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Local artist Shirley Hampton loves walking up to her easel without a plan — and watching as her
artwork evolves.
Photo by Sherrie Norris

Originally published: 2014-04-07 15:44:09
Last modified: 2014-04-07 15:50:37

Art: An Expression of Self for Shirley Hampton

by Sherrie Norris

Whether it is through her paintings or her sculptures, for Deep Gap resident Shirley Hampton, art is an expression of self -- and one that comes to the surface in the most unique ways. 

Preferring to allow her creativity to flow on its own accord, Hampton rarely plans ahead and never uses a point of reference, unless for a portrait or other commissioned piece. 
"Even then," she said, "I have to do my own thing. I often merge at least two pictures into one to interpret someone's personality. It doesn't come out like a simple photograph." 

"It's more natural, that way," she said, when talking about her method. "You cannot force art."  

Hampton's work is well known around the High Country area and has been shown from Florida to New York and Connecticut, and everywhere in between. Much of it has also adorned the walls of numerous restaurants and hotels.

A long time member of the local art scene -- and the High Country Arts Council, in particular -- Hampton is preparing for a month-long showing of her work at the council's Open Door Gallery in the Blue Ridge Art Space, from Apr. 10 through May 6.

Her show will officially open with a reception from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. on Apr. 12 at the art center.

"I am really looking forward to this opportunity," she said.

Hampton is a widow, whose husband was also an artist. 

"My art is much different than his," she said. "He was an architect, and his work was very structured."
 Despite the differences, her late husband's influence is evident in some of her own creations.
 Hampton has been drawing since childhood.

"As a little girl, I loved coloring books and I loved to draw, especially houses with picket fences. It had to be a happy home," she said. "I also drew faces of my classmates in high school."

Her first painted portrait was of her mother, which still occupies a special place in her home and heart.

Describing herself as "basically self-taught," Hampton had a few art lessons through the years at Appalachian State University and in Florida, where she lived for 20-plus years. 

"I wanted to learn the basics, maybe how to mix colors and to stretch canvas, things like that, but I didn't want any other artists, or their influences, in my paintings." 

Hampton strives to express her feelings on canvas and she paints from imagination and rarely using models, she said. 

"I just walk up to my canvas and start painting," she said. "It's amazing how art evolves. Without knowing where it's headed, I often see people I know emerge, or things I've seen begin to take shape. Very often, other people immediately recognize faces or shapes, as they begin to evolve." 

Hampton's art is bold and abstract, for the most part. 

"I like for my work to stand out, to be vivid," she said. "My work is original, it's what's in here, (pointing to her heart) and has been described, in some cases, as having a dream-like quality. People seem to like the feeling that comes from my paintings."

Alternating from canvas to clay, Hampton discovered a deep affection for sculpting, about six years ago.

"I'm loving that (sculpting) almost as much as I do my painting," she said. "I love working the clay into abstract expressions -- both serious and humorous aspects of the human spirit."

Once her pieces are kiln-fired, Hampton paints them, rather than glazing and returning them to the fire.

Just as with her paintings, she said, "As I sculpt, the piece takes on a life of its own, and I just go with it." 

Not a traditional artist, Hampton said, she likes for her finished work to be graphic -- "very bright and impressionistic." She said most of what she does comes out "powerful, and bold in appearance." 

A hairdresser for many years, Hampton's former occupation was an art form, in itself, she said, but also boring, at times.

"I did not like doing the same hairstyles from week to week," she said.

The best part of her occupation, she said was cutting and coloring hair, "creating a totally different look for my clients."

Inspired, perhaps, by the possibilities of change wrought by color, Hampton decided, more than a decade ago, to leave the scissors behind and focus more on her brushes. Paint brushes, that is. 

"I finally decided it's now or never," she said, and she's never looked back.

Having initially established a studio in West Jefferson, Hampton now devotes a part of her home to her combined studio and gallery. 

"It's much more convenient and relaxing for me this way," she said. "I just turn on my classical music and go to work."

With hours spent painting and sculpting, Hampton said her work takes on the form mostly of people, "and some animals," including Arnold, the elephant, that appears in various pieces, either in a noticeable stance, or otherwise hidden in his surroundings. 

"I rarely paint a landscape or a barn," she said. "There are other local artists who do plenty of that."

Although certain characteristics of her work might resemble that of an abstract or impressionistic artist, Hampton said her work is best described as "Shirley style -- one of a kind."

"I don't do reproductions, I don't want to do the same piece again," she said.

Hampton started out with oils, which she enjoyed, but because she is a "fast painter," she does better with acrylics.

"Oil doesn't dry fast enough for me," she said.

She loves the fact that paintings don't have to be realistic.

"I love doing a face with no facial features," she said. "It's all there if you look. I have sold some of my paintings because clients have told me the faces resemble people they know. Some people might see a boy, and some, a girl. I want it to be what it wants to be."

She paints "with no rules," she said. "If it comes out good for me, that's fine. Even if it doesn't, well it doesn't. I never know until that last moment, and even then, a little something might need to be added." 

While a last minute, "extra touch" might complete the project, Hampton said, "Knowing when to stop is very important."

Art is a personal thing, for both the artist and the one viewing it, she added. "Each person sees art in a different way. You either fall in love with it right away, or you don't." 

Hampton sees art as an important element in the lives of most people.

"Without it, life would be dull," she said. 

She voiced concern that art is usually "the first thing to go," when funding becomes a problem in public education. 

"Much of our early history comes from art -- we should never allow it to be cut from curriculum," she said. "We wouldn't know anything about our past, if not for artists."

In her early days, Hampton also designed stained glass lamps, but moved on, she said, due to their limited market. 

"I am very surprised at my success as an artist. I am just doing what I love to do," Hampton said.

Plan now to attend Hampton's upcoming art show at 377 Shadowline Drive in Boone.

If you miss it, you may arrange a private viewing by calling  (828) 355-9405.