Tar Heel of the Week

NC artist McDonald Bane: 65 years of painting, and still going strong

CorrespondentFebruary 23, 2013 

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A retrospective of work spanning 65-years by North Carolina artist McDonald Bane is currently on display at Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Lucy McDonald “Mackey” Bane

    Born: March 1, 1928, in Virginia

    Residence: New Hill

    Career: Artist; formerly professor of art at Meredith College, the N.C. Governor’s School, N.C. School of the Arts and several universities out of state; former curator, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and exhibition coordinator, The Arts Council, both in Winston-Salem

    Education: B.S. in general science, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; M.F.A in painting, minor in art history, UNC-Greensboro; graduate coursework in art history, UNC-Chapel Hill

    Fun fact: Mackey’s vehicle of choice is a pickup truck, specifically the Ford F-100. She’s driven three of them over the years: a blue one, a yellow one and the red 1978 truck she currently drives.

— On paper, McDonald “Mackey” Bane seems a bit of a rebel.

Raised on a farm in the Virginia mountains during the Depression, she pursued an unlikely career as an artist, divorced in the late 1950s, and followed various whims to move across the country or quit her job to paint, toting her large canvases around rural North Carolina in a pickup truck.

But the 84-year-old artist says that if she ever ruffled feathers, it was not her intent.

“The most rebellious thing I think I ever did was wear overalls into the bank in Walnut Cove,” she says, recalling a time in the 1960s when she shared an old plantation house north of Winston-Salem with another artist. “I never really rebelled against anything. I just went ahead and did things my own way.”

In doing so, Bane steadily established herself as a respected North Carolina artist – one of the few whose work hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art – as well as a teacher and curator. Her 65 years of work are the subject of a retrospective now on exhibit at the Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh through March 16th.

She has taught at Meredith College, the N.C. Governor’s School, and as far afield as California State University at Fullerton. She was curator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, where she was also a founding board member. Her work hangs at Duke University, the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte and more than 100 private and public collections.

The current exhibition is the first to encompass her entire career, a feat made difficult by a fire that destroyed much of her early work. It commemorates the Glenwood Avenue gallery’s 20th anniversary; a solo exhibition of Bane’s work was featured when the gallery opened.

“Not many artists can show work from 1948 to 2013,” says Hansley, a close friend of Bane’s. “But she has the same energy that she had when I met her 30 years ago.”

The bulk of the exhibition is a modernist exploration of color and shape. But even to Bane, the variety among pieces is startling.

“When I first saw it, I thought it looks like the work of about six different artists,” she says. “But this covers 65 years. I did not want to do the same thing year after year after year.”

Sketches on a wall

Growing up in a small town, Bane’s primary exposure to art came from charcoal sketches on the walls of her home drawn by her grandmother, who had taken some art classes.

To have original art on the walls was a novelty for that place and time, and it made an impression on Bane, though she had few outlets for her interest.

Her high school had no art classes, she says. But one day, a home economics teacher brought in an easel and paint and sat Bane in front of it.

“She told me to paint instead of cooking,” Bane says. “I still don’t know what she saw or what prompted that.”

Bane decided to study art at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. But she struggled with her inexperience – both with art and the more cosmopolitan lifestyle.

“I was so ill prepared and at a loss,” she says. “I had hardly ever left my home county.”

She transferred to Virginia Tech and majored in science. She married toward the end of her studies and moved to Charlotte, where she worked in the research division of a cotton company.

When she moved to Greensboro for her husband’s job, she decided to go back to school for art, mainly out of sheer boredom, and earned her master’s degree from UNC-Greensboro.

Older and more confident, she eagerly learned about wood cutting, sculpture, painting and art history with well-known modernist Gregory Dowler Ivy as her mentor.

She and her husband divorced toward the end of her studies, and Bane set forth on a series of adventures. She taught art at a camp in Massachusetts and to mentally ill patients in Seattle. She landed at Meredith College, where she chaired the art department for a time.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, she and a friend, ruminating on life’s brevity, decided to spend more time painting. So Bane quit her job and moved to Walnut Cove.

From there, she took a series of jobs teaching art across the country and traveled widely abroad, particularly in Europe, where she took pictures of great works of art and architecture for slides she used in her classes.

She was renting a farmhouse near High Point in 1973 when teenage arsonists set fire to the barn she used as a studio, destroying all of her work except for a few paintings that had sold or were in a gallery.

Bane’s next move was to Winston-Salem, where she was heavily involved with the area’s arts community as a curator and artist. She moved to Wake County in 1991, into a historic home near Holly Springs where she still lives.

‘A wonderful adventure’

Hansley says he has tried for years to pull together a retrospective of Bane’s work, but the missing pieces from the fire made it difficult. Recently, he was able to reclaim some early works from private owners. One piece, salvaged from the fire, is singed on one side.

The exhibition goes from an early still life, to a brief flirtation with the bold colors and textures of abstract modernism, to Bane’s signature style of smooth shapes and subtle color gradations.

Bane says her style stems from the kind of drawing she did while studying science: graphs, charts, geometric figures.

“There’s a precision in that kind of art that I enjoy,” she says. “I got interested in painting the elements of art boiled down – color, line, shape. There’s a world of manipulation you get from there.”

Some of her works have used drafting instruments, and she regularly scales them up from sketches drawn on graph paper. Her chemistry background led her to experiment with mixing colors and materials.

In one striking piece, two 6-foot high columns morph seamlessly from orange to yellow against a gray background.

“Her works seem simple, but they are very complex,” Hansley says. “Every stroke is a different color blend, so that the color appears to move. It’s very meticulous.”

She draws inspiration from natural forms and architecture – soft curves that mimic the hilly landscape of her youth or the more pointed line of a porch railing.

And Bane says she’s still constantly inspired.

“It’s been a wonderful adventure,” she says. “I hardly think it’s time to stop now.”

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