WHEELING — The year Harriet Parsons hit a mid-life milestone brought two problems. One of them was exponentially smaller than the other, but its pleasant solution sticks around to this day.
“I was 50 and going through a second, very hard chemotherapy in Connecticut,” Parsons said of what suddenly gave her the time and the urge to try something totally different. “I had a big garden and I wanted some garden ornaments. They were very expensive, and I didn’t see what I wanted, so I decided to make some.”
That was that.
Parsons signed up for a sculpture class in nearby Mystic. She got a hammer and chisel and went to work — adding faces and figures to chunks of fallen wood that she hauled home.
“‘Mystical’ is a good word for it,” she said of that generation of her art. (She recently pivoted to oil painting given the unwieldy weight of wooden raw materials.)
Indeed, her sculptures call to mind the kind of fairies and nymphs it’s easy to suspect would be found in a garden as lush as Parson’s — or in her home, where a strand of sparkling beads looks altogether appropriate lacing through a vase filled with bare branches.
A face peeks out beneath a wild head of hair that was once tree roots, in one piece that is tucked into a corner of her dining room.
A lanky beach girl — not unlike Parsons herself — is on a porch, clearly ready to chill through the summer.
The latter needs a new outfit to face 2022, she said. Parsons thrifts for such, looking for kids clothing that’s a good vibe match.
It didn’t take long in those early days to sufficiently ornament her seaside garden. Parsons, a longtime psychotherapist, began exhibiting in art shows that eventually included the Crosscurrents exhibit at the Stifel Fine Arts Center when she retired and relocated to West Virginia.
There and here, her work started to sell on a casual basis.
She got some commissions. Parsons was hooked — delighted enough to launch a couple of decades of art exploration.
“It was exciting to have a new avocation,” she said of an unexpected and delayed outcome of constant drawing as a child. “My kids were pretty much grown by then.”
Recently, Parson’s art took a new turn.
“As I aged, it became very difficult to find wood that I could haul out and that wasn’t rotted,” she said of deciding to discontinue sculpture, at least for now. Not that the decision stopped her from casting some concrete bird baths last summer in the shape of rhubarb leaves.
“I tried my hand at colored pencils for a while, but eventually settled on oils,” she said of the overall switch, which included moving her studio from a “lonely basement” to a ground floor bedroom. “It’s fine and fun. It felt like a whole new thing again.”
The whimsical spirit of Parson’s sculpture carries over to her paintings.
There’s a hint of photo realism, but the overall spirit of the works is fun and impressionistic.
A girl swings happily on a warm summer day, her bare toes trailing over the surface of a pond, in one work. In another, a Crayon-like pile of kayaks in the foreground of a seascape suggests boaters are lounging nearby, exhausted from a day on the water.
Parsons works from both photographs and in plein air.
Her subjects are drawn both from West Virginia — which she knew from four years of childhood when her father was teaching music and violin at Bethany College — and from Connecticut. She still visits the latter regularly as her longtime partner Bert Dahl maintains a home there.
In Wheeling, she’s been pleased to make friends with other creators, particularly through her Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bellaire. “Almost everyone there is either a musician or an artist,” she noted.
She still creates. She still sells. “Anything that I have is possibly for sale and I’m certainly open to doing commission work,” she said.
And, she’s still trying new things as a third wind could come along any time. This spring, she’s learning to play bridge. She sighed a bit at that. “It’s really hard.”