“The style here is much looser. In Texas and Oklahoma, the work is rigid and realistic. Texans are a proud people. They fought against the elements to rake out a living with a farm or a ranch. They battled the rattlesnakes and the critters and they’re more tenacious for it.” — Gretchen Clasby

WAYNESVILLE, North Carolina — Gretchen Clasby was reeling.

She was in Salado, Texas. It was the 1980s.

Her husband, a fellow artist, had up and split, leaving her a single mother with six-figures worth of debt. Broken, confused and unsure of where to turn, Clasby began working 20-hour days — from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — in a desperate attempt to claw out of a substantial financial hole.

At the time, Clasby had a friend who would call at eight o’clock every morning in an attempt to rouse her into motion. Clasby appreciated the sentiment, but not the timing. She was exhausted, after all, and needed all the sleep she could get.

To address the issue of the overzealous friend, Clasby found an apt scripture — “If you shout a pleasant greeting to a friend too early in the morning, he will count it as a curse,” — and wrote it on what amounted to a postcard, alongside a couple bluebirds she had drawn.

Clasby sent it to her friend, and she would never call before 10 a.m. again.

Fast-forward two weeks: there’s a knock on Clasby’s door. It’s the local sheriff. He hands her a collection of lawsuits that double her debt. Apparently, the sheriff had been unable to track down Clasby’s vanished husband, and thus was visiting her to seek satisfaction.

Shaken, Clasby went to the post office later that morning to run an errand. When she returned, there was a foreclosure notice on her front door. Apparently, her husband had not paid the back taxes on the house.

Walloped by a one-two punch of devastating news in a few hours time, Clasby flung herself on the bed and cried. She sobbed for 20 minutes, until utterly exhausted. Then, Clasby — a woman of strong faith — said a higher power spoke to her.

“God said pull up your socks and get to work. [He said] I want you to illustrate everything that helps you through this year,” she said. “Well that turned out to be scripture.”

Clasby thought back to that postcard she had sent her early-rising friend, the one with the bluebird. Why not print a vast number of those, with a unique scripture on each, and sell them at local art shows?

So that’s what she did.

“That was October of that year,” said Clasby. “By the following July, I had paid off my debt. Those birds went flying all over the United States. I sold them to Christian bookstores and gift shops in every state and almost every English and Spanish-speaking country.”

That was the genesis of Sonshine Promises: a “whimsical and inspirational line of little bluebirds and cardinals,” as Clasby describes it. What started as a series of prints to help a struggling artist claw out of financial hardship has evolved into a near-endless collection of figurines, calendars, greeting cards and other products that has been distributed the world over.

Clasby has a favorite story about the widespread popularity of her cartoonish birds.

A print of the first Sonshine Promises postcard Gretchen Clasby ever made.

A woman from Asheville took a mission trip to Barcelona, and while there decided to browse a well-known Christian bookstore. One product caught her eye: a postcard-sized print with a cartoon bluebird and a scripture on the front.

She flipped it over and saw Clasby’s name and address on the back. Upon returning to the states, she made a trip to Clasby’s studio — Cedar Hill Studio on Main Street in Waynesville — to tell her about the unexpected discovery.

“She said ‘I went all the way to Spain to pick up gifts that were made 30 minutes from where I live!” said Clasby.

Art: A Matter of Practicality

For Clasby, art started as a matter of making ends meet.

In 1967, while living in Lawton, Oklahoma, she existed on about $200 per month. She began delicately decorating masonite discs after hearing they were selling like hotcakes down in San Antonio.

Clasby finished a batch of discs and hauled them to a gift shop in Oklahoma City, which cut her a check for a cool $74.

“I said ‘74 dollars!’” she exclaimed. “I went ‘If I keep this up, I might be able to buy clothes instead of making them myself.”

After that revelation, discs were the thing.

She started selling them at local art shows on the sidewalks of strip malls. She priced them at $2 a pop, eventually raising them to $3.50. Then she learned the art of woodwork and began selling painted woodcrafts for $5-10.

The foundation for an artist’s life was being laid.

Clasby found her next creative passion at those sidewalk art shows: watercolors. After expressing great enthusiasm, day-in and day-out, about pursuing the medium, one of her artist friends told her to “buy every watercolor paper I could find, the best brushes you can afford, and give it a shot.”

“I realized immediately I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “So I started going to artists I admired and saying ‘How do you do this? How do you do that?’ And I would bat my eyes, because I was young and cute at the time, and they’d tell me their 25 years worth of experience.”

She said most of the advice went over her head. But, undeterred, she kept painting. The ‘60s became the ‘70s, and she relocated from Oklahoma to Salado, Texas, with her then-husband, the one who would eventually leave her in the red. It was there — deep in the heart of Texas — that her reputation as a mover and shaker in the art community began to blossom.

Raising Salado

In 1972, she opened Cedar Hill Studio in Salado. She began holding art shows and events there, including one known as the Quick Draw, which was often took place on Saturdays. The studio would close at five, and when it reopened at seven, a judge would fire a starting gun. Each artist then had an hour to complete a full painting. Spectators were invited to witness what was the artistic equivalent of a drag race.

“At the end of the hour, they shot off another gun,” said Clasby. “We had 10 minutes to sign it, frame it and auction it off. We kept half the money for our group and half went to the artists.”

About those artists: they were moving to the area in great numbers at that time in history, buying and renting the houses along Salado’s Main Street and opening their own galleries. When Clasby arrived, Salado was a town of about 300 people. It’s since blossomed to about 2,000, and is widely considered one of the most artistic small towns in Texas.

Gretchen Clasby at one of the original Quick Draw events in Salado, Texas during the ’80s.

Indeed, Salado’s official tagline is now “The Best Art Town in Texas.”

“We undergirded that reputation by promoting the arts,” said Clasby. “Our whole focus was how we could grow the art community.”

Not Dumb, Just Different

Clasby was sitting around watching “60 Minutes” on television one night. She was 30 years old and still living in Texas.

The young artist was fooling around, half-paying attention to the TV, when a segment flashed on the screen that gripped her. It was about dyslexia. As the show began to highlight the characteristics associated with the disorder, Clasby thought: “That’s me.”

Incidentally, she had noticed her son would often write letters backward. So she scheduled an appointment in nearby Austin to have them tested.

“They told me ‘Your son is fine, but you’re a basketcase,’” laughed Clasby. “It set me free. It’s like ‘I’m not dumb, I just perceive things differently than other people. That gave me a whole new outlook on life.”

Clasby had graduated from high school at a fifth-grade reading level. Her father always pressed her to have her IQ tested, insisting she was capable of better grades. She had always been “good with her hands,” as she put it, but reading and writing just never seemed to click.

“I always thought I was stupid,” she said. “But I’m just different.”

Gone to Carolina

In 1989, five years after creating Sonshine Promises, Clasby remarried.

She and her family relocated to Western North Carolina and brought Cedar Hill Studio along for the ride. She started selling gifts and home decor in addition to antiques and her own artwork. Her studio, located at the northern end of Main Street, played a key role in the now-well-publicized revitalization of downtown Waynesville.

One of Gretchen Clasby’s attempts at a looser style of painting, inspired by a sunset she saw at Waterrock Knob with her daughter. It sold the first day she brought it to her studio.

The laid-back vibe of the Smoky Mountains stood in stark contrast to the hardscrabble lifestyle Clasby was accustomed to in Oklahoma and Texas. The artwork, too, reflected these cultural differences.

“The style here is much looser,” she said. “In Texas and Oklahoma, the work is rigid and realistic. Texans are a proud people. They fought against the elements to rake out a living with a farm or a ranch. They battled the rattlesnakes and the critters and they’re more tenacious for it.”

Inspired by local artists, Clasby decided to try her hand at that more freewheeling style of painting. She’s fallen in love with it. A prime example of Clasby’s attempt at a more impressionistic work is a gorgeous, warm-colored piece based on a sunset she saw with her daughter at Waterrock Knob.

It sold the day she brought it to the studio.

“I said ‘You can’t have it yet, I haven’t even gotten to see it,’” she laughed. “I finally made a big copy of it to put over the fireplace at my [home] studio.”One of Gretchen Clasby’s attempt at a looser style of painting, inspired by a sunset she saw at Waterrock Knob with her daughter. It sold the first day she brought it to her studio.“I said ‘You can’t have it yet, I haven’t even gotten to see it,’” she laughed. “I finally made a big copy of it to put over the fireplace at my [home] studio.”

Clasby has brought more than just Cedar Hill Studio to the Tar Heel State. The Quick Draw event that proved so popular in Salado has been a hit here, too. It’s in its 16th year, held at Laurel Ridge and raises funds for local art initiatives. Clasby estimates it has produced over $125,000 for the local art community since its inception.

The Western North Carolina Quick Draw is different from the Salado version in one key way, however.

“We use a bell instead of a gun,” she said. “This isn’t Texas.”

Impressions

Paul Malcolm’s full-time job is playing viola for the North Carolina Symphony. His second passion, however, is photography. Four years ago, he walked into Cedar Hill Studio looking for a place to sell his work.

Clasby urged him to submit his best stuff, which mostly consisted of nature shots taken while touring the state for symphony performances. He was accepted, and his photos now fill two display walls at the studio.

As a relatively new artist seeking a platform for his work, Clasby’s “warm and friendly” demeanor, as he put it, reassured him about his talents.

“She seems to have boundless energy,” he said. “She is very hepful and encouraging to the artists in her studio.”

And, to be sure, there are a lot of artists in her studio. Ninety are currently on display and the waitlist is just as long. Strolling through Cedar Hill Sutdio is akin to walking around in an IKEA for creative: a natural flow leads you through the 6,000-square foot space displaying artists of every ilk, from digital to watercolor to pottery and every medium in between.

Having experienced the struggling artist lifestyle herself, Clasby said she understands what other artists need. She take only a 25 percent commission on sales (“Most galleries take 50-to-60 percent,” she said) and allows artists to rent out entire walls to display their collections. At the top of each wall is the artist’s name in big, black letters.

“Name recognition,” she said. “Is key.”

Jerry Stuart, who attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City and now lives in Maggie Valley, has had a wall at Cedar Hill for about a year. In many ways, his style and subject matter – loosely-painted scenes of barns, cows and landscapes – perfectly exemplifies the easygoing Western North Carolina approach that so fascinated Clasby.

Stuart praised Clasby as “gifted” and said he hopes to “know her for many years to come.”

“She is always sincere, friendly and easy to approach,” he said. “She has generous qualities and is eager to suggest a new slant on things.

Gretchen Clasby (left) hanging around with her friend, employee and fellow artist Becky Kollat. Kollat’s art is featured at Clasby’s studio, Cedar Hill Studio, located in downtown Waynesville.

Becky Kollat, a fellow artist who works at Cedar Hill Studio and sells her artwork there, has witnessed, first-hand, the positive impression Clasby leaves on fellow artists.

“She has a following of people who come in here,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. They could care less about us, but they absolutely love her.”

“It’s the Art”

One recent Saturday, Clasby and Debbie Skelley, a friend and fellow artist with her work on display at Cedar Hill, were standing on the sidewalk in front of the studio, laughing and having a good time.

A lady walked by, noted the duo’s childlike whimsy, and said something to the effect of “You two are just so happy and alive. I want whatever you’re taking.”

Without hesitation, Skelley turned to the lady and said:

“It’s the art.”

Indeed, and that’s pretty much all that needs to be said about that.

This article originally appeared in The Mountaineer.

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