Five artists, four generations, one passion

Jul. 12, 2013 @ 04:46 PM

Lynn Story Downham was a nurse, but she wanted something else.

“I wish I could become an artist like you,” she’d tell her mother, Shirley Story.

Story, who has been painting for nearly 40 years, told her daughter over and over: Do it. Become an artist.

So Downham quit her job and became an artist. She started out doing sketches of people’s houses or offices, piecing together a living $50 at a time. Then she started drawing family trees – elaborate ones, with all the roots and branches fleshed out among the names.

She has now been a full-time artist for 18 years.

A while after she started painting for a living, Downham started hinting to her mother that they should pair up for a multi-generational art show. Now, that show finally will debut. It’s called "Five Artists, Four Generations" and will be on display at the Wilkes Art Gallery in North Wilkesboro July 12-Sept. 14.

The show features 170 works from five artists – Emma and Frank Carpenter, Corneliette Carpenter O’Neill, Story and Downham.

Five artists – not two. Because, as it turns out, the creative gene didn’t run in Story and her daughter’s genes for no reason. Story’s mother, Corneliette, and grandparents, Emma and Frank, left behind drawings of their own.

Frank Carpenter was a doctor who put down charcoal sketches on the pages of his prescription notebooks.

And he drew family trees.

The trees weren’t the only similarity between Emma, Frank and Corneliette’s works and those of their descendants, however. As Story and Downham sorted through their ancestors’ drawings, they saw the art falling into a handful of categories: travel, home, book illustrations, works about heaven, and works about creeks and water.

“The commonality of what we were doing was just so striking,” Downham said. “We’re really trying to tell a story about a family that just loves to create.”

The show itself is divided not by artist but by category, with the four generations mixing together on the walls.

What mother and daughter hope visitors will see in these works, created by family members separated by time, is the value of doing something you’re passionate about – not just something that pays the bills.

The back room of Shirley’s home has floor-to-ceiling windows and an expansive view of Happy Valley. The previous owners were using it as a dining room, but she walked in and knew what it really was: a studio.

She sits in that studio and paints the view, or scenes from her travels, or something else she saw. And she gets lost.

As she talked about the upcoming show in an interview on Friday, Downham sketched with charcoal – a little part of her lost in art, even as she spoke.

And it’s never too late to have that, Downham and Story said – never too late to get lost in something you were made to do.

“I hope people will take away from this that they have gifts,” Downham said. “Not just occupations – but gifts.”