Breeze through Eleanor “Ellie” Cox’s living room, dining room, sun room, kitchen — and the hallways that connect all of those rooms in her Chesterfield County home — and on each wall you’ll see magnificent sprawling Italian vistas, the tropical playfulness of Florida, and lazy valleys and gentle rolling hills from all around Virginia. They are framed moments in time, vibrant watercolor representations of scenes that caught Cox’s eye during one of her many excursions both home and abroad and left an impression too good to pass up.
Clearly it’s the outdoors she loves, from her meticulous shady backyard garden frequented by birds of all kinds to the expansive shorelines of her weekend home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Cox prefers to be where the air is fresh and clean, and in those spaces, she finds inspiration.
Cox, a plein air watercolor painter at heart — and by trade for many years — will have some of her work on display starting Friday, July 7, at the RTD Gallery at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
A native of eastern North Carolina, Cox has been painting and teaching others how to paint for decades, first with oil and then watercolor. She’s a member of various watercolor organizations, including the Virginia Watercolor Society, the Southern Watercolor Society, the Baltimore Watercolor Society and the Potomac Valley Watercolorists. Her pieces are part of corporate collections across the area, from Capital One and CSX Transportation to James River Corp. and First Union Bank.
Her work can be found at the Crossroads Art Center in Henrico County and the Stewart Gallery in Gloucester, as well as galleries in one of her favorite places, Nags Head, N.C. (Cox also hosts a show at her home on a Sunday evening each December, in which invitees browse and buy her work.)
And the awards and accolades and juried exhibitions throughout the years, well, they’re too numerous to count.
So on a recent morning as birds helped themselves to birdseed on a feeder positioned just outside her kitchen window, Cox reflected on her work and her life. She had just returned from several weeks in Italy, and a dozen or more of her unfinished works were stacked on the dining room table, the light pencil markings of rough sketches still visible under muted swaths of paint.
Painting is her life, though it didn’t start out that way. Music called her first. She attended Greensboro College on an oboe scholarship but soon realized that what she really wanted to do was be an artist. She transferred to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and earned her bachelor’s of fine arts degree in the early 1960s.
After graduation, Cox moved to Maryland to teach art in public schools for a few years, and while there, she met the man who’d later become her husband. They met at an Annapolis laundromat, she said with a grin, a fortuitous trip that happened only because her Severna Park, Md., community didn’t allow laundromats.
That man is Gene Cox — yes, that Gene Cox, of local television news anchor fame — and together they started a family and moved throughout Virginia and Maryland and West Virginia as his television career took off. (On a side note, he learned the art of framing long ago, and for decades, he’s framed every one of his wife’s paintings, as well as works for friends and neighbors. “He’s the other half of the operation,” Cox said jokingly.)
As their lives changed and their family grew, she kept painting and found a passion for teaching privately to groups and individuals. Though she started out as an oil painter — in love with expressionism, she said — she moved to watercolors after the first of their two children was born. It was an easier medium to work with, she said, particularly while also trying to raise a family. The Cox family has lived in two houses since moving to Richmond in 1978, and Cox recalled how she taught classes in the garage of their first house to friends and neighbors.
And she’s still teaching. For convenience, she now rents out the Bon Air Community Center to teach spring, fall and winter classes, though she also invites her students to her backyard to teach them plein air painting from the comfort of her shady garden.
Fellow Chesterfield resident Shirley Hinkson has taken classes from Cox for more than six years and has joined her on painting workshops across Virginia and elsewhere. Hinkson and her husband have a home in Cape Charles and have hosted their own plein air workshops in which Cox and others are invited to participate.
By email last week, Hinkson said simply, “Ellie inspires me to paint.”
“Each of Ellie’s students is treated as a friend, and we enjoy her camaraderie,” she said, adding that Cox “has always been an inspiration to artists to develop their own love and proficiency for painting.”
When it comes to Cox’s landscapes, particularly the European scenes, Hinkson said “her artwork quickly captures the light and colors in the freshest, impressionist way, (and) it is fascinating to watch that happen.”
Another student and longtime friend, Mary Castle, said Cox’s work “reflects her personality and love of art — vibrant, spontaneous and full of energy.”
She said she appreciates Cox’s teaching methods, which go step by step while simultaneously encouraging students to find the processes that work best for them.
“This is enormously helpful when staring at a piece of blank watercolor paper, which can be unforgiving of the tiniest of mistakes,” Castle said.
An early bird with an inexhaustible amount of energy, Cox can be spotted walking through her neighborhood almost every morning.
“I just like being outside. I like the smells, the sounds,” she said, adding that during her recent trip to a small town in Tuscany, Italy, the grounds of their accommodations featured gardens filled with gardenias and white jasmine.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to walk outside and (smell) that smell,” she said.
She travels often around the state, and heads south to the Carolinas, and also annually to Europe, something she’s done every year since the mid-1980s, she said. It’s those overseas trips that allow her to clear her mind of everything and just paint. She usually goes with other artists, people who, like her, can lose themselves for days in capturing the smallest details of a scenic vista.
“The people that you meet who share that passion for painting, you can’t help but like them,” Cox said, and whether it’s teaching a class or meeting new people on a trip halfway around the world, “I’ve made some really good friends over the years.”