Artist Spotlight: Visual Poet

 

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With an energy equal to the vivid colors on her canvases, Lydia Randolph shares the beauty she sees in nature, people and the commonplace.

by OLIVIA GRIDER

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Less than a minute after Lydia Randolph and I sit down in the art studio over the garage of her Fort Payne, Ala., home, our conversation turns to what many would say is the most distinctive aspect of her work: a liberal and enthusiastic use of vibrant color.

This might not be so singular if her works were of an abstract variety. On the contrary, Randolph’s subjects are firmly rooted in the natural world. Landscapes of the Lookout Mountain area, including its creeks, canyons and farms, and portraits of people and animals dominate her prolific portfolio.

She points to a painting of a white cow hanging on a wall next to her easel and, after quickly noting she’s been spending a lot of time at a cattle farm recently and become somewhat obsessed with portraying its inhabitants, says she prefers to paint the white ones because of the way light reflects all the colors in their fur.

I ask how she came to incorporate so much color into her work in general, and she tells me, wide-eyed and with resolute sincerity, “I actually see it that way.” While my eyes rove the room’s canvases and my mind tries to comprehend this statement, Randolph goes on to say that even though she’s been painting since she was 2, she realized only recently that other people don’t see color in the way she does. “I thought everyone saw it, but maybe didn’t notice it,” she says.

I take this into consideration as I look at the paintings again. Despite pastel strokes of green, blue, purple, pink and yellow across faces, rocks and truck fenders, the overall compositions are profoundly realistic.

Randolph seems as fascinated by my visual deficiency as I am by her superpowers of sight. As she references various objects in the room, asks what colors I see in them and tells me what she sees, I wrack my brain for remnants of the color science I learned in school. White reflects all colors and black absorbs them, I recall.

Randolph says while she doesn’t see as much color variation in black objects as in others, she never sees a flat black. Lying on the floor a few feet away, a flip-flop with a black foam base becomes our next experiment. Afternoon sunlight through an eastward-facing French door bathes its top surface. I’m about to say the light makes some areas appear gray or like a white film is covering them when I notice something else – hints of green and blue. The green could be a reflection of the shoe’s upper, and the blue might be from the sky. Randolph sees these colors and more.

A desire to communicate what she sees – not just color, but the beauty in objects considered junk or the magnificence in things taken for granted as mundane – is the driving force behind Randolph’s full-time work as an artist.

“You never really know if everyone else sees what you see, so it’s human to want to share it,” she says.

She has studied and worked for years to develop her abilities and style. “It’s frustrating as an artist to have a vision, but not have the skill to pull it off,” she says.

As a single mother with four kids to raise, she was depressed for a time about her outlook as an artist. She thought she would never be as good as the artists she admired because she couldn’t move to a big city or go to college. But then she dug in her heels.

She dedicated at least an hour each day to studying art books she checked out of the library or received from her grandmother, and forced herself to paint from life 8 to 10 hours a day. “I think that’s how you get better,” she says. “Just by working at it.”

She also studied with pastelist Margaret Dyer in Atlanta and renowned portrait artists Burton Silverman in New York City and Jim Aplin and Michael Shane Neal in Tennessee. She cites Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins as her inspirations.

Randolph works in watercolor, oil, acrylic and pastel, and her preferences for various media are always changing. “Whatever I’m with right now is my favorite,” she says. “Right now it’s oil.”

She says she’s still not where she wants to be as an artist – that it might take another 30 or 40 years to get there – but she seems well on her way. She’s won the Artstravaganza Award at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tenn., and two awards from the Pastel Society of Alabama, and her work has been featured on the cover of the Birmingham Arts Journal. One of her paintings, featuring DeKalb County, Alabama, musicians, was displayed in the White House. Others are in the collections of Gene Chizik and Bart Star Jr.

An average of 50 percent of Randolph’s works are commissioned, but the percentage skews to 90 or 100 percent around holidays. While most of these works are portraits, she’s also asked to capture farms, trucks, agricultural equipment, houses and pets on canvas.

One of the biggest challenges with commissioned work is balancing her artistic judgment with her clients’ requests, Randolph says. Sometimes people think they know what they want, but don’t, and she has to gently steer them. “It’s delicate,” she says.

Other times they do know what they want, and Randolph’s challenge is finding an aesthetic way to present their ideas. She thinks she knows what will look good and what won’t, but has found she’s not always right.

For example, after Randolph painted a John Deere tractor as a gift for a client’s husband, the client asked for turkey and deer to be added to the scene. Randolph resisted, thinking it would look too busy. “In my mind, it was just about the tractor,” she says. But she tried adding the animals and was pleased with the results.

When painting portraits, Randolph says she looks for what makes each person unique, then emphasizes this quality. She accentuated an older woman’s kind, loving eyes, for instance, and when asked to paint a shy, sensitive child who was comfortable in nature, she portrayed her leaning against a tree. Randolph prefers to spend time with her portrait subjects and get to know their personalities rather than paint only from a photograph. “A camera captures what a person looks like,” she says. “A portrait captures what they are.”

With the exception of the holiday season, in winter she paints mostly what she wants. The time of year tends to put her in an angsty mood, which she believes is good for artwork, making it “more honest.” Her subjects almost seem to choose her, rather than the other way around. She says she picks things that grab her attention and nods toward the work in progress on her easel, a rusting farm truck in a field. As soon as she saw it, she knew she had to paint it. “The guy who owns it would no more sell you that truck than drive to the moon,” she says.

And that understanding is part of what drew her. Relics of a dwindling agrarian society being consumed by nature are recurring subjects in her work. “These things are loved enough not to be discarded, but are no longer needed, so they’re left to be reabsorbed by the very earth that they once tended,” she writes in her artist’s statement.

When Randolph spots something she wants to paint, she follows a standard procedure. She snaps a few photos and then tries to memorize everything about the object or setting, including how she feels while looking at it. A photo is usually pinned to her easel as she works.

In addition to landscapes, she also enjoys painting quirky figurative scenes. These sometimes arise from old photos, and she often inserts people she knows into the settings.

Randolph paints murals as well, and you can’t go many places in DeKalb County without witnessing her work. Her murals grace the walls of restaurants, medical and dental offices and numerous schools. She teaches art to children at St. Clair County Migrant School in summer, and she was the artist in residence at Crossville Elementary School for six years.

Randolph’s close relationships with both art and nature began when she was very young, growing up in rural Florida. Her grandmother, Adele Rosenstein, a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, sent her show catalogs and art books and supplies. “She was just terrific,” Randolph says. “She was determined I was going to be an artist. Plus, it’s really all I ever wanted to do. It was the only thing I ever could do.”

Randolph says there’s a photo of her painting at an easel when she was a toddler. “There was always something to paint with, and when there wasn’t, I made something,” she says. One of her earliest works was a beach scene with toothpaste waves and baby-powder sand, created on a hallway wall and floor.

Randolph and her two full sisters grew up near Odessa, Fla., in the 1970s, in a tiny house by a lake at the back of an orange grove. Their school was 40 miles away. “Florida was so wild back then,” she says. “You could cross hundreds of acres and not see anyone. It was rough and scrappy. There were horses, cows, lakes, alligators and lots of room to roam.”

Randolph talked with her grandmother often by phone, and when this elegant and cultured woman visited, she taught Randolph and her friends – who didn’t wear shoes and carried knives – how to be ladies. They learned the foxtrot from her and went shopping.

“I got to see the best of both worlds,” Randolph says. “I got to see the beauty of art in the city through my grandmother and got to hang out in nature and never really see a soul.”

When Randolph was a young adult, her grandmother continued to encourage her artistic pursuits, and the two wrote letters to each other constantly. At one point, when Randolph was living in Kentucky at Paradise Mobile Park, which she describes as, by far, the worst place she’s ever lived, her grandmother told friends her brilliant artist granddaughter was living in the mountains of Kentucky and painting the natural landscape. Randolph adds her grandmother’s first name to the signatures on her paintings.

After also living in Tennessee, Randolph moved to northeast Alabama in 1995 and says she sees a stunning poetry in the area’s mountains, streams and unique geographic features.

Little River Canyon on Lookout Mountain has long been one of Randolph’s favorite places to explore and paint. The 600-foot-deep gorge stretches for 12 miles and was shaped by Little River, one of few rivers in the world to form and flow almost their entire lengths atop a mountain. “It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” Randolph says. “Streambeds and rocks are sculpted exquisitely, and the light itself in the canyon seems different from being filtered through the wide crack the canyon cuts through the earth.”

While there are overlooks and an easily accessible waterfall marking the beginning of the canyon, not everyone is capable of hiking to the bottom. “I want to paint it so that I can bring it up from the steep paths and gullies and let others witness the beauty without the harsh hikes it takes to get there.”

Now that her children have left the nest, Randolph is working more than ever. She was the featured artist at Kamama in Mentone, Ala., in October 2014, and she hopes to have a series of paintings of Little River Canyon displayed at Jacksonville State University’s Canyon Center.

The Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce often calls upon Randolph to complete projects, including a series of watercolor prints of Fort Payne and Mentone and a poster marking Fort Payne’s 125th anniversary in 2014. She recently wrote a short book called “Ten-A.” Aimed at tweens, it tells the story of a cow who has become one of her favorite painting subjects.

In spring 2013, she showcased her work at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in Freeport, Fla. The center is named after internationally acclaimed scientist Edward O. Wilson, who contributed to the development of new academic specialties such as sociobiology and observed that life on Earth is changing drastically as natural ecosystems disappear. At the center, children learn about the natural environment through interpretive exhibits and a trail system.

Randolph was invited to paint wildlife there and to draw Wilson and others as they spoke at an event.

“I agreed with everything said,” Randolph recalls. “People are too separated from their natural environment. They get out in nature and get nervous. Kids are losing the ability to process and understand nature. People need to be in nature to be healthy and normal.”

At one point, Randolph did have an opportunity to move to the big city. She was offered a job as an assistant to Burton Silverman in New York and almost took it. But like herself, her children were country kids, and the friends they all had made had become family to them. “This area is kind of hard to leave,” Randolph says, noting the low cost of living and the opportunities for outdoor recreation. “Everything you want to do, it’s pretty close, and most of the adventures are free.”

Lydia Randolph’s work is available at Kamama in Mentone and at Katherine’s Framing, Myrtle Jane’s and the Wishing Well in Fort Payne. Learn more at her website, twohatsstudio.com.
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