Madison County icon and do-it-all artist Polly Gott's paintings will be on display at the Madison County Arts Council beginning Jan. 27. Below is a reworking of a feature story written by Susi Gott Seguret on her mother. The piece appeared in the Jan. 14, 2015 edition of The News-Record & Sentinel:
SHELTON LAUREL - “If I could spend my whole life outdoors, I would,” said Polly Gott, painter, sculptor, farmer and adventurer, who doesn’t like feeling a roof over her head. “Painting is another way of expressing my feelings for this terrain and forest land I love. Anything that you love, you want to paint it.”
Polly Gott, age 85, grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., daughter of Cornell University’s Dean of Men, expected to attend coming out parties and lend her presence to the societal functions that were part of her parents’ world. But inside she was a rebel. She played ball and romped with mutts and pulled pranks, and when she encountered banjo-playing woods-loving Peter Gott in 1958, she gleefully left behind her academic roots and eloped to the southern mountains.
They arrived in the valley of Shelton Laurel, in northern Madison County, in 1961. Polly had, despite her disdain for academia, obtained her master's in sculpture from Cornell following a year of sketching in France (she hitch-hiked alone around much of Europe) and another year studying under sculptor Gabriel Kohn at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The nearly 15 years following her arrival in Madison County were devoted to shaping the land, plowing, planting, building, learning all the skills of the mountain people in an era when “homesteading” and “back-to-the-landers” were terms that had not yet been coined. Trading her pens, paintbrushes and sculpting tools for hoes and churn dashers and drawknives, she made her surroundings her palette, her life and her sculpture.
For practical reasons she turned to pottery, making all the dishes, casseroles, teapots and pitchers used by her family, and to basket weaving, fashioning a variety of split white-oak garden and pack baskets, and even waste baskets for the family home. The home was a hewn log house for which she and her young husband Peter cut all the logs with a cross-cut saw, dragging them across the valley and up the mountainside with mules, covering the roof with hand-split shingles.
With child-rearing and gardening and canning foremost on her mind, her art took a back seat until 1975 when she encountered watercolor artist Jim Gray at the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, then held in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Inspired by the immediacy of watercolor and its elusive nature (not to be controlled and overworked, as oils or acrylics are too apt to be), she adopted the paintbrush as her main tool of expression and set off to capture mountains, mists, barns, churches, tobacco fields, waterfalls.
Nearly 50 years later, she has amassed a body of several thousand works, all of which were painted on location, in all sorts of weather. She is perhaps best known for her vistas of layered mountains, with swirls of mist reaching up like magic fingers, hawks often circling in the sky above. She is a master of speed, with many of her watercolors achieved in five minutes, and most in under an hour. Five minutes — that is — and 50 years, for the hand moves with the sureness of experience, and has traced the contours she loves so many times that eye, heart and hand are unanimous and the painting seems to appear of its own volition.
“Sculpture is not convenient. You can’t pile up sculptures," Gott said, when asked about her transition from sculpture to painting. "In fact, the trash man in Ithaca probably has quite a collection (of my old pieces of junk). You can do a painting in half an hour, but not a sculpture.”
In the early years of raising a family, she often grabbed that half hour just before dinner, while the sun was setting, and squeezed in a masterpiece between digging potatoes and scrubbing carrots.
“Color is important,” said Polly, “I tend to make up colors to suit me.”
A colorful woman herself, of tall stature, eyes wrinkled from years of staring into the sun, hands strong from many tasks, Polly never meets a stranger. Her works have been exhibited at Asheville's Stone Soup Restaurant in the Manor Inn in the 70’s and 80’s, at the Blue Mountain Center for the Arts in the Adirondacks, at the Madison County Library and Madison County Arts Council, among other venues.
One of her favorite subjects to paint is the multitude of old barns that are tucked into hollows and hills.
“Having barns gives paintings more personality, puts it back in a different century, because people don’t build barns like that anymore,” she said.
In fact, many of Polly’s paintings feature barns and churches that are no longer in existence, captured at a time before photographers became interested in recording the region’s history. If you visit Polly’s studio, perched at more than 3,000 feet on the side of the Sugarloaf Mountain, overlooking the White Rocks and the Appalachian Trail, you’ll find yourself in a time warp.
Locals are particularly delighted to see cabins built by grandparents or great-grandparents, fields which have since become forests, churches where their forebears were born or married. Outsiders are allowed a window into a time gone by, and are inspired to preserve the landscape that is still a haven few in this world are privileged to know.
You can see Polly’s work — without the drive into the wilds of Shelton Laurel’s rhododendron thickets, which once sheltered Civil War fugitives and moonshine makers — from mid-January through mid-March, adorning the walls of the Madison County Arts Council in Marshall. The works selected represent Polly’s unique way of seeing, a lifetime’s legacy, encapsulating her love of the land she has made her home.
On Jan. 27, from 4-7 p.m. (with a snow date of Feb. 3), Gott will be at the Arts Council to meet and greet enthusiasts of her work.
Drop by, warm your hands, listen to the melodies of Peter Gott’s banjo in the background, step into the mountains themselves, be a traveler in time through the artist’s eye.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Local artist to be featured at Madison County Arts Council in Marshall