky medium of gouache was very instructive and formative. It is very much present in the acrylic work. I am only just now beginning to exploit surface in my work. That’s primarily because surface was never an issue in the pencil or gouache works. 

In your artist statement, you mention "inventing" colors, "seeing auras" around subjects, and patterns inside you that manifest in the work—what do you ascribe these to?


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Tags: painting, acrylic, gouache, Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, Carla Hanzal, Neil Welliver, Herb Jackson, tatting, Pattern and Decoration, North Carolina, woods, naturalist

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