Phyllis Cree sits in a straight-backed chair before the fireplace mantel that displays her watercolors in her one-story brick home off Old 63. Her softly curled white hair contrasts with the vibrant hues of her paintings: the deep roses and purples that create a vase of tulips in one image, the vibrant greens that form trees in another.
She points to one of her favorite paintings, an oil of the Hinkson Creek Ford done in late summer. A dense forest of dark green swirls against the golden yellows of trees that reflect the coming autumn. In the foreground, the ford almost seems to shimmer with light. Cree explains why she was drawn to the spot:
“Contrast. The dark tress in the background, the sunlight in the trees in the middle range, and then the bridge with the reflection. And you can see the really dark value in the background and the light value in the concrete ford.”
Her explanation shows her experience. While others might have remarked they were drawn to a pretty scene, Cree was drawn to the colors, the lines and the relationship among the scenic elements.
The 72-year-old came upon this passion for art late in life. Before retiring from the Missouri Division of Employment Security in 1992, she never had time to pursue art. Then a few years later, she opened up to new possibilities and began taking drawing and oil painting classes at Columbia College and MU.
“I always wanted to be an artist, but this was the first time I could take college classes and advance my training,” she says.
And the solid approval of one of her instructors, Sid Larsen, was all the encouragement she needed.
“He said I knew where I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there, and he just didn’t want to get in my way,” she says.
Ten years later, Cree is a watercolorist and a member of Columbia Palette, a group of eight to 10 plein-air, or outdoor, artists who meet once a week at selected venues to paint.
“The group was already formed and I was invited to join it, and very pleased to do so,” Cree says.
Changes in membership over the past seven years have left only Cree and another artist as the senior members.
“They’re very nice people; we have a great time,” says Cree, a Columbia resident for 53 years.
Because of the nature of the group’s focus, Cree’s work is almost all reflections of the state of Missouri. Her paintings have included the courthouse fountain, the Missouri Theatre, indoor flea markets and often the natural places surrounding Columbia.
“There are a lot of great parks in this part of Missouri,” she says. “And it’s such a great outdoors place to paint.”
Cree admits she is drawn to the unusual. In Rocheport, she was charmed by a yellow house with pink flamingos she is in the process of painting. Here in Columbia, her eye and imagination were caught by downtown.
“There used to be this ratty little tattoo parlor right behind the Episcopal Church there on Ninth Street, and it always struck me as being medieval, the ratty little shop at the base of the cathedral,” she explains. “It was very intriguing.”
But the natural world often provides her inspiration, and she’s discovered a lot about Missouri through her art.
“There’s something to paint everywhere you go,” she says. “Missouri has such a variety of landscapes, a variety of trees, a variety of seasons, and a variety of skies.” She pauses and seems to recall a memory. “Sometimes at sunset, I’ll be driving along and see this gorgeous, gorgeous sky, and I’m sure this happens other places, too, but this is something I particularly notice about Missouri.”
Cree is a self-described amateur, yet she regularly shows her work. A member of the Community Arts League, she displays her paintings through the league’s Community Artist Exhibits, last quarter at Bluff’s Retirement Home and now at Barnes Insurance. She will also show, with her fellow plein-air painters, at the Rocheport Gallery from May 1 to June 6. The group is also planning an exhibit at the Missouri Theatre, where they spent time this winter sketching and painting indoors. Cree says she doesn’t sell enough to consider herself a professional, but she says occasionally her paintings grab people, and that’s when she is encouraged to do more.
Cree admits the world is a a difficult place for the full-time artist. In Columbia, she points out, art galleries tend to fade away. Paul Jackson’s gallery, Illumia, has closed and Legacy Art & Bookworks Inc. will soon join it. It’s disheartening for Cree, but she’s stoic about it. She says that although this town may not be able to support many professional artists, it has a lot of opportunities for amateurs and new artists, and the quality of artwork is something to appreciate.
“There are a lot of really good artists in Columbia, both amateur and professional,” she says. “It’s really interesting to see this variety of the levels of skill. The level of artistic talent in this town is pretty high.”
Drawn back to her paintings, she points out a small watercolor of a hat stand covered in ruby-colored women’s hats.
“That was made last Wednesday,” she says. “There’s a poet who wrote a poem about, I think it begins, ‘When I am old I will wear a purple dress and a red hat.’ I wanted to do something relating to that but I just didn’t get it formulated in my mind until I was at this marketplace and they have the Red Hat Boutique there.”
And as Cree’s story continues about a local flea market, a small boutique and a moving poem, it’s obvious that even in the most minute details, Columbia can spark her creativity.
For information on Columbia Palette, contact Phyllis Cree at 442-5031.