Impressive and unexpected are words that come to mind when you see Diane Jackson’s studio perched above the lake at Stratford Harbour. Housed within that structure, which suggests a ship or a church, is the space where Diane creates her multi-faceted artwork
It wasn’t always so. Despite strong artful inclination at an early age, it was years later that this artist’s career was launched. Mrs. Jackson’s late husband “Buddy” (C.W.) encouraged her and participated fully in her growing art career. At a key time in her development they took boat trips on Nomini Creek and nearby waterways. Those travels served as inspiration for a ten-year progression of oil paintings. “The nauticals,” as the artist refers to them, came from photos taken on the outings or from photos offered by friends who knew of her passion for the subject.
Each painting of workboats or related local waterfront subjects received painstaking efforts to create the most full and vibrant expression of the boat, place and time. Comprehensive research was completed on the boat and area depicted, assuring accurate representation. Diane explained that one of the most important aspects of each boat was where it had been throughout its working life—that the boat was the sum of its travels. Clearly these boats’ lives and contributions to the area have touched the artist in ways that made their depiction and immortalization strongly heartfelt.
Three examples of the nautical subjects illustrate some behind-the-scenes efforts that took place to assure works that resonate with life and accuracy. These paintings, labors of love and devotion, often take up to 9 months to complete and are testimony to the unique and independent lives of watermen on the Northern Neck.
Diane explained to me the background on the buy boats (large crafts that took on seafood from small local fishermen and then delivered the catch back to Nomini Seafood) and also the specifics of three of her paintings. That these “massive giant vessels with gentle souls, none like the other... they are now a dying breed.....the nautical subjects represent a lifestyle, people’s lives and personalities...the way they lived day-to-day and how they worked with a passion for the water and way of life.
“With Seasons Past the giant ‘Cutty Sark’ is ready for work or home to rest from its labors. The boats and their masters were a team representing tremendous pride of ownership. The giant boats are caught in the stillness of the moment resting in the silence, the serenity and beautiful sparkling water
“Old Nomini Crossing (showing the former Nomini bridge) was a must do painting. The Nomini bridge was a place to be remembered in each local childhood. The school bus traveling to and from school, trading bottles at Millers Store, the young men who opened and closed the bridge by a hand stob. It was the hub of Westmoreland County. The buy boats came in to Nomini Seafood to unload their day’s take, with children waiting at the dock to be taken out for that extra boat ride at the end of the day. So many tales from years ago. The best fishing was to be had perched up under the bridge. Even I remember the bridge in the early 1980s. There was a unique rolling sound as you crossed. A stoplight was at either end and there were crossbars to stop you when the bridge was open.
“For the painting Branson’s Cove, the image was truly a wonderful find, inasmuch as all of the structures as well as the boats are gone. The photograph I worked from was taken in the 1960s by a waterman who kindly loaned it to me. It was a 3 x 5 sepia tone, I might add. I knew that there would be some research necessary here. So, with a magnifying glass and numerous lengthy conversations with watermen, I was able to determine the names of the boats, color and detailing, origin and ownership. Those who worked on the water were in so many ways a family among themselves. Each one cared about each other and yet competed for the same livelihood. Even today, a brief conversation with a man of that era can develop into endless stories. The buy boats and working deadrise boats themselves actually seemed to be considered members of the family.
“Maybe these images not only represent a history of a way of life on the water, but remind us of a time that was truly gentle and peaceful.”
Art Shows and the Gallery at Lerty
The solitude represented in the oils of local buy boats reflects the atmosphere that Buddy and Diane experienced along the Nomini. But over a 25-year period there were many public appearances shared by the pair as they traveled to art shows throughout the state. Buddy delighted in talking with interested people wherever he might be since he was such “a people person.” His assistance even extended to helping out at the Gallery at Lerty (located on Route 3 just above the road to Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County) where Diane displays her paintings and prints as well as selections of unique pottery. Imagine, Buddy, a Westmoreland county sheriff for 32 years, regularly chose to travel on his days off to the far reaches of Virginia and took the time on weekends to work at Lerty. What a partner! This teamwork and dedication eventually brought about the studio in 1995.
The home studio at Stratford wasn’t the first one in Diane’s life. In the mid-1980s she shared space with the Doane brothers in Tappahannock. A beautiful, light-filled room on the first floor of the Ritchie house was her first studio, providing plenty of space to work in and also to visit with the public. (At this time in her career, she committed to sketch or paint every day and she has adhered to that goal for over 25 years.) When the building was no longer available to rent, it was time to move on to a new space.
The home studio, a commanding architect-designed structure, was a family endeavor that took two years to complete. With huge trusses and special materials, there were many elements to be worked out. Plenty of time and effort was required to achieve the goal of constructing a complex building with such clean lines and seemingly simple results.
The location for the studio—down a hill and overlooking the lake—was difficult to build on. Because of the terrain there was no opportunity to use heavy equipment in the construction process. Despite the required large scale trusses and complex processes for other structural elements, work was able to proceed, albeit slowly and by hand. Pulleys and levers were used to slowly hoist and place trusses on massive piers.
Many Skills, Much Created
The studio remains a place of quiet contemplation and work. The Gallery at Lerty allows Diane direct contact with the public and it houses her considerable body of work including botanicals, birds and still lives, as well as “the nauticals.” Her non-nautical pieces are from the time when she worked exclusively in watercolor and received many awards from numerous shows and watercolor societies.
“The nauticals” were a challenge that Diane took on later in her career. After considerable success with watercolor, she realized she had never fulfilled her childhood dream of working successfully in oils. The working boats of the Northern Neck became the subject she devoted years to, perfecting her skill with the new medium. The resulting paintings provide future generations with a history that would otherwise be lost. With this body of work she has woven herself into the history of the Northern Neck—the details and the stories live on because of her attention to these special places so near to all who live in the Northern Neck area.