Wanda Choate captures the fleeting spirit of timelessness in her art
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the December 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine December 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine December 2012 digital download here. Or simply subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
Wanda Choate knew there had to be a form of creative expression out there that would be like a bottomless well. Childhood on a Tennessee farm and young-adult life in the “sweet southern Bible belt,” as she affectionately calls her lifelong home, offered plenty of opportunity for handicrafts—stained glass, quilting, painting ceramic owls, designing and making furniture, even drawing plans for the succession of homes she and her husband built, lived in, and sold over the years. But all too quickly, each creative well Choate dipped into ran dry. “I kept searching and coming to dead ends … wanting to express myself in a way that pleased me, that I was passionate about, that would get me up, excited, at 4 a.m.,” she remembers, sitting in her favorite chair in the cozy stone-and-timber studio that now awaits her each morning a few steps outside her Springfield, TN, home. (Choate’s studio was featured in the October 2011 issue of Southwest Art.)
It wasn’t until she was 30 that she finally discovered a creative spring so deep that it never ceases to challenge, inspire, and satisfy her—one that has led to an abundance of blessings over the years, including collectors and awards. The memory of that moment, when she realized fine art was something she could really pour herself into, remains as clear today as all those years ago. What unfolded in between has been sometimes difficult, sometimes magical, and infinitely rewarding, with special people and circumstances nudging it forward along the way.
Farm life in the 1960s and ’70s, as Choate was growing up, was rich in freedom for an outdoor-loving girl with an active, imaginative mind. “Downed trees were spaceships; hay bales in barn lofts were endlessly arranged and rearranged into rooms. I adored being left alone to read on porch swings and in cedar trees,” the artist recalls. Her mother encouraged a love of reading; her father, an ex-Marine, imparted an excitement for travel and appreciation for hard work. Fine art, however, was not part of the equation for the first three decades of Choate’s life. There was no exposure to art museums, galleries, original paintings, or art books. The only painting young Wanda got to do in school was on ceramic owls.
Without family precedent for higher education, Choate married after high school and started her own family. She and her husband, Billy, bought a dilapidated little house without windows, doors, plumbing, or electricity; fixed it up; and sold it. With that money they went on to build, live in, and sell other houses, all virtually within hearing distance of the trains she heard as a child, whose tracks bordered one side of her childhood farm.
Through her 20s, Choate funneled her enormous creative energy into an endless series of short-lived projects that never held her attention for long. Then one night she found herself sitting quietly, her two young boys asleep, a slim library book on impressionism lying open in her lap. She had been staring at a painting of a lovely young girl when, it seemed, an inner door opened, and she caught a brief, breathtaking glimpse of what might be. The feeling of expectancy, she recalls, was almost like that of being pregnant with her first child. “Tears streaming down my face, I asked God, who I hadn’t known for long, to allow me to create something that beautiful in my life,” she recounts.
The first step toward an answer to Choate’s heartfelt prayer came not long afterward when her hairdresser suggested taking an upholstery class together in Nashville, 30 miles away. As it turned out, Choate wasn’t able to get into the class. But having already put down her money and worked up the courage to imagine herself back in school, she thought she should sign up for a class of some kind. She went to the art department, where the only course without prerequisites was drawing. The first homework assignment was the question: Who is your favorite artist, and why?
“I had no clue,” Choate says, smiling. So she headed to the tiny Springfield library and, as it turned out, opened a book on Andrew Wyeth. “I sank to my knees in that little library with Wyeth. I thought: Oh my gosh! I could draw this. If I tried hard enough, I could really make something like this.” She did try hard. She drew constantly, obsessed. And her skills, aided by a dose of natural talent, exponentially advanced. “I’d be stirring spaghetti with one hand and drawing with the other. Or riding in the car with my husband and drawing my tennis shoes,” she says, laughing. “I was just consumed. I’d been looking for this all my life.”
Choate’s husband cheered her on “like I was a 9-year-old ballerina,” she says. Early on she also found an unlikely mentor in a Baptist missionary named Dave Woodard. Knowing he couldn’t devote himself to both missionary work and art, Woodard gave Choate his oil paints, her first-ever set. Later he and his wife purchased her paintings, encouraged her, and invited her to join them on travels to art-related destinations in Europe. Of Woodard, Choate says, “It was he who told me that it would be enough—that I was enough—to become the greatest painter that I could become.”
Workshops with painters including Ann Templeton, Quang Ho, and Ron Hicks were key stepping stones along the way, while the loose, spontaneous style of artists such as Carolyn Anderson continues to inspire Choate to step outside the bounds of comfort in her art. A painting called MUSIC MAN, for example, not only captures the wonderfully old-fashioned character of a top-hatted banjo player, it taught the artist that she could put the brushes down and leave areas of expressive semi-abstraction in her work.
“I’m such a darn perfectionist; I need to stop before I wear a painting out,” Choate says, a touch of wry, self-deprecating humor coming through in her warm, southern voice. “That’s what’s so great about a life-drawing class—the model will get up and leave before you’re done, and you get what you get. Sometimes there’s just pure magic in that.” Choate has organized such a group, which meets weekly at her studio and hires models for drawing and painting. “I call it Girls Night Out, but I’m the only girl,” the other two participants being male.
Life drawing, the camaraderie of other painters, a husband’s encouragement, and—these days—visits to art museums in places like Chicago and New York all serve to keep Choate focused on self-improvement. But perhaps the most effective inspirational prod comes from exhibitions such as the Oil Painters of America national and regional shows, at which her work has earned awards several times in the past few years. “That kind of show pulls in obscure, lost little people like me and gives us a reason to paint,” she observes, adding a snippet of her own pep talk: “I can do this! All the big names will be there, so I’m going to dig deep and figure out how to make this better!”
MAGDALEN is among Choate’s works to have taken a top OPA award, also winning Best of Show at the 2009 American Women Artists National Juried Exhibition. The painting—showing a young woman in dark clothing against a dark background—emerged out of a period of struggle in the artist’s life. “I think I sat in the corner of my big green couch for a week with Wyeth’s book Memory and Magic upside down in my lap,” she recounts. “When I got up, I painted MAGDALEN, a phoenix rising. Jessica is the model; the painting is me.”
The experience leading to TRUE RELIGION was more humiliation than inspiration, Choate says, but that’s okay. At an Amish horse auction, she ignored signs prohibiting photography until the announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers: “No photography in the building!” “The shame was worth it to see the collective turning of 250 straw and black hats,” she says, then adds, “I went outside to find TRUE RELIGION”—two beautiful, strong black horses harnessed and waiting to pull an Amish buggy back home in the winter chill.
The visual simplicity and timelessness expressed in much of Choate’s art may not be planned when she decides on a subject and starts to work. In fact, she says, the act of painting can be “like trying to catch a hummingbird loose in the studio,” with all its exquisite elusiveness and unpredictability. Still, what resonates with her aesthetic and natural sensibility can often somehow be conveyed. Such was the case with IDLE HOURS, which received a Bronze Medal at the OPA National Juried Exhibition in Evergreen, CO, in June and earned the artist $5,000 worth of new painting supplies. “When that semi pulled up in my driveway,” she says, still sounding amazed, “it was like God saying, ‘Good job! ’Atta girl! Don’t quit!’ That’s what it felt like to me.”
Featured in the December 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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