It was early February when I visited Eva Scruggs at her River Arts District studio. The recent winter storms had swelled the French Broad River above normal levels and I watched the ominous river on that cloudy afternoon as I drove to meet her.
Eva Scruggs welcomed me into her studio and we exchanged pleasantries. She offered me beer, tea or chai. “Chai would be great.” I said as I retrieved some recording equipment from my canvas messenger bag. She prepared a cup of chai and sweetened it with honey and added soy milk. She offered me the warm drink then sat down in her white floor chair and sipped her beer from an old mason jar. I pressed the red “record” button and began, “Tell me a little about yourself…”
“I guess,” she said. “I started oil painting at the age of six.”
There followed a brief discussion about art school. Eva told me that she had majored in art at the College of Charleston and later received a masters in art education in Tennessee. After that, she took some time off. I asked her if she thought it was important, as an artist, to unplug from art-making.
“Yeah, well, I had to for financial reasons. So, I mean, it isn’t that I ever really wanted to just focus on teaching art. It’s that I had to teach art to make money to feed my habit which is doing art.”
It seems that most of the artists that I know work a day job to fuel their creative passions. Maybe it’s not possible to be a full-time artist. Maybe juggling between art-making and waiting tables is necessary for artists.
“If all I had to do was be here in the studio and paint,” she said. “I would probably go crazy. I would probably get a little too self absorbed. You know how you can really drift into your own world. I need that world and at the same time it helps to keep… balance. So, I teach and I do organic farming during the summer time. And I’m a mom.”
“I really like to teach. I teach at AB Tech and I really, really feed off the new energy of new students… fresh ideas… There is something about the farming thing, too. I have to have at least a certain amount of it, you know. So, no, I wouldn’t want to paint full-time. I think I would go crazy.”
Our conversation weaved into an unsuspected path of artists being the true scientists and modern prophets. But I’ll save that for another time. I wanted to know what direction she thought art education is heading. She suggested that there are two branches of thought. “One is more academic, more exclusive amongst artists. Lots of MFA programs are focusing on what’s relevant to this century or even this half of century. But to me it seems kind of elitist. It seems like that’s going to be a view of art that only a certain amount of people can understand. It’s art for artists.”
“The other, which is sort of my path… is art to the people. Part of the reason I am a figurative painter is because I know that people relate and understand figurative painting. Common, average people understand basic symbolism. Part of my thing… is being able to communicate with people, everyday people. Not just artists who are going to understand the breakdown of elements and principles. So I paint… paintings that… have messages. I don’t paint them for someone to buy. I paint them to express this.” She gestures at the paintings around her. “I’d like people to see and understand and relate. That’s what all those biblical paintings are kind of about, too. Let’s rethink this story. You know, turn it around in a different point of view and modernize it to some extent.”
At the mention of the biblical series, Eva appeared more relaxed, more confident as if she had arrived in her sanctuary. She took a drink from her mason jar. It appeared she was ready to discuss her biblical series.
“Well,” she paused and looked at her hands which were covered in dark fingerless gloves. “It seems like when I started with the biblical theme… I was working on a different series. I was working on the states of human emotion. Trying to capture different emotions… through expression.
“Anyway, so the last one I did, of that series, was a self portrait with my child. After I painted it, I recognized it as a madonna, and I painted in the background a scene from the WTO protests in Seattle. That’s where it all got started. It’s called ‘The Jaded Madonna.’ The madonna is holding this child and she’s obviously concerned, and the child is open, wide open. But behind the mother… the police, decked out in riot gear… smog in the background from the gas that they’re releasing. So, it was kind of a statement.”
“And then it just sort of clicked in my mind,” said Eva as she motioned with her hands. She seemed focused on some point on the floor. “This is something a lot of people will relate to. It’s a biblical theme. It’s a classical theme. People look at it because of that and then… if you can get them in that far then throw something else in there that talks about modern culture. You know, it’s just the juxtaposition that makes a strange commentary. So, I feel I could run wild with that theme.”
I sipped the chai then asked her to tell me about her recent painting series.
“I’ve been working on a dream series just because I’ve had these reoccurring dreams throughout my life. I’m not exactly sure where they come from. But I figured that’s a way to address them, and maybe make them go away.”
“It’s not that they are really bad dreams,” she continued. “I usually have these water dreams where I’m swimming. I can see the top of the water and I know I’m almost out of air. So, I just keep swimming and swimming. But I can never quite make it to the top and I start somehow recirculating my air and… breathing in the water. It feels really good. Anyway, that’s what that one is about…” she said as she pointed to the painting over her right shoulder.
“And that one” she pointed to another painting across the studio resting on an easel. “An image I’ve had in my head for a long time.”
We spent more time discussing ideas, life and art (which I may write about later). But I knew she wanted to do some painting that afternoon. So, I thanked her for the chai (complimenting her on the way she prepared it), packed up my recording equipment, and left Eva Scruggs in her studio with the visions in her head that desired to be translated into pigment on canvas.
(Originally published in The Indie, March 2004 issue.)