Joyce Satterwhite’s studio off Little Florida Road in Farnham is a lifetime of small moments.
Hanging low on a side wall is a painting of master oyster shucker Nolan Matthews, who always calls her “Miss Joyce.”
Nearby, on the top floor of this house overlooking the Rappahannock River, is another painting completed in the mountains on the border of Iran and Azerbaijan. That place was so desolate, she said, she didn’t know whether to be afraid as she stared at cave paintings where monks had been slaughtered by Persians.
“It was a spiritual place,” she said one recent Monday as she added white to the crest of waves in a painting of a windswept beach. “If something happened, no one was there to save you.”
Satterwhite will show a selection of her paintings at the RTD Gallery that opens Friday, May 5, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The 72-year-old said she always had an inner desire to paint. Even now, if she goes any length of time without a brush in her hand, it’s “unsettling,” she said.
And when she paints, the rest of the world melts away. She doesn’t eat. She forgets to drink.
Her boyfriend, Norm Adams, will climb the winding stairs up to the studio after some hours to refresh coffee that she still has yet to drink.
“We will drink a beer on the pier. And then she says, ‘I’ve got to go paint,’ ” Adams said of most of their afternoons.
The Nottoway County native remembers always feeling pulled to paint. But back in high school, she never had time to take art classes.
Her mother instead encouraged her to take business courses because she wanted her daughter to have a Plan B. Out of her parents’ four children, she is the only one who eventually pursued an artistic career, though she said her younger brother is also creative.
“I’m different in my family. I’m a perfectionist in so many ways. It’s got to be right. But then I lose my organization easily. I can easily get things in a mess,” she said. “I think it’s because I feel scattered. I’m doing too many things at once. The only time I can get anything done is (to) do too many things at once.”
Her painting career came later in life. Satterwhite first spent nearly a lifetime, 54 years, in the cosmetology business. She opened Precision One Salon and Spa in 1976, which eventually moved into its current spot in Stony Point Fashion Park.
Now, she spends only a few days at the salon, instead finding herself in airports every month, typically with a ticket to a destination beyond U.S. borders.
She credits her cosmetology background with making her comfortable drawing the human figure, though her paintings nowadays show a range of subjects, from humans to landscapes, subjects she encountered during her many travels.
When she isn’t traveling, she is usually here, in her studio.
The studio was part of a deal she made with her husband, a Richmond law enforcement officer who died several years ago. If he wanted a house by the river, she said, she must have a studio. Now, she spends more time overlooking the Rappahannock River than she does in her row house in Richmond’s Museum District.
Studios that have featured her artwork credit her with drawing a viewer into a small moment, wondering what the larger story of that person or place may be.
“I’m fascinated with people who work with their hands. People in their everyday lives, telling a story with what they are doing,” she said. “There’s inspiration everywhere you turn.”
She misses paintings since sold of an old man weaving sweetgrass baskets in Charleston, S.C., and another of workers alongside Indian Creek tending to crab pots.
“I think I want people to know more in that particular scene or with those people. I think about those people, who they are, what they are thinking. I like my paintings to make people want to know more because I do,” she said.
Largely self-taught, the painter of more than 50 years said she doesn’t paint like any of her teachers. Edwin Kayton, perhaps her most influential mentor, met her during one of her many trips to Hawaii. She had been following his work since 1992.
It’s easy to see how different their styles are.
She stops at one of Kayton’s paintings hanging above a dresser. It shows an old woman weaving a basket, and she notes how he meticulously revealed every wrinkle in the old woman’s hands, every string of the basket.
She loves the way Kayton paints. His work hangs in corners and takes up whole walls throughout her Little Florida Road house.
“He does renderings, more like the old masters,” she said. “Edwin taught me a lot of the basics. He taught me how to pay attention.”
But when she sits down at an easel, Satterwhite takes a different approach than Kayton, something that Kayton encouraged.
“I don’t paint every detail. I can, but I don’t prefer to. I like to see brushstrokes, the looser style. I see color loosely, and he tells me to keep it that way. He knows me, after all these years,” she said.
The oil painter describes herself as somewhere between a realist and an impressionist.
“Usually when I start a painting, it’s the best,” she said. “If I keep working with it, it ends up being too tight for my satisfaction.”
On this day, she’s just begun the painting of the windswept beach. She cranks up a classic rock song, as Norm heads downstairs to clean up their lunch.