For Barbara Godwin, it's the Mickey Mouse theory of painting: someone gazes upon an abstract canvas and, no matter what originally inspired the work, claims to see "the Mickey Mouse."
Earlier in Godwin's career, there was only one solution. "You have to kill the Mickey Mouse, because suddenly the whole painting is about that," she said.
Like any artist, Godwin has gone through her share of metamorphoses — her abstract years, her fountain sculptures, her seemingly Asian-style paintings — and eventually decided one day to begin giving the Mickey Mouse a stay of execution. "Let him live, let it happen. That’s how I end up with these creatures."
They are faces hiding in a cacophony of color, characters lurking under layers of abstract beauty. Sometimes they're obvious, like the dancing couple in the middle of the frame in a gorgeous Japanese-influenced work that looks like lace meets West. Sometimes it takes a little more to see them peeking through the paint, like in Godwin's take on "Alice in Wonderland." Then she points to the rabbit and the Cheshiere Cat, and suddenly the rest of the story is in front of your eyes.
Her "Alice" is currently hanging in the home of Rob and Kathy Smith, one of three houses on Elba Court in Hollin Hills that will be participating in a weekend art exhibition showcasing Godwin's work.
"We always drove by and saw all the paintings and we liked what we saw," said Rob Smith.
After a neighborhood meeting at her house, Godwin decided to approach the "Court of Elba" to gauge interest in hosting the off-beat exhibition. "I had been looking for a gallery, and you get rejections. It just occurred to me that I would ask them. The thing that was startling for me was that they were enthusiastic immediately," she said. "I was wondering which paintings would go into which houses, but the paintings decided that for us."
BORN IN 1936, Godwin got into art in her early teens after relocating from a farm in Kansas to New York City. "A 12-year-old kid is like a sponge. To go from farm country to New York City…wow, what an impact. For one thing, it had enough people — before that, my friends would have been mostly animals," she said.
For 5 cents, she could ride a double-decker bus to the Museum of Modern Art, where she spent days analyzing and finding inspiration from some of the era's most revolutionary artist talents.
"I thought, of course, that the paintings were made by gods, not people. Then I discovered they were made by men … so I never thought I had any chance of becoming a painter," she said.
Godwin went to nursing school, and pursued that career while painting on the side. Eventually, she was able to commit herself full-time to art. "I paint a lot, but the paintings that I make I paint over and over," she said, adding that she'll put works away and revisit them. "I take it as far as I can and then I get stuck."
Such was the case on a beautiful collection of paintings on her living room wall: rows and rows of small framed splashes that resemble a large color wheel. "The problem was to make each painting its own painting, but all of them would go together. They were all OK independently, but they didn’t have much relationship to each other," she said.
Godwin called her daughter. "I’m just so frustrated with it, I feel like walking on it," she recalled saying.
There was silence on the other end of the phone. "Well why don’t you?" her daughter replied.
Godwin put them all as close together on the floor of her home studio as she could, poured a glass of wine, took off her shoes and started dancing.
"These smears up here are toe prints," she said, pointing to color splashes near the top right corner of the wall-sized work. "That all happened with dancing. I was being too tight with it."
THE ELBA COURT art exhibition will be held on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 6-8 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 22 from 1-4 p.m. The free show will span over three houses in the Hollin Hills neighborhood: 2400, 2401 and 2402 Elba Court.
Godwin expects her paintings and other works will range from $150 to $5,000; a large fountain that hangs in her house could fetch $6,000.
When her work was spotlighted in places like Gallery K in D.C., Godwin enjoyed seeing the public reaction to her pieces. It's something she's looking forward to seeing again this weekend.
"I’ve never been an actor or a musician, but when you go to your own art show, you can be a voyeur. You don’t have to perform — the paintings are already there. You can enjoy it."