Innerviews: Passion for painting defies diminished eyesight

Her paintings and drawings hang in homes and businesses all over town.

Elisabeth Wallace Hartman, known to absolutely everyone as Dolly, never envisioned her future as an artist. It just happened. Because it was supposed to.

Artistic talent has a way of asserting itself. Even when challenged or threatened, it cannot, will not, be denied.

And so, even approaching her 85th birthday in April, even with macular degeneration distorting her vision, Dolly paints and draws, continuing to oblige the gift God gave her.

She lives now at Edgewood Summit with Pudding, her affectionate black Lab. Portraits, still lifes and abstracts decorate every wall of her apartment, even the bathroom. Charcoal portraits line the walls of her studio where magnifiers and bright lighting compensate for her failing eyesight.

Candid acceptance of her plight, endearing warmth and easy laughter reflect the indomitable, positive spirit that keeps her returning daily to her easel.

As if she had a choice. What’s inside must come out. No matter what.

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“My name is Elisabeth. When I was an infant, my grandmother said I looked like a kewpie doll so that’s where I got the name Dolly.

“My parents had a stucco house and I was a toddler and I had a pencil and I was drawing on the side of the house. I remember it as if it were yesterday. My mother said, ‘Stop drawing on the house. We’re trying to sell it.’ That’s about my first memory of trying to make art.

“My dad bought some property in 1938 at the end of Hampton Road. That’s where he built the house we grew up in. He designed the house himself.

“Hampton was a dirt road. Now it’s highly populated, but then it had about three houses on it.

“We went to Fernbank Elementary School. My mother would drive in her station wagon with wood sides to pick us up for lunch and take us back and then pick us up after school. It was a lot of driving. There were no school buses.

“My dad, Harry Wallace, worked at United Fuel and Gas. I have two younger brothers, Wally and Bill. We lost Bill a couple of years ago.

“I liked to make images pretty early in my life. I remember copying things, trying to make this picture look like that. But I never said, ‘I want to be an artist.’ That would be kind of pretentious, you know.

“I started being an artist because it was the only thing I had a chance of doing. Everything else I tried, I wasn’t good at, so by narrowing it down, it came to be art.

“I went to Thomas Jefferson Junior High and graduated from Charleston High in 1949. All those wonderful old buildings are gone now, all the buildings I went to school in. They even discontinued my face powder. Sometimes I feel like I don‘t even exist.

“In high school, in Wednesday noon assemblies, I did what they called chalk talks. They were left over from the vaudeville days. You would stand up and make a picture and tell a story along with it. When you had the picture finished, the story was finished.

“I did those when I went to college, too. If something was happening on campus, I would make up a little chalk talk about it.

“I went to Sweet Briar College in Virginia. I majored in religion. It was a wonderful major because it was about history and psychology and philosophy, a real comprehensive kind of major.

“I didn‘t know what I was going to do with it. But women born when I was born in 1932, we didn‘t worry about supporting ourselves. A husband would show up somewhere. I feel badly when I think about that now.

“In college, I did people’s portraits. I would do portraits and people would pay for them and it helped raise money for a new building on campus.

“I was lucky enough to be invited to a Fourth of July picnic in 1954. That’s where I met Jack Hartman. He was home on leave from the Navy.

“We got married when he came back east and went into internal medicine residency at Ohio State University Hospital. We had a great few years in Columbus before we moved back here.

“We had a house on Bridge Road at the corner where the land is being developed. We were there six years and then we moved to Meadowcrest Drive.

“I said to John Hartman who plays guitar, ‘Let’s do a commercial about our house for Suddenlink Channel 2.’ They’ve been running it for two months. I’m real proud of it. The house hasn’t sold but the bids are getting higher.

“The developer on Bridge Road took down all those trees. In our commercial, I say that the house was on half an acre but that two other parcels became available and we bought them to save the trees. I hope the developer sees it.

“My children and I donated our share of the land my dad left to us for the Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve at the end of South Ruffner Road, 52 untouched acres. People use that, and I’m so thankful.

“I wish the runners would use it. Our boy was a runner and he was out there running on Louden Heights Road.

“I’ve never really stopped doing art. I did a lot of charcoal portraits. People would bring their children to the house. Law firms would have me do their senior partner in oil, and he had to be large with broad shoulders, never mind what he looked like.

“One firm asked me to do the senior guy. He was 88. When I met him, he was sitting, and I thought, oh, this is too late. Then he stood up, and he was back in the courtroom. So I asked if it would be okay to do it with him standing and he cooperated and we got it done.

“I did Gaston Caperton’s father at his desk. Gaston took that portrait wherever he went, the Governor’s Mansion, New York.

“Oils adapt themselves to portraits. But now, with my impaired vision, it’s hard to see which brushes need cleaning. The brushes get ruined if they stand in the paint.

“I like oils because they don’t dry right away. You can mess around with them for a while, even the next day. There’s a lot of forgiveness in oil. I feel there is a lot of forgiveness in watercolor too. I’m doing watercolor mostly now along with charcoal, wet and dry, wet and dry, back and forth.

“I like still life. Nobody complains if a lemon isn‘t exactly like a lemon. You have a little more freedom to fail.

“I rented space in downtown Charleston for about 20 years. It was in the Payne Building first and then the Masonic Temple building.

“People would come to class. I taught art. I think there is a need for people to offer classes and a place for artists to gather.

“Sherry Lovett started the Art Store on the hill. She’s the one who brought Charleston into the world with the Art Store. Now Lisa Fischer Casto has it downtown where Merrill Photo used to be, and she has an opening about every month or so.

“You need a place to take the work after you’ve done it. That’s almost as essential as a place to do the work in so you can start on the next picture. When you take something to the gallery, the easel is blank so you need to start another one.

“My mother had macular degeneration. It’s inheritable. They aren’t very good at diagnosing this disease. It usually gets diagnosed at about the age of 60. I always told the doctor that my mother had macular degeneration and to please look for it in me. When I was 60, he saw it in me.

“I left downtown about five years ago. It is advantageous to be able to see to make images. But it’s not an absolute requirement. I used to think it was. Now that my vision is diminished, I can still make images if I am patient enough. Patience is the hard part.

“In my art room, I have big magnifiers and lots of light. The light is so good, I could do heart surgery in there

“I usually have something going. Here’s the thing I love to do, and I recommend this to anyone who likes to make images. Say you are watching an old black-and-white movie on television. The light source looks good, and you like the head of the actor and think maybe you would like to draw that. I punch pause and suddenly Gregory Peck holds still for an hour. That’s a good art exercise.

“The biggest thing about art is not to be self-critical. When I was teaching those 20 years downtown, I found that what almost everyone has in common is they are so critical of themselves. I think it’s wonderful to think, ‘I did this today.’ Not to worry about what I think of it, just if I get some expression on the canvas or paper pretty often.

“I have stuff put out in my art room all the time, something I can go in and work on. You can’t wait for the mood or you would never work. I just go in and try to start. Why is it like that with the major thing you do in your life?

“My work is around. I always recognize one of mine when I go into someone’s house. You don’t forget your children that come off the easel.

“In the best of moments, you attack the canvas not thinking of the outcome. You are much more involved in the process than the product. The process is the part that’s intriguing. That’s what was wrong with portraits. You know what you have to have.

“I don’t do portraits anymore. It requires really good vision to do a likeness. I loved doing them, but it’s hard work. When you start a portrait, you know what you need to have when you are finished. It has to look like that person. You don’t have anything adventurous going on.

“Jack died in June of 1996. He had cancer, a dire prognosis. I miss him all the time. I moved to Edgewood Summit in October 2016. It made sense to be in a controllable small space. I didn’t need a two-story house.

“We had four children, two boys and two girls. Except for Jack’s early departure, I don’t have any complaints. He was only 68 when he died.

“I’m full of thanksgiving, I’ve been very blessed, except for losing Jack.”

Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-342-5027.

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