Becoming more like the Master
“She was standing there alone on Pilate’s porch. It was dark. There are crosses in the background. There is a bowl on the table where her husband washed his hands. There is the bloodstained towel in her hands. He could not wash the blood of guilt from his hands. She is tearful and in anguish for Pilate’s part in the death of this just man.”
This story is told in a painting by Southern Wesleyan University alumna and Greenville artist, Yvonne Herd Arrowood. The recently completed painting, which Yvonne considers her masterpiece, has a backstory that spans most of the artist’s life.
As young girls, Yvonne and her sister Lynn (also a SWU alumna) rode the bus into downtown Greenville where they would walk up and down Main Street – something today’s kids don’t get to do unsupervised.
“Our parents were very poor, money-wise, but not in values. We were perhaps better for it because of the things we learned. A lot of the time my parents worked, and my sister and I would find our own amusements,” Yvonne said. “Lynn was barely two years older than me, but she taught me how to ride buses and to get transfer tickets. Our parents never knew until we told them as adults that we had traveled all over Greenville! We would go downtown and walk up one side of Main Street all the way to the park, then down the other side – all in one day – then we would catch a bus and go home.”
Yvonne and Lynn often found coins under the bleachers at the park that had dropped from the pockets of cheering fans. They would take the money they found to spend at the stores downtown. One of their favorite places to go was Brown’s Antiques, because it had stacks of books upstairs.
“They just dumped books up there. They were on tables, they were laying on the floor, or on shelves that were about to fall. Whenever we found money, we would go upstairs to the book place – we were usually the only two people up there, just two kids and all those books. If we had 30 cents more than bus fare, we would buy three books,” she said.
One day when Yvonne was about 10, she and her sister were sifting through the books when she noticed a red book with gold lettering, a novel by Mark Ashton titled “She Stands Alone.” On the front page was a black-and-white portrait of a regally dressed, beautiful young woman – the wife of Pilate, the governor of Judea who presided over Jesus’ trial. She bought it for a dime.
Yvonne began taking art classes at the age of 12 with Greenville art teacher Robert L. Bruns. Inspired by the photo in her book, she created her Pilate’s wife with a purple robe and gold leaves in her hair. The pastel she created when she was 13 years old won a blue ribbon at the Greenville County Fair – an early affirmation of Yvonne’s artistic talent.
“I was interested in art all of my life, from the time I was three or four years old. I always thought it was something I could do, but I also had many wonderful teachers who inspired me to excel at other things too.” she said.
Yvonne grew up attending Greenville First Wesleyan Church, where one of the annual highlights was the performance of Professor Leonard Brank’s Central Wesleyan College Choir. The church youth group really looked forward to meeting their favorite choir members and having refreshments after church.
“I had not planned to go to CWC, but I always enjoyed school, and took a lot of courses. By the time I was in the 11th-grade, I had more than enough courses to graduate, except for one English unit. A friend of mine and I both decided we would try to go to college early and applied to CWC.” she said.
Following her junior year of high school, Yvonne was accepted at Central Wesleyan College, now known as Southern Wesleyan University. Although CWC wasn’t accredited at the time, Yvonne felt that her subsequent honors from USC and the College of Pharmacy were due – in no small part – to the solid academic foundation received at CWC.
Throughout a busy pharmacy career, with little time for art, parting words from pharmacy professor, Dr. Carl Bauguess, kept coming to her mind. “Someday, Yvonne,” Bauguess said, “You will have to choose between money and doing what you love.”
Another noteworthy bit of advice that stayed with Yvonne through the years was offered over dinner with friends one evening by her husband Gary Arrowood’s friend, Paul Dockerty. He admonished her “to learn all you can about what you love.” This would eventually lead Yvonne back to a serious study of art.
“Those words from Paul about learning all you can about what you love kept coming to my mind. I started buying art books and studying the old masters. There had been times when, intimidated by the great artist of the past, I would stop painting. Then I became free to be taught, and came to the realization that I didn’t have to be as good as Rembrandt, I just had to be the best that I could be,” Arrowood said.
“I eventually cut my hours down because I could be fulltime at 28 hours a week,” said Yvonne. Before that time I was in management, working 54-64 hours. After reducing my hours, I could work three 10-hour days and have my week finished. It would usually take me a day to recover before I could do any artwork. I have often joked that ‘Pharmacy’ was my ‘Medici Patron of the Arts’, financing what I loved to do.”
“I didn’t take art history because I thought I could study art on my own. If I had taken formal courses, I would not have been so intimidated by the Old Masters. I learned that those room size paintings of the Old Masters in museums were often accomplished by a workshop of painter apprentices, painting in the manner of the master artist. It was liberating to learn that most of those huge paintings were not the work of one painter. The master artist might create a small version of a painting that he would show to a client. Then the apprentices would transfer the master’s idea to a much larger surface with the use of grids and studio patterns. Everyone in the workshop would have a task assigned, based on their level of training and skill.”
Yvonne quipped, “If I had known that, I might have been an artist and not a pharmacist!”
Not only does Yvonne paint original works that include commissioned pieces, she also has been a prolific painter of classic works by master artists that include among others, Ribera, Bouguereau, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reni and Vermeer. She says that copying the techniques of the Old Masters is an art class unto itself. Seeking to perfect her skills, she has been privileged to join ranks of copyists who have painted before masterworks in the Louvre in France and also at the Accademia Carrara in Italy. Yvonne draws a spiritual parallel to copying the Old Masters.
“Emulating a master to improve oneself is not a new idea, but an age-old concept. As we try to become more like the The Master, we come closer to our own personal best,” she said.
In December 2003, Yvonne invited the public to her home gallery for an open house. Although only 65 visitors dropped in during the three-hour period, the open house resulted in an article on Yvonne’s work in The Greenville Journal that reached thousands.
Shortly after the open house, Yvonne was standing before her oil painting of Pilate’s wife when the idea for her masterpiece “She Stands Alone” materialized as an epiphany. Studying the 31 year old painting, she was recalling memories of childhood adventures that she and her sister Lynn experienced in the late fifties, and the purchase of the of the book, “She Stands Alone”. Suddenly, as she turned from the painting, Yvonne said, “The three words of the title set off a cascade of images that would become ‘She Stands Alone’, the painting.”
Envisioning her next work of art, Yvonne searched for a live model to portray the image. It had been projected so realistically in her mind, that Yvonne remembers it as a hologram.
“By Dec. 31 2003, I had met my future model, but she would not know it until 2005. I only briefly commented at our first meeting, that she would be perfect for a painting that I was planning,” Yvonne recalled. “It would be 10 more years before there was a finished painting as proof. Throughout those years of sporadic planning, I came to realize how blessed I was to have discovered Carmen Earle, the real life model for ‘She Stands Alone.’ She was the epitome of grace and patience during numerous costume and photo sessions over the years.”
In July, 2012, Yvonne ordered a custom made canvas, but a sudden health setback ended her pharmacy career and slowed her artwork. A few days after the canvas arrived, progressive debilitating neurological symptoms developed and she underwent neurosurgery at Duke in October 2013. Impaired by normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), Yvonne struggled to paint in the months prior to surgery. Physical therapy helped some, but she was no longer able to spend 10-hour stretches painting.
“I couldn’t paint more than two hours at a time because of the way it made me feel,” Yvonne said, adding that, “Gary was always trying to make sure I didn’t fall when I was painting. In the 15 months prior to surgery, I was barely able to get my image on the canvas. It was still a long way from finished when surgery became my best option. ”
The Duke neurosurgeon warned that the affected area of Yvonne’s brain had “worse case possibilities” for an artist. Five years after surgery, doctors consider her recovery after shunt surgery one of the most dramatic they have seen. Within three days, her motor skills and balance were back to normal. Still restricted from doing much, she would sketch out a new inspiration in charcoal on the painting’s surface almost every day. As she worked to complete ‘She Stands Alone,’ Yvonne filled in details to better tell the story of her masterpiece, depicting a tearful Pilate’s wife as she stood on the porch where her husband held court, reflecting on the events that culminated on the hill in the background.
“I refer to ‘She Stands Alone’ as my masterpiece, but only because of its role in my personal history as an artist. It is part of a long thread woven through the tapestry of my life and would not likely have fulfilled the requirements that conveyed the distinction of masterpiece to works of art from the 16th through the 18th centuries,” Yvonne said.
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