August 6, 2009
Artists are modern-day alchemists, taking dross materials and turning them into desirable objects worth more than the sum of their parts. Virginia Derryberry, a noted painter and UNC Asheville art professor, takes it one step further. Her most recent series of paintings meld alchemical themes with modern interpretations on mythology to create larger-than-life pieces that have met with national acclaim.
Three paintings from this series, entitled Rebis, are featured in the latest edition of the prestigious magazine, New American Paintings. Issue 82 of the publication, due out this month, details the work of 40 Southeastern painters selected by juror Ron Platt, curator of contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
"It's always terrific to have a national audience for my work," said Derryberry. "I was also very pleased because the magazine has a reputation of featuring up-and-coming young artists. As a more mature artist, it's very gratifying to know that my art is relevant to a contemporary audience."
The paintings featured in the magazine come from Rebis, a series of about a dozen large-scale paintings. The name is taken from a Latin word used by alchemists, meaning dual-matter or two-fold. All the Rebis paintings are richly saturated with deep colors and incorporate dualism, mythological narratives, and alchemical symbols and colors.
The painting process doesn't begin with the canvas, Derryberry noted. She first chooses her subject. For the Rebis series, she has used her daughter, son, former students and fellow artists as models. Next she takes photos, drawings and ideas from her imagination to begin mapping out the painting.
"I call this part of the process 'frankensteining,'" Derryberry laughs. "But it works for me."
Finally, paint and canvas meet. She saturates the canvas with an under painting of one color that is formed into darks and lights to create a value study. In the Rebis series, she has used dark red. Then the image begins taking shape. The result is distinctive and striking.
"These pieces are very, very painterly – loose brushstrokes, heavily painted, merging realism and abstraction," she said.
And the paintings are big. "They are actually bigger than I am," laughed the petite artist, who stands at about five feet tall. "I like the feeling that I could walk into my paintings. It's like creating a virtual world."
Derryberry's work has been shown in solo exhibitions in New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Represented by Hodges Taylor Gallery in Charlotte and Cumberland Gallery in Nashville, her work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including "20th Century Painting" and "Convergence." Her paintings are also in the collections of the Knoxville Convention Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Tennessee State Museum, Morris Museum of Art and the West Virginia Permanent Collection.
Recognition by New American Paintings is just one in a series of accolades. Derryberry has received two Individual Arts grants from the Georgia Council for the Arts as well as the West Virginia Governor's Award. In 2005, Derryberry was named a recipient of the Southeastern College Art Conference Artist Fellowship.
A native of Tennessee, Derryberry holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of Tennessee and a master of arts degree from Peabody College. She joined the UNC Asheville faculty in 1996. Since then, she has received a number of University awards, including the Distinguished Teaching Award, the University's highest honor. In addition to teaching art classes and serving as the current chair of the Art Department, Derryberry has also been director of UNC Asheville's nationally acclaimed Undergraduate Research Program.
Derryberry is currently at work on a new painting that measures six feet by eight feet and portrays the seven deadly sins. "Each one of the sins is represented by one of my students, who posed for the piece" she said, chuckling. "It's a really complicated and really fun painting."
She also has a solo exhibition of paintings from the Rebis series planned for the Flood Gallery in the Asheville River District this November.