Art is heart for Don Blackwell

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, April 6, 2014


I met Don as I wandered around the gallery & studios at Tryon Arts & Crafts. He knows no strangers. After compliments for his pen and ink drawing of a baby fox, we talked about art, family, and the art-friendly world of Polk County. Finally, I asked the burning question.  “Can I take a drawing class with you?” Don’s quick reply: “Of course! Have you had any drawing classes?” “No, but I’ve dabbled in painting and crafts.” Then, added: “I really can’t draw a lick!” “Well, I can teach anyone to draw,” he said with a smile. “But you need to sign up for the Beginning Drawing class that starts in September.”  Disappointed I said. “I leave for San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in June so it will have to wait until my return in December.”  I began Don’s drawing classes at Isothermal Community College in September 2012.  My six-month-transition-from-workaholic-mode to do-what-I-want-mode in San Miguel de Allende taught me many things.
The most important lesson:  I’m not on-a-couch-retired -I’m rewired. Don’s classes quickly affirmed this and confirmed that he can indeed teach anyone to draw.
This year began the second round of taking Don’s drawing classes. Master Yoda in Star Wars says: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Don sings a similar song.  He inspires us with reminders to “draw, draw, draw and draw.”  Don creates in pen and ink, colored pencil, leather, airbrush, paint, carving and soon he will add sculpting in clay.  He models and mentors through his art with lots of enthusiastic support for whatever creations we make.  But, what really inspires Don?  He thinks a moment. “People and animals.  Character in people.  Animals’ response to nature.  It’s awesome.” He adds: “When I work, my heart and mind are in what I’m doing…not the end result.” I paraphrased: “it’s the doing, not the done.” “That’s right,” he says.
I take out my long list of questions.  I don’t make it to the end.  Quietly Southern, Don quickly paints a picture of his art and his life.
PC:  When did you get interested in drawing?
Don:  I was five. I grew up in Hendersonville. One day my Dad came home with a new car….well, used but new to us.  He and Mother were so thrilled with the new car and wanted to take us kids for a ride. Mother packed a picnic lunch and we set off. We were arranged by age: adults in the front, kids in the back. I was in the middle—older sister on one side; younger brother on the other.  My Mother was so smart.
She could complete the New York Times puzzle, in ink, in ten minutes.  Being a smart woman and wonderful mother she packed coloring books, pencils, crayons to entertain us as we rode in our new car.
She turned around and handed me a Disney coloring book, a pad and pencil with the instructions: “Don, draw Mickey.” In those days coloring books were printed only on the front side of the page. I could look at the figure on the right side and draw it on the blank left side. I finished the drawing and handed it to Mother. She looked at the drawing and a huge smile spread across her face.  “Don, this is wonderful.  Draw another one of the Disney characters.”
I drew and drew and drew.  My mother was so happy.  My drawings made her happy.  This made me happy. When we got back home that night, I went to my room with the coloring book and pencils.  I drew and I drew and I drew. When I filled the coloring book, I drew on the walls – all the walls.
The next morning I showed mother what I had drawn. She looked at the walls.  Then, she said with a smile in her words:  “These are beautiful. To explain away any sense of wrong, she added:  “Your Dad planned to paint your room anyway.” Then, she got a huge pad of paper for me to draw on and mounted it on the wall.
Don continued to draw in high school, college, and the Air Force. He served twelve years in the Air Force and eleven years active duty in the Alaska Air National Guard, retiring in May 2000 in Anchorage Alaska. He and his artist wife Phoebe planned a retirement in Alaska and Hawaii.
A different plan unfolded. They moved permanently to North Carolina where they continued to create in Raven’s Wing Studios which they started in the 90’s in Alaska. His artwork continues the international impact that began in the military.  Today, Don also teaches at Isothermal College. His influence continues.
One day in class as we all worked on projects, Don told us of the many hours he spends to complete a drawing.
GREEN-CREEK-PIC-She-CarvesOne pen and ink drawing, “She Carves” took him over a hundred hours.  Later, he showed us this drawing.  While we created art, Don shared a story that hints at the core of his work.
On vacation in Hawaii he and Phoebe visited a local waterfall park.  He spotted a woman carving. “May I take a picture of you?” A native of the island and very shy, she was hesitant.
After a moment’s prodding, she agreed. Don took the picture and four years later created the pen and ink drawing “She carves”. Don has a tradition of giving one artist’s proof to the model of each human portrait he creates.
In the spirit of that tradition, he returned to the market to show the drawing to the carver.  She was nowhere to be found and he left the island for North Carolina in search of a new family home.
His wife and youngest son remained to close up loose ends.  The day before Phoebe left the island she made a last tour of the market to give the carver an artist print of “She Carves”.  As she wandered the aisles and stalls in search of the carver, someone said she was there.
Phoebe continued around the market until she found the carver. “Did you know that you are famous? Phoebe asked.  “No,” she said. Phoebe showed her the print. “Everyone in the market stopped in their tracks and there was an audible gasp from the carver and the others nearby,” Phoebe recalls.
The carver hugged Phoebe and told her that after Don took the photo she became deathly ill and couldn’t do any carving for a long time.  She had just started to carve again.
She was well enough to return to the market to earn money to support her children. Shaking her head and gazing at the portrait, the carver told Phoebe that this had changed the quality of her day. “This is such a blessing. “
And so it is with Don’s art and teaching.  It’s art from the heart.

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