Catherine Pauley knows something about mountain mamas; she was raised by generations of them. As an art teacher who fostered countless young students for more than three decades in the Floyd County public school system, she could be considered a mountain mama herself.
Pauley, who grew up in the Buffalo Mountain part of Floyd, is an artist as well as an art teacher. Her latest exhibit of work, appropriately titled “Mountain Mamas,” was recently shown at the Old Church Gallery, a community orientated gallery Pauley co-founded in 1979. A forerunner to the growing art scene in Floyd, the gallery blends contemporary art exhibits with the showcasing and preservation of heritage art, oral histories, and mountain culture.
“Mountain Mamas” is a tribute to “the strength and tenderness” of Pauley’s mother, Ruby, but it also reflects the wisdom passed down through at least eight generations of Buffalo Mountain women in Pauley’s line, and far beyond that. The theme encompasses “the continuity of Grand Mama, the mysteries of Eden’s Mama Eve, the inspiration of Mama Nature, and the sweet expectations of Mama Becoming,” Pauley’s artist statement reads.
“I didn’t realize I was doing so many mamas and then one day it dawned on me,” Pauley said. The exhibit, which spans a 36 year period, is a testament to her growth as an artist working in a variety of styles and mediums, which include acrylic paintings, drawings, silkscreen, woodblock, cast metal and clay sculpture.
Telling stories was a mountain tradition formative in Pauley’s upbringing. “My mother told stories about growing up and about the funny things that happened. She would always tell the truth,” Pauley said. Stories were incorporated in the Mountain Mama show with narrative pieces accompanying Pauley’s art, some relayed pieces of stories and wisdom from her mother, such as, “If you don’t want to do it – don’t learn how,” and “reach for the higher brier and a better berry.”
A painting titled “Mama’s Star” is accompanied with this introduction: “When my Daddy was getting ready to leave for Germany during World War II, he pointed to the Evening Star and told my mother that when she looked at it at night, to know that he would search it out at night and think of her. When my Daddy died, I created “Mama’s Star” as a kiss to that memory.”
Another painting shows a grandmother gutting a large fish as a younger woman looks on, a scene that for Pauley symbolizes a generational spirituality passed down from older women to younger women. “Fish has been the symbol of spirituality for thousands of year. The eggs coming out symbolize fertility and rebirth and the continuity of life,” Pauley explained.
That painting also draws from Pauley’s memory of Fishing Season Day. “When I was growing up, on Fishing Season Day the whole community went fishing. Everybody came, your grandmothers and grandfathers, great uncles, and all the children. Everybody was on the creek bank and at 12:00 midday you could start fishing. I loved it. To me, it was bigger than Christmas,” she said.
Pauley is a symbolist inspired by the work of Ben Shahn and the attitude of Pablo Piccaso. She uses the visual power of distortion to draw attention to themes and strives to “express little truths that go unacknowledged.” The star in Mama’s Star nearly fills the canvas. The hands and feet of her subjects, “symbols of how we work and travel,” are often enlarged.
Formal education was important to the Pauley family. It was a given that after Pauley graduated from “the new” Floyd County High School two years after countywide high schools were consolidated there that she would go on to college. Inspired by her high school Home Economics teacher, she initially majored in Home Economics at Radford University when the university was a teaching college. While taking a required course in Art Appreciation she discovered that she loved it and changed her major to art, even though few were majoring in art at that time and art careers weren’t supported to the degree they are today.
She did not intend to go into teaching, but planned to pursue museum and art history work. A four month stint studying under a fellowship at the University of Americas in Mexico City was a major learning experience, as well as a culture shock. Pauley returned home to be with her family as her younger brother was being sent off to Vietnam. At that time, her cousin who taught art in the Floyd schools was quitting her job to have a baby and suggested that Pauley look into the position. “Lo and behold. I fell in love with teaching,” said Pauley, who had thought she would return to Mexico.
Speaking enthusiastically about teaching students about color and perspective, Pauley thoughtfully added, “I love teaching art but the most important thing I think I ever did as a teacher was to speak to each one of my students personally everyday so that they would know I was glad they were there,” she said, explaining that early on in her career she had read that young people who committed suicide tended to be the quiet ones that no one could remember.
Although teaching full-time didn’t allow Pauley time to pursue her art fully, when she did create she was free to do what she wanted, unlike other artists who were trying to make a living with their art and had to bend to market demands. Pauley learned along with her students, pursuing her master’s degree from Radford University, taking classes and workshops, and passing on what she learned to her students.
Another artistic medium for Pauley is her garden, which she refers to as a living sculpture. It’s a peaceful terraced garden on a south facing slope of the property that she and her husband, Kenneth, had planned to build a home on. It started as a group of trees and a rock pile that Pauley began transforming the spring she was recovering from chemotherapy for breast cancer. At first she only had the strength to work half an hour at a time. By the summer she was working all day. With its panoramic view, sitting benches, rock stairs and floors, and a variety of perennial flowers, the garden has been the subject of at least one literary essay, the touchstone for a terminally ill woman, the site of at least one wedding and more than one marriage proposal.
Pauley’s life influences her art. Whether it’s her mountain upbringing, her family and community, her passion for art, illness or loss, Pauley says she creates art to come to an understanding of what she is thinking and feeling. “I use art as a passage,” she said.
“Living with the Storm Warrior” is a painting Pauley did for her husband, Kenneth, after his unexpected death in 2003. It had a powerful impact on many who viewed it and won a People’s Choice Award at an exhibit show held at Floyd’s Jacksonville Center for the Arts.
After 30 years of fulltime teaching and 5 years teaching part time, Pauley left her career in 2008 to help take care of her mother, who passed away in August. “I have a painting in my head. I have a painting in my heart. I have the canvas and a title. But I’m not quite ready yet,” Pauley said about approaching her mother’s death through her artistic expression.
Although Pauley has expressed life-changing challenges through art, she says she is mindful not take her art too seriously. “My mother taught me that lesson early,” she said, and then she told a story: While studying art in college she became fascinated with the works of Michelangelo and Rodin and wanted to create art of those proportions. She was excited about her first attempt at sculpture. It was a modernized interpretation of a scene of Christ being taken off the cross, but Pauley admits it looked more like “gumbies.” When she asked her mother if she knew what it was, her mother innocently answered, “a bunch of monkeys.”
“You’re exactly right!” Pauley laughed. She still has the piece, kept as a reminder of that lesson. ~ Colleen Redman
~ Visit the Old Church Gallery at 110 Wilson Street. Visit the gallery website at oldchurchgallery.com.