Artist Spotlight: Drawing on the Past

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Cloud Farrow’s dedication to capturing minute detail in his depictions of nature and historical structures stems from previous careers.

story by OLIVIA GRIDER

Cloud Farrow offers his hands as a medium for understanding his approach to life and work. Every finger has a piece missing or is deformed in some way, results of the years he spent in construction and cabinetmaking.

“With everything I’ve ever done, I’ve been too extreme,” says Farrow, who now makes his living through art. “I’m thinking about what I’m doing. I don’t think about me. When I sit at my drawing board, there’s no world around me.”[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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Farrow, 69, is often commissioned to draw old home places or other structures people remember from childhood, and he can’t call a work complete until his customer is comfortable with every element. “If you pay somebody to do something and there’s a reservation about that work, you can’t like it,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to be as precise as possible.”

Precision is key to many aspects of Farrow’s artwork. “I love detail,” he says. “I don’t leave anything a blur. I get it all.” Another striking attribute of Farrow’s drawings is the exactness with which he executes scale and proportion. It’s almost as if drawings of houses and buildings began with their blueprints. This isn’t a coincidence. For much of his life, Farrow drew things for utilitarian rather than artistic purposes.

He earned a degree in architectural and mechanical drafting before going to work for his stepfather’s commercial-construction company in Birmingham, Ala. For decades, he owned and operated a cabinetmaking business that supported his family as he and his wife raised five children. “I always
said I couldn’t build anything I couldn’t draw,” he says, noting problems could be worked out in the drawing phase.

When asked about his medium, Farrow says most of his work is mixed media, starting with a pen and ink structure and possibly incorporating watercolor, acrylic inks, oil pastels and more. “I try to get there any way I can – whatever it takes to get what I want,” he says.

He says creating a sense of depth that will fool the mind into thinking an object on a two-dimensional piece of paper is three dimensional is one of his biggest challenges.

After his last industrial accident, Farrow says his hands were ruined and his coordination was off, making it likely he would get hurt worse if he continued working. So he retired – and was diagnosed with cancer almost immediately. The disease has been in remission since 2007, but chemotherapy left him with fibrosis, a lung condition that makes physical labor impossible for him. With his savings wiped out to pay for cancer treatment (he had no health insurance), Farrow struggled to come up with a way to support himself. “I wanted to do something constructive, something worthwhile, not be a beggar,” he says. “I’d rather be dead than have another man carry my load for me.”

Farrow had been drawing for as long as he could remember. As a child, his drawings were mostly doodles for his own enjoyment, and he recalls being punished in the second grade for drawing when he should have been studying. He wondered if his artistic drawing skills might come in handy now and tested them by putting a few framed prints in a café in Sand Rock, Ala. A Canadian couple bought one of the prints, and his work continued to sell. Farrow soon began taking commissions as well. Every month since, he’s drawn three or four commissioned works.

He chooses many subjects himself, too, and sells prints of this work. Natural and historic subjects attract Farrow. Nature-themed drawings are often of trees, woods, valleys, cotton fields, “little hidden things,” and natural features of northeast Alabama such as Little River Canyon, Cherokee Rock Village, Yellow Creek Falls and other waterfalls. “I love to capture water because it’s really challenging,” he says.

Historic subjects include Cornwall Furnace and the cabins, mills and barns of the Appalachian region. Farrow says he is deeply impressed by these structures that were built by people who struggled to make a life in rough place. “By drawing an old mill, I can experience how much trouble they went through to get water to the wheel,” he says.

Farrow always draws from a photo or collection of photos showing different angles and close-up and wide views of the subject. In the case of commissions, he sometimes needs to draw a structure that no longer exists from an angle other than the one shown in a single photo. His drafting and construction knowledge are particularly helpful in those situations. “I can pretty much get it,” he says. “I have done hundreds of these.”

When I talk with Farrow, he is working on a depiction of a mill in the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drawing is based on a photograph by Bob McGill, a retired fine-art printer who passed away in January. Much of Farrow’s recent work was drawn from McGill’s  photography, and Farrow says he loves the way McGill captured colors and light.

“Without a good subject I can’t do a good rendering,” Farrow says. “Bob was well placed in my career. He gave me much good advice. He liked my work and knew what I enjoy drawing, so he sent fantastic shots on a regular basis with his permission to use them.” Farrow began teaching art at Cherokee County Public Library in Centre, Ala., right after his cancer went into remission. Doris Pearson, chairman of the library board, had run across his work and commissioned him to draw a home place. Around the same time, he asked the head of the Creative Arts Guild in Dalton, Ga., to critique his work. She told him his drawings were fine and he should offer to teach his craft in his community. When he told Pearson he planned to do that, she suggested he hold classes at the library.

Farrow began giving free lessons one afternoon a week. While the majority of his students are children, he says he teaches kids from 6 years old to 106. Sometimes there’s one student and sometimes there’s 40. Either way, Farrow says he’s happy. “I can’t live without a purpose,” he says. “These students, they give me a purpose as a human being – even more than my work as an artist.”

The class is a critique rather than lecture session. Each person chooses what he or she wants to draw, and a librarian often helps locate photos of the desired subjects. Farrow floats around the room, giving each budding artist advice and encouragement and answering questions. Judging by the artwork I see when I visit the class in December, this simple method is quite successful. Jo Sewell, a retired schoolteacher, is putting final touches on a professional-looking rendering of a hound dog barking up a tree. She’s only been taking the class for six months and had no previous art training.

Rebekah Coffman, a 14-year-old interested in fashion design, has drawn a dress made out of musical notes. “She has the ability to visualize things and put them on paper,” Farrow tells her mother. “She has a lot of talent.”

Ian Goodwin, 9, says he has learned much from the classes. For example, he now knows how to fill in objects to create different textures. Real small circles are best for solid colors, he tells me.

“My art has gotten a lot better,” says Evan Goodwin, 15. He uses a drawing of a fox he’s working on to show me how he’s learned to use a tool called a tortillion to blur backgrounds. Unless the community gives kids a goal and something to focus on, they go in circles and lose their potential, Farrow says. “If you have something society wants, society will support you,” Farrow says he tells the kids in his class. “That’s why it’s important for my generation to recycle itself and put itself back into the new generation. It might not be art; it might be auto mechanics. From mentoring relationships, young people can learn to support themselves.”

Farrow says he tries to let others with disabilities know art can be an avenue for independence. He’s taught people with cerebral palsy, autism and paralysis. One mentally disabled 47-year-old man now regularly sells his work.

Farrow believes all his students are talented and that each artist has a way of touching paper that’s unique. “That makes art an endless and fantastic experience,” he says.

His teaching philosophy is based on the idea that anyone can learn to draw and paint if they have a will to do so. “There’s nothing a person can’t do as long as they have a desire to be challenged. A challenging situation is the best thing and the healthiest thing one can possibly have.”

Farrow says he has lived up and down the state of Alabama, and chose to retire in the Lookout Mountain area, buying a home near Sand Rock. He first visited the region when he was in his 20s, living in Birmingham, and a friend invited him to Little River Canyon to rappel. “I just fell in love with Little River Canyon,” he says. “It was always to me a mystical thing. All the nature in northeast Alabama has kind of a mystical effect on me. It’s like being in another world from the other places I’ve been. I was drawn like a magnet to the area because of the natural beauty.”

From a retirement standpoint, Farrow says the area offers numerous advantages, including reasonable real estate prices, low property taxes and a location that’s not far from good hospitals.

The region also offers many of the things he likes to draw. “It’s a really good life here in that it’s not been done here yet,” he says. “It’s not established. It doesn’t have the big hotels. It’s just a natural place that has a feel about it. I can play a part in awakening the world to this wonderful place in Alabama.”

Farrow displays his work at art shows in the fall and spring and has a booth at Trade Day in Collinsville, Ala., where he sells prints and takes commissions.

Prints of Farrow’s work look sharp and vibrant to me, but he explains he doesn’t pay for “super-high-end” printing because he wants his prints to be affordable for people like him.

Throughout our conversation, Farrow mentions he is constantly learning. “I will always be a student of art,” he says. “That’s the thing about art. You never reach the top of the hill. It’s like philosophy. It evolves. It’s eternal – at least it is for me.”

Cloud Farrow and his work can be found at Trade Day in Collinsville, Ala., most Saturdays. His drawings also can be purchased at Desoto State Park in Fort Payne, Ala., Noccalula Falls Park in Gadsden, Ala., Katherine’s Framing in Fort Payne, Mentone Art Gallery in Mentone, Ala., Cherokee County Historical Museum in Centre, Ala., and online at cloudfarrowfineart.com and  fineartamerica.com. He says he is always willing to share what he’s learned about the art world, tools of the trade and techniques. E-mail him at cloudfarrow07@gmail.com or visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/lookoutmountainartist. His free art class is held at the Cherokee County Public Library in Centre, Ala., at 3:30 on Thursdays.

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