‘My personal retreat’: Local artist Elizabeth Darrow talks creative isolation that led to latest exhibit

“Charming,” oil on canvas 18″ x 24″ ($1,500) by Elizabeth Darrow. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Art in Bloom)

WILMINGTON — While the onset of the pandemic had folks shuttered in their homes, glued to the latest headlines about this new, quickly changing world, local artist Elizabeth Darrow turned her attention elsewhere: to the canvas, specifically in search of a new set of eyes, so to speak.

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Darrow churned out 50 pieces of art during the first four months of Covid-19 isolation, creating worlds of whimsy and wonder. They are now on display in “Start With the Eyes: Elizabeth Darrow and Friends” at Art in Bloom’s pop-up gallery in Mayfaire (820 Town Center Dr.).


“During this time I was working 10 to 12 hours a day,” Darrow said. “The studio was my world. I felt focused and motivated.”

An Oberlin College graduate, the artist has created hundreds upon hundreds of pieces over the last 40 years — abstract collage work to figurative paintings. Darrow almost always starts with layers to reveal the direction in her process. In this instance, she explained she would look for the shape of a face on old canvases, awaiting to gain new life as she painted over them.

“The painting that gets buried informs the painting that covers it, affecting it in unexpected ways, especially texturally,” Darrow explained.

More images would move into frame as Darrow pushed and pulled the paint. A set of eyes began each work anew, then a body, then a gesture would lead to the next movement. It was organic.

“Start With the Eyes” opened mid-July and was scheduled to close Aug. 28. Yet, gallery owner Amy Grant — who, for years, has been hosting pop-up exhibits across town, in restaurants, boutiques and hotels — decided to extend the exhibit until Tuesday, Sept. 28 after noting it was well-received.

“It is encouraging to see how much people love original art even during these crazy times,” Grant said.

Darrow sold 25 or 26 pieces since the exhibit launched and has replaced all the sold pieces through the show’s extension. “I brought in some older work of a different ilk — collages mostly, just to offer up a different taste,” she said. “Plus, several new artists’ works have been added in, so it’s [a] whole new show now. There’s a lot of variety, a lot to see.”

The show features 12 local artists, including Bob Bryden, Debra Bucci, Richard Bunting, Bradley Carter, Judy Hintz Cox, Jeri Greenberg, Joan McLoughlin, H.M. Saffer, and Kirah Van Sickle, along with ceramic artists Brian Evans, Dianne Evans and Traudi Thornton. The work is on exhibit Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Art in Bloom will have a special open house Saturday, Sept. 18, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Port City Daily chatted with Elizabeth Darrow about the process of creating “Start With the Eyes.” The interview is below:

Port City Daily (PCD): Will you tell readers about the inspiration behind this new batch of work?
Elizabeth Darrow (ED): The lockdown prompted me to turn inward. I consciously decided to stop watching or listening to world news, to refrain from socializing, or Netflix, or any number of distractions, and to just be quiet and see what might come forth. It was a perfect opportunity to do so.

I had been losing momentum for abstract painting and decided to veer off into figurative work again, for a change in focus. I felt excitement again, just at the thought of what might emerge. I was ready for a new visual adventure.

PCD: Were the paintings all completed during Covid?
ED: I began the first painting on Feb. 13, blacking out a previous abstract piece of mine. I know that because my phone tells me so. I started a photographic diary on my phone of the work as it progressed on that day. 

The first piece to “hatch,” as I like to say, was “Once in a Blue Moon.” The last piece was “Mystic Wolves” — which I finished on June 1. In between those two dates, spanning three and a half months, were 48 other canvases, a few of which were re-worked older pieces, but most were new images.

PCD: Did Covid or isolation inspire you any differently?
ED: Isolation was a big motivator. Not only was I physically isolated, I was sensory deprived in a way, meaning I was not allowing myself to be bombarded by the news and outside distractions, movies or socializing. I listened to piano music and African drumming and talked with Alexa. [Laughs] She was my go-to girl; I even commemorated her in a canvas called “Alexa Unplugged.” 

I guess this was my personal retreat, the idea being that the less input there was, the more I could access what was within.

“Nirvana” ($4,000) by Elizabeth Darrow is on display at Art in Bloom’s pop-up gallery at 820 Town Center Dr. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

PCD: Does one piece stand out particularly — whether it was more challenging or more gratifying to complete?
ED: I think I’d have to say “Nirvana” because it was such a surprise how it evolved, and the imagery that appeared was not something I would normally “think of” to do: the waves in the background, the fish swimming through the body, the shark and the nest and the halo. Each element came into focus as soon as I gave it my full attention. It seemed magical.

PCD: Can you take readers through your process?
ED: Like all the other canvases in this series, I began by blacking out a canvas — sometimes over old paintings, and when I ran out of old ones I didn’t mind destroying, I blacked out new canvases. 

In the case of “Nirvana,” I blacked out an old painting. I peered into the nuanced black and found where a face might be, and drew in two circles for the eyes. From there I formed a face, which lead to a body, a gesture. In this case, I realized this figure was sitting in meditation, and then it became about meditation itself, and the flow of life and death (in the fish and waves and seagull’s nest and shark below), the interconnectedness of everything. 

Then the figure morphed from mundane to holy, and it became the image of equanimity in the face of life and death. That’s the meaning I took from it, anyway. It was nothing I had in mind when I began. 

PCD: How do you choose what to discard if you paint over old pieces? Does that feel daunting?
ED: The thing about painting is that the process itself is what’s so enchanting and addictive. It’s the doing of it that’s magical and compelling and all-absorbing when you’re in full attention with it. Then there’s the byproduct of that process, the outcome, the item on display, the painting-on-canvas, which is a whole different thing. So I don’t mind painting over some older pieces that don’t really excite me anymore. I just say, thanks and goodbye, and here we go again. 

Plus, I have a digital image, so they aren’t gone completely.

PCD: You once described years ago that your characters in your figurative work are like little children. Do you come up with backstories for them as you’re painting them? Can you tell us a few in the current batch?
ED: What I meant is that the paintings are my offspring, they spring from me; I know them well. I gave them life,  so in that sense, they are my children (tongue-in-cheek).

I like my characters to evoke a response, or illicit some familiarity, strike a cord, make a connection, but in an ambiguous way. Mystery is a good thing. They’re a mystery to me, so I should think they would be for you, too, if you take the time to ponder them.


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