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The Mountain Girls

Eileen Blyth, Brucie Holler, Louanne LaRoche, Laurie McIntosh, Lynn Parrott, Jan Swanson

Story by Carolyn Males

A rainy mist envelops the hemlocks, imparting a dreamlike atmosphere to this getaway in the North Carolina mountains. It’s worlds away from the live oaks and sea in the Lowcountry and the sycamores and urban setting of Columbia, places where the six artists aka The Mountain Girls (as they’ve dubbed themselves) live and work.

Sisters Laurie McIntosh and Lynn Parrott were the driving forces behind this annual event. Years back, they’d taken a course at Penland School of Craft in the Blue Ridge Mountains and come away with the idea of holding an artists’ retreat. They’d hosted their first one in Hilton Head, but over the years the familiar North Carolina woods became the setting for their fall retreats. In recent years life and the pandemic have put it all on hold, but their long friendships endure. Today all six artists are featured at Camellia Gallery here on the island and in Bluffton.

So, let’s step back into the time machine for a glimpse of the Mountain Girls at work in their rural retreat.

Each morning, bundled up against early morning chill, the women climb the stone steps to the big tin-roofed, screened building nestled in the trees where they spend three days experimenting with different media, flirting with new ideas, and inspiring each other.

After claiming their spots at the long tables, they spread out paint, paper, inks, mark-making tools and other materials they’ve brought. Music –– country, world, Motown – whatever one of them has chosen, fills the air, and the creative juices start flowing. Try something new. Try something daring. Make some great art. Make some bad art. It’s a time for brave experimentation.

Intent as they are on producing new work, a spirit of fun prevails. Perhaps some lingering trace of the studio’s former life as a giant playhouse where kids rode tricycles along its wooden floors wafts through the air. Here on Cedar Mountain this stand-alone building and the white clapboard house across the yard from it were built by a well-to-do family during the 1930s. Artist Sue Russell converted it into Hemlocks Studio, where she teaches classes and rents it out for retreats.

But now we enter the studio and visit retreats past. The music has started, the women are singing along and catching up as hands wield brushes, pens, pencils and other tools.

Lynn Parrott stands commandeering pans of hot wax simmering on griddles she’s carted up to the mountain along with wood panels, a heat gun, and blow torch. She’s creating abstract landscapes, pulling colors and patterns across eight, nine, or ten layers of hot wax. “The wonderful thing about doing encaustics is that it’s all so accidental,” she’ll tell you. “You end up with a lot of wonderful magic. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, you take the blow torch and blow it all off and start again.”

Meanwhile Laurie McIntosh likes to work in long series and always comes with a plan. One year she began a long narrative All the In Between; My Story of Agnes, seventy painted panels depicting the life story of her mother, scientist-artist Agnes Smith Brownell. To jump start her project, McIntosh has brought the sketches she’d made while thinking back on Agnes’s life as she neared death. These would become the germ of a mesmerizing book and traveling show that has been to Artfields and galleries throughout the region.

Brucie Holler has chosen to veer off her abstract path to work on a still life. She’s arranged a bowl of luscious figs and stepped back to render them in acrylics. Suddenly something doesn’t look right. Is that a tail and little ears she sees on that one fig? Oh, dear. The fig is moving. Yikes. It’s a mouse chowing down on the still life! No one stands on a chair and shrieks like they do in old cartoons. Instead, they are entertained by the appearance of the ravenous intruder as Brucie grabs a camera. Carpe Diem. Capture the moment!

In previous mountain retreats, Louanne LaRoche had brought bags of paint, pencils, canvases, presses –– in other words, a ton of stuff to play with. But in recent times, she’s decided less is more and has packed only a small bag with the idea of focusing in on one medium. Now we see her sitting at an easel putting final touches on a sequence of frog portraits — depicting her subjects in different colorations and poses, creating her own little amphibian society.

While all this is happening, Eileen Blyth has spread out shards of truck tires she’s found shredded along the road on her drive up here. This is not unusual behavior. Blyth has a habit of picking up debris and incorporating it into her assemblages. However, this time, she’s using the alligator-y looking strips of tread to inspire linear abstracts. At some point, she’ll decide she wants to add a bit of texture so she’ll walk out, lay a sheet of watercolor paper on the road and wait for a car to drive over it. Yes! Those tread marks are exactly what her composition needed, she thinks, as she brings it back inside to continue working on it.

Ever unconventional, Jan Swanson is out on the porch wielding a sander along with, as she’ll admit, a lot of angst. “My process,” she explains, is to collage and then paint something and go ‘I hate this!’ and then sand it all off.” She calls this “excavating,” and she’ll do it a number of times on the same piece, if necessary, making discoveries along the way. As she adds more collage and paint, her quirky sense of humor will emerge in wacky life commentary, charming in its off-kilter view of the world.

Afterwards, the six women go back to their rented home and cook dinner, drink wine, talk and share laughs before falling into bed and beginning the day anew.

So much great work has been sparked by these past artistic sojourns. Louanne LaRoche sums it up, “Painting is a lonely life, however reflective and creative it is. Our retreats are about creating a sacred space for creation and connection, a time to renew and learn from one another. We are definitely a Mountain Girl family.”

Lynn Parrott

Markings V, The Roaring Twenties Series

mixed media on paper

In the past year I could not get back into landscapes. I had two good friends die, I’d not seen my family, and I was dealing with the anxiety of the pandemic. So I put huge pieces of watercolor paper up on my studio wall, and every day I would go out there and do mark making and put down whatever was going on in my brain. I kept them up all year. These biography paintings are my Roaring Twenties series. They’re my way of saying “I’m still a painter, and I’m telling a story about how I’m feeling about Covid and about staying home.”

Laurie McIntosh

Swimming Stars
oil on canvas

After the winding down of my last series, Environmental Abstractions, I had a strong desire to simplify my images, introduce more patterns and invent more space within the painting. In the process of sketching and pushing these ideas around, figures, pattern, and open spaces, it began to make the images feel very light and weightless, and my swimmers began to emerge. My mom made me take synchronized swimming when I was a kid, and images of the art form continue to appear throughout this ongoing body of work.”

Brucie Holler

oil on canvas triptych

Sometimes the painting wants to be one thing and you want it to be something else. But you’ve just let it go be what it is. I struggled with this painting for years. It started as abstraction, but it kept changing. Then one day I was in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, taking photographs because I love what happens beneath the tree line. Then I came back and began painting what I’d seen. You can see some of the old painting behind the new painting because I didn’t want to cover it up. The mark making on the bottom is from the previous year, so it’s layers and layers of paint with understories that I let come through.

Louanne LaRoche

Bird Land
charcoal on canvas with
acrylic and crayon

I’m a bird fan and have been spending time watching birds outside my window. Birds and bird cages are like notes in a musical score, or like improvised jazz. I like the lines of metal on the cage and how they break up the space, and the birds pop through. That’s what attracts me. I have lots of images I’ve collected to work from, and I spend time thinking about which one is calling me, what size it should be, and whether I should do it in paint or drawing.

Eileen Blyth

Fall Lines With Sycamore II
acrylic and graphite on paper

I don’t set out with something in mind; the image just reveals itself. I’m not planning. I’m just painting and putting stuff down. I just reach for a color and react with it, going back and forth. One mark informs the next until I stop and come back the next day. Then I may paint over it, scrape parts out and discover what’s there. So it’s really internal. It’s not about trees at all. But putting that blue down against the white reminded me how much I love sycamore trees in the fall. The bright blue sky against the white tree just brings me alive.

Jan Swanson

Social Distancing is For the Birds
mixed media on board

I had completely covered the board with a collage of scrap papers I’d picked up off the street –– bills of sale, grocery receipts, old wallpaper –– all sorts of stuff. Then I put layers of paint over that and then sanded away an image of my white boxer, Raymond. Later I went back in, sanding and painting some more. I added the other dog up in the right-hand corner. Then I found a picture of a woodpecker, drew him below in that right bottom corner, and that was my message –– social distancing is for the birds.