A Charleston Original

28 Nov 2021

The heritage, beauty and mystery of the Lowcountry is vibrantly captured in this native artist’s paintings

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Rick Rhodes

Paintings inspired by Charleston are the hallmark of artist Carol Ezell-Gilson, whose work was featured at the Arts Council of Moore County’s Campbell Galleries in October 2021, as part of their Lowcountry Series. A native of the historic city, her renderings depict what she loves about the place – its heritage, beauty and mystery.

“Magic Realism” best describes her art. Though her subject matter varies, common elements of form, color and pattern run throughout. “I have a lot of feeling in my paintings,” Ezell-Gilson shares. “It is realistic, and I spend a lot of time studying things. There’s some magic in there, too. I put a lot of myself into my art and sometimes I even put me in there as a figure.”

“They’re all personal to me – all of them,” she says. “I’ve done commissions and put myself through art schools doing watercolors of people’s houses, taking advantage of any opportunity to come my way. But my paintings are very dear to me. I paint what I find appealing, what I want to hang on the wall and live with.”

As a child, Ezell-Gilson spent a great deal of time with her grandfather who was born in Charleston in the late 1890s. He entertained her with stories as they walked through the old district, fostering a passion for history. Charleston was a different place in the 1960s, relatively undiscovered.

“It was very much like a small town, population wise,” says the artist. “You knew everybody downtown. It was a community with lots of kids. We walked or rode our bikes to school and then ran around on the Lower Peninsula all day long until dinnertime. We had a lot of fun growing up here. It was a wonderful place to be at that time.”

Early on, Ezell-Gilson enjoyed drawing and coloring. In third grade, she began art lessons with Marion Weldon, who taught groups of children in her garage, choosing subject matter from a pile of National Geographic magazines in the corner. Weldon loved color and taught Ezell-Gilson how to mix oil paints.

In high school, she enrolled in an art class taught by Manning Williams at the Gibbes Museum School in downtown Charleston. Williams introduced her to figure drawing and perspective and took her outside to paint the then-rural landscape. “I felt like I was good at it,” recalls Ezell-Gilson. “I had good teachers who encouraged me and once I got to art school, the rest is history.”

An intensive study in drawing and painting began in the fall of 1976 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It was an expansive experience with access to the great art museums of Philadelphia, New York and Washington. While at the Academy, Ezell-Gilson earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

The high point of the young artist’s first year at the Academy was meeting Marshall Glasier, who became her mentor. Marshall taught life drawing both in Philadelphia and at the Art Students League in New York. Though he was 55 years her senior, they developed a special friendship that would last until his death in 1988.

Of Glasier, Ezell-Gilson says: “I just ended up in his class. I knew no one up there and was scared to death. He was my figure drawing teacher my first semester and we hit it off. He really believed in me more than anybody and I believed in him.”

Returning to Charleston, Ezell-Gilson taught art at the Gibbes Museum School. “I was teaching kids and taking them outside to draw, right downtown in the middle of the historic district,” she says. “I thought they should learn a little history, so I developed a class called art history and architecture. In time, this led to my work as an historian at several public sites.”

“I ended up getting my tour guide license to do walking tours,” she says, working part-time to accommodate her artistic pursuits. “I’m still giving tours on a limited basis after about 40 years now. I’ve learned a lot and met so many interesting people.”

 “When I don't paint for a while, I will feel mentally and physically drained,” she says. “I have an image in my mind’s eye. It’s not like I know exactly what it’s going to look like when I’m done. Every day, I know what I need to accomplish. It’s like one bite at a time, particularly if there’s lots of detail.”

“Sometimes I’ll start one and then put it away for a few years. But usually, once I’ve begun, I keep at it. I first decide the size, then stretch and prime the canvas. I draw out the image with charcoal, usually freehand. Then, I’ll put paint on it, blocking out the colors and working my way down to the finer points.”

“In a way, it’s just my time,” she says. “I can create a painting however I want to, it’s all up to me. It’s always nice when others like them, especially people that know about art. But it doesn’t matter because by the time I’m done, I enjoy them so much.”

“When I look at them, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I actually did them,” she say. “I love the color and drawing in them. I don’t know, they just they make me feel good. When I look at them and feel this satisfaction – that’s when I know that I’ve finished a piece.”

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