Exhibit opens Sept. 6 in Wofford’s Martha Cloud Chapman Gallery
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – It is certainly true that art is in the eye of the beholder, but it is even truer that art is in the eye of the artist.
That has never been more apparent than in the images filtered through Isabel Forbes’ mind and onto the canvas of the 20 oil paintings that go on display at Wofford College’s Martha Cloud Chapman Gallery on Sept. 6. The gallery is located in the Campus Life Building.
The subjects of the paintings are scenes that people in Spartanburg drive by daily, often without giving them a second thought because they are so familiar.
Ike’s, the Nu-Way Lounge, Simple Simon, Blues Boulevard, Krispy Kreme, the Skillet. All of these facades are woven into the fabric that makes up Spartanburg, but they hardly scream “art” to the casual passer-by.
The artist’s eye that Forbes has focused on these scenes has elevated them above the ordinary and captured moments in time. “The subject of my paintings is not primarily buildings and these other objects,” the artist says of the commonplace images she has chosen for her work, “but rather the composition and contrasting elements of light and dark, complementary colors and negative space.”
What first attracts Forbes to a subject is the underlying design, but that design is made more vivid by associations, by the personal stories that bring the subject to life. “I sure love when I hear some really heartfelt stories associated with the places I paint,” Forbes says of her paintings that lead people to reminisce and become nostalgic.
While she was working on one of the paintings for the Wofford exhibit, an old mill house in Drayton, someone dropped by her studio to see her work. The visitor recognized the house as a home she used to deliver Mobile Meals to years ago, Forbes recalls. “Every time she passed by the house, she said, she would say, ‘God bless Lila Lou.’” Forbes had been searching for a title for the piece, and she’d found it.
The artist, who grew up in Spartanburg, is no stranger to Wofford College. She developed her interest in art as a student in Spartanburg School District Seven, studying under mentors MacArthur Goodwin and Betty Bramlett. After graduating from Spartanburg High School, she enrolled in the Ringling College of Art in Sarasota, Florida, but while working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts there, she returned to Spartanburg each summer to take academic courses at Wofford.
Even after she graduated and began her career as a professional artist in Florida, she was drawn to the familiar scenes from her youth. Those are the scenes that captured in her paintings.
Oakley Coburn, dean of Sandor Teszler Library and director of cultural events at Wofford, was immediately taken with Forbes’ paintings of recognizable Spartanburg landmarks. “When we began discussing the exhibition, I asked for urban landscapes that might teach our students, in particular, about the local region and let them see it through an artist’s vision,” he says, noting that the impact of the images is enhanced by the fact that the paintings are of things that people don’t usually consider beautiful.
“We don't always think of doughnut shops, lunch counters or railroad crossings as beautiful things, but in the hands of an artist these humble images come alive and resonate with the viewer.”
Coburn likens Forbes’ realistic, carefully constructed paintings to those of noted American painter Edward Hopper. “Isabel Forbes finds beauty in the urban landscape of Spartanburg, but doesn't romanticize, and paints it with an unflinching eye for truth as well.”
Though it’s hard for Forbes to show favoritism to one of her own works, she does admit to having a favorite painting in the exhibit, “Rainy Night, Krispy Kreme.” Of all her work, the painting of the abandoned Krispy Kreme on Church Street, located hauntingly across the street from the gleaming new Krispy Kreme, is the one that has elicted the most childhood stories from those who see it. It’s those stories that help make this painting special for the artist.
She also has a special fondness for a recently completed painting of the grain silos on Daniel Morgan Avenue. Shortly after she painted the scene, demolition of the silos began to make way for Spartanburg’s Grain District. Capturing images that are rapidly disappearing preserves history for generations to come, and with those images reside the stories.
A public reception for the exhibit will be held on Thursday, Sept. 9, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The exhibit continues through Oct. 31.
- By Beverly Knight