Cindy Wilbur | Shoot for the Moon

With a little help, painter Cindy Wilbur aims high and makes it higher

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Cindy Wilbur, Echoes of Joy, oil, 14 x 18.

Cindy Wilbur, Echoes of Joy, oil, 14 x 18.

This story was featured in the January 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

It was starting to drizzle as Cindy Wilbur and a group of fellow artists pulled their easels from their cars not far from Park City, UT. They were taking part in a plein-air paint-out during the American Impressionist Society National Juried Exhibition in late September. Having been busy with back-to-back events for several weeks, including teaching workshops, Wilbur had not had much chance to get out and paint, and she was feeling a little rusty. On top of that, she was using a brand-new easel for the first time. “I was thinking that probably wasn’t so smart,” she says.

A few minutes later, however, she found herself drawn to an unassuming-looking path heading into the distance. It was the kind of scene that might have made other painters wonder what was there to see. But for Wilbur the sight of the path was intriguing, and she was delighted to be outdoors again with palette in hand, not worrying about how the piece would turn out. Later that evening at the paint-out awards ceremony, she was astonished to hear her name
called as the winner of Best of Show.

As it turns out, Wilbur has noticed that a number of her landscapes lately contain pathways, rivers, or roads—curving passages leading to an unseen place. It’s not an intentional theme, yet on reflection, she knows it is more than a compositional device. One such piece, HOMEWARD BOUND [see page 43], was juried into the Oil Painters of America National Exhibition in Fredericksburg, TX, a few years back, as well as the American Impressionist Society National Juried Exhibition in Charleston, SC.

It started out as a small painting inspired by a stretch of road in Monterey, CA, that she found herself driving multiple times each day during the process of buying a house. It was a busy period, and her mind was focused on getting things done. “But all of a sudden I noticed the drive,” she says. “The eucalyptus trees, the mountains, the beauty I passed every day on the drive to our new home.” Suddenly the road represented the gifts of the journey, rather than the end result.

Similarly, the twisting path of Wilbur’s artistic career has been marked by moments of wondering what’s up ahead—as when she ran out of money to complete a fine-arts degree and when she was physically paralyzed for several months. Yet she has found herself surrounded by people and circumstances that spur her onward, even through the most difficult times.

The earliest and most constant encouragement for Wilbur’s creative interest came from her parents. Her mother, who stayed at home caring for Cindy and her four older siblings, was artistically inclined. Although the family never had much extra money, she made sure there were always drawing materials around. Cindy’s father managed a car dealership in the San Diego area, where the family lived. At home, he expressed his creativity in generous, fanciful ways, one of which was to convert his youngest daughter’s backyard playhouse into an art studio when she was 10.

Tall enough to stand up in, the little house had Dutch doors and real windows with windowpanes and flower boxes. The future artist’s father added electricity and a heater and installed a picnic table inside. “I have wonderful memories of my parents sitting in there, painting with me,” she says. The space was a sanctuary for a sometimes shy but creative child who loved working with her hands, collecting rocks and feathers and using found objects to make things. Although the only art classes she attended as a child were through an after-school program, she forged ahead on her own, initially using watercolors on canvas since no one had told her that’s not how it was done.

Following high school, Wilbur maintained a close relationship with her parents, moving in her mid-20s to Stockton to be near them. She married, had a son, and worked as a medical assistant until her then-husband encouraged her to quit her job, follow her passion, and paint. For several years she rode the popular wave of French Country aesthetics, selling whimsical, decorative paintings in a dozen shops along the California coast. When the decline of that trend coincided with her divorce, she put painting on the back burner and found a job with an interior-design firm, where she could work a flexible schedule while returning to school. She secured a scholarship and financial aid and enrolled in the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Her goal was a dual degree in fine art and teaching, with an emphasis on the art, although tight finances and the reality of employment opportunities compelled her to focus on teaching. Then, with six weeks of student teaching to go, a blood vessel ruptured in her brain, causing nerve damage resulting in paralysis. As her family rallied around, her mother affirmed her belief that Wilbur would walk again. “Through my parents I almost thought I could do anything,” the artist says. “They made me strongly believe in the power of thought and not giving up, that nothing’s going to knock me down.”

Wilbur underwent brain surgery, and after six months of being unable to walk, her ability gradually returned. As she progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, her 10-year-old son assumed the role of helping and inspiring her, as she had done with his first steps. She remembers him taking the walker from her, pulling it forward a short distance, and gently encouraging her to make the few steps to reach it. “He said, ‘Come on, Mama. Walk! You can do it.’ For this kid, I would have tried to move a mountain,” she says. She eventually recovered, repeated student teaching, and taught second grade for several years, while also teaching private summer art classes for kids.

She also returned to painting in her free time, putting her hands to crocheting, ceramics, glass, and other forms of art as well. One day when her son was about 13, he gave her another important boost. “He said, ‘Mom, why not focus on painting? Anyone can crochet, but you’ve got talent to paint,’” she recalls. (Now 33 and having inherited his mother’s love of art, her son works in graphic design.) When Wilbur’s parents were both near the end of their lives, Wilbur set everything aside to care for them. Shortly before she died, Wilbur’s mother called her near. “Honey,” she urged, “when we’re gone, please go back to painting.”

When that time came, Wilbur did just that. Remarried by then, her husband supported her by building a studio in the backyard. A few years later, the couple bought a home in Carmel, on the California coast. There the artist reconnected with her love of the ocean and the outdoors, and her painting began to focus on the landscape, although she still does some portrait, figurative, and still-life art.

On location, Wilbur paints quickly to keep ahead of the rapidly changing light, blocking in large shapes and, initially, not rendering details. Instead, she aims at conveying the essence of the scene, responding in paint to the experience of all her senses—the view before her, the breeze, children laughing in the distance, the sound of waves. “When you’re there for three hours, you really feel connected to what you’re seeing,” she says. “Sometimes when I go back to the studio, I can just glance at the small [plein-air] piece, and it comes back to me.”

Such was the case with WINDING RIVER [see page 44], first painted near the Carmel River State Beach with Mission Ranch in the distance. While the full feeling of the day made its way onto the canvas, Wilbur altered many of the visual details, led by intuition and compositional needs. Over the years, studying with such landscape painters as Gil Dellinger, Kathleen Dunphy, and Brian Blood as well as teaching workshops herself, her approach has evolved from fairly realistic to a looser, impressionistic style. “I continue to want to say more with less, to leave something to the viewer’s imagination,” she says.

When the artist and her husband moved into their new Monterey home a couple of years ago, a two-room casita on the property became her studio. With French doors and a view of thick vegetation, a pond, and occasional deer, the studio is many notches above some of her more make-do workspaces early on. As she reflects on the trajectory of her life and career, the 63-year-old artist remembers the cloud-shaped cutouts she hung in the second-grade classroom where she taught. One said, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Another noted: “The more you learn, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you know you need to learn.” And a third said, “Shoot for the moon, and the worst that can happen, would be to fall on a star.” Having landed on the beach with her toes in the sand and a paintbrush in her hand, she frequently finds herself in wonder. “I get goose bumps. How lucky is this?” she says. “I’m so very grateful.”

The Mission Gallery, St. George, UT; Nancy Dodds Gallery, Carmel, CA; Edward Montgomery Fine Art, Carmel, CA;

This story was featured in the January 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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