Liz Farrell

Farrell: Doing 'what's in your heart'

Beaufort artist Rebecca Davenport is photographed in her studio cum funhouse on Wednesday.
Beaufort artist Rebecca Davenport is photographed in her studio cum funhouse on Wednesday. Staff photo

The place where art is made -- the kind of art that stops you in your tracks and demands to be considered; the kind that only few among us can create -- has a redolence that can bring you back to a time when everything was possible and praise-worthy, when you could say "I'm an artist" without any self-doubt, irony or fear of judgment.

I found this out recently at the Scott Street studio of Beaufort artist Rebecca Davenport. The paints, the solvents and sawed wood, the smells of old books and glues immediately transported me to each first breath I took upon entering the visual arts building at my high school.

It was a place where I could lose myself in truth -- the light is reflecting on the corner of that leaf this way; the curve of that person's nose arcs exactly like that; my sculpting teacher is a creepster, and I really want to transfer out of this class.

It was also a place where imagination was set free and the place where I accidentally chose a plaster form of what turned out to be my sculpting teacher's face -- just wonderful! -- for our segment on human heads.

"I think that's me you get to work with!" he said when he saw the detestable lump of clay that emerged from the mold.

He seemed excited.

Then he saw what I did to it.

Davenport, whose exhibit of animal portraits "2X4 Footed" is now on display off the lobby of the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts, works out of her brightly lit studio most afternoons. It's a neat, cheery and crooked cottage just around the corner from her home in the Commons. Back in the day, it was curiously called "The Lollipop House." It is an ideal setting for a professional artist.

"It took me a while to be able to say I'm an artist," she told me as she worked on her latest project, a sculpture constructed from reclaimed furniture and a porcelain doll. "I've been lucky."

"Luck" is what the talented often attribute their success to. The artists with remarkable ability and insight, the ones who can show us the familiar in a new light and connect with us visually and deeply, seem to defer personal credit.

"Sometimes it's magic," Davenport even said of her work, which has been shown in places like the National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Her paintings are captivating, fun and wild, each portrait containing three narratives -- one of Davenport's making, one of the subject's and one of the viewer's.

It was her portrait of a white bull in "2X4 Footed" that caught my attention -- the delicious folds of its neck, the perm-like cap of fur on its head and the expression on its face, like that of an old politician finally put in his place.

Davenport showed me around her studio Tuesday. I learned that she's a generous and ready laugher -- my favorite kind. I met her dogs, Emma and Winston, who each have a bed at one end of the studio. She and I flipped through old paintings that were stacked in storage rooms of the main workspace, and we played with interactive pieces inspired by circus freak shows. We talked a little about what life with alopecia has been like for her -- it's the reason she's often seen with a bright and intricately tied scarf on her head.

"I used to have thick blond hair," she said. "I started losing it in my 20s. Everybody has that thing that has happened to them."

Later she showed me "Pick a Chick," a new piece, topped with a painting of a country scene, where a wholesome couple might raise a wholesome family, that then transforms into a lineup of Barbies standing in front of what, at first glance, seems to be a topless Ken leading them in chorus. Upon closer inspection, I could see he was holding a love-divining rod and not a conductor's wand. It made me laugh. "But, of course!"

I sat and watched as Davenport worked with a drill, sandpaper and a contact lens case cover that she was using to fasten the porcelain doll's head to a piece she's going to call "Nobody's Baby," the spelling of which she plans on having some fun with.

"My life is pretty ordinary," she said. "When I get home I'm tired. I don't know if breathing turpentine has anything to do with it or not."

She thought about her life's work, the paintings that she loved, the ones she called "a flop," the way her life has changed and been changed, and the ideas scribbled into notebooks over the years.

"All artists talk about their shows or what they've sold," she said. "Very rarely do they talk about 'the muse.'

"But that's hard to talk about. Really you just do what's in your heart."

Follow columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell at twitter.com/elizfarrell and facebook.com/elizfarrell.

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