All in the Family

BY Kathryn Manis

Art is an integral part of family life for the mother and daughter residents of the North Carolina coast for the past 25 years.

Susan Scharling the family matriarch is a successful portrait painter and a lifelong sketcher of faces.

“I have always thought that people are the most interesting subjects to paint ” she says. “As a young girl I constantly drew faces. It was a natural progression to do portrait work.”

Daughter Casey caught the visual arts bug at a young age and has been painting ever since.

“My mother is an amazing artist ” she says. “Ever since I can remember I just knew that I would be an artist as well. It is a special bond that we share. Because my mother had a successful career as an artist I was fortunate to have supportive parents who encouraged my interest and education in the arts. I always felt very lucky to have that inclination and understanding of my path from an early age.”

Susan received her degree in art education in 1975 from Virginia Tech where she did coursework in printmaking ceramics and woodworking but ultimately fell in love with oil painting. After graduation she took continuing art classes and workshops in watercolor and oil which would form the dual basis for her career.

Susan’s portraits are thorough detailed and insightful. She has developed a complex and detailed commission process that involves conversations and taking photographs allowing her to get closer to her subjects before touching brush to canvas.

“Getting to know people and working with them to capture their best is the fun part ” she says. “I want each portrait to tell a story — the setting the clothing the gestures and the expression are all carefully considered. I could meet with a client a half-dozen times before I even sketch the picture. We discuss ideas for the portrait and where it might hang in the home take the photographs meet to go over the photos and choose the best expression to start with. Once we have the expression — the painting develops from there.”

Human figures and the nuances of individual personalities are central for both Susan’s and Casey’s painting practices but mother and daughter have very different bodies of work. Susan paints highly detailed naturalistic portraits in oil and watercolor while Casey’s work is more accurately figurative and she employs a loose impressionistic painting style.

Casey describes her painting as very personal a break from everyday life as a busy arts instructor at University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College wife to fellow artist Jeremy Millard and mom to a young family.

“When I get into the rhythm of a session I don’t think; I’m reacting to the process and the painting ” she says. “It’s intuitive.”

Casey depicts many images and moments from her own life — a subject matter interest she shares with her mother.

“In my most recent body of work I explore the figure through patterns and motion ” she says. “As a young mother I often reflect on the patterns and repetition of our daily existence. There is beauty in the comfort of a familiar handmade quilt. There is security in the rhythmic rocking of a baby in your arms. I’m really exploring how the repetitive qualities of items of clothing such as a nightgown or spaces where you play or a special quilt can really become woven into who a person is or how a person grows. It becomes a part of you.”

In pieces like “Sapling ” a 36-by-48 inch composition in oil on canvas Casey’s intuitive and gestural style is in full force.

The painting depicts a young girl leaning against what might be the walls of a tree house. The shadow of tree limbs and a few spare branches frame her reclining figure. The planes of this piece are almost collapsed; the girl seems to sink into and become part of the structure that surrounds her. Her serene but serious expression and wild blond hair mirror the graceful yet energetic presence of the tree highlighting the connection that Casey draws between them in the painting’s title.

The color palette is natural but vibrant. A bright green mold grows on the wood planks around the youthful figure bold blues are utilized for shadow and contrast to the browns used to build the scene and the little girl’s piercing blue eyes and bright red pants punctuate the surrounding neutrals. The brush strokes are large and loose highlighting the emotion of the piece and suggesting an immediacy and passion in its creation.

Because her work is so personal Casey feels a sense of intimacy and vulnerability in making and displaying the final products. This strong relationship with her subjects is clear throughout her oeuvre.

Casey also captures people’s feelings through her art. Pieces like “Retreat” represent the subject in moments of emotional intensity and others like “Encore Azalea ” are imbued with palpable love and affection.

“Encore Azalea” depicts an older woman who is one with her garden. She becomes a part of the azalea bush she affectionately and expertly prunes. The surrounding scene is dream-like and repeated geometric shapes and angles merge interestingly with soft swirling brushstrokes and a cool color scheme.

Susan who typically focuses on painting one portrait at a time says that one of the best things about her career is the people she has gotten to know and the friends she has made. She’s even had opportunities to paint three generations of the same family.

This is a happy side effect of her extensive commission process but it is also integral to the reasons she paints portraits and what she hopes viewers and clients will take away from her work.

“I have met so many wonderful people over the years ” Susan says reconnecting with families after the birth of a new child requires another commission. “Painting portraits is such a personal thing. You have to really enjoy people to begin with find out what is best about them and tell their story in a painting. Working on a portrait is like developing a friendship with someone you just met. You have to zero in on their best qualities and make them shine. I would like to think that I have made a lot of good friends with the hundreds of portraits I have painted.”

This appreciation for her subjects is clear in all of her paintings including “Indian Summer Solitude ” an image of a young woman with light brown hair. Loose colorful clothing pools around her and is lifted slightly by an ocean breeze. Her chin rests gently on a graceful hand her toes digging into the sand and she looks thoughtfully just to the right of the viewer. The subject is lovingly depicted and her thoughtful repose reveals an intense and intellectual spirit.

Susan and Casey’s portraits were exhibited in a show called “Mother and Daughter” at the Wilmington airport’s exhibition space earlier this year and they hope to do more collaborative work and art shows in the future. Susan lovingly describes her daughter’s unique style and the ways she encourages Susan to push herself and consider new techniques. Likewise Casey glowingly reflects on the example her mother set for her and how talented and supportive she is.

Mother and daughter are each talented individuals. Together their work is an emotional complex and incredibly beautiful reflection on family love and human connection.