By Heather Killen
In 1962, Donna Underwood sold her first drawing for a dime.
In her mind’s eye she saw a church on Tancook Island, a place she had never visited, and then she rendered the scene with magic markers. “It was purchased by one of my co-workers, he told me that I’d be famous one day,” she said. “But he didn’t say for what.”
Underwood’s bold and whimsical style has attracted the attention of collectors from all over the world. And her pieces are always unmistakable on the walls of local venues such as the Art Shack in Margaretsville.
A multi-media artist since childhood, Underwood describes her work as her ‘life in pictures.’ She renders images spontaneously, following an intuitive expression of mood, memory, and imagination. “Sometimes I’ll draw a headache,” she said. “The abstracts can be mysterious, erotic, or frightening. Sometimes they are just a riot of colour and marks.”
These days the magic of marking inspires Underwood to constantly create new images, each work feeding off the last. Although she has studio space at her Middleton area home, she said she prefers to work in the kitchen while she waits for the kettle to boil.
She added that she may begin a blank canvas with a bad mood and a headache, but finds joy in the colours of expression. She credits her Muse with most of the work she has produced. “The images just flow; the good, the bad, the ugly,” she said. “I just grab a colour and let go, whatever happens it’s all right.”
In the worst scenario, Underwood said that she ends up with paintings that resemble “pretty smoke.” Whatever direction the paintings take, she accepts them as a unique record of her life.
And other people seem to like what they see, as her long list of awards show. This is quite a validation for someone who once believed that she couldn’t draw and almost packed it in. “I drew my first nude at the age of nine and got a strapping for doing such a bad picture,” she said. “My teacher meant it was immoral, but I thought she meant that I couldn’t draw.”
Despite earning a scholarship at the Junior School for the Arts in 1959, her first career was restricted to the red and black colours of accounting and cost analysis.
While she followed the career in finance until she retired, Underwood never let go of the first dime she collected for a holy place she only imagined. “Painting sets me free,” she said. “It’s my journey, my healing force, my passion and my bliss.”
But the journey wasn’t always liberating. Underwood admits that about 10 years ago, she almost lost her creative spirit.
She had been working mostly in oils, doing realistic pieces that were selling well, but leaving her feeling empty. “It was just a process, I didn’t enjoy it,” she said. “I was just doing it and selling it.”
One day when was rearranging her studio and thinking about doing something else, she spied a box of oil pastels. “I love colour,” she said. “So I ripped off the labels and discovered a brand new world of creating for the real me.”
The vibrant spectrum of oil pastels enabled her to develop a dynamic style that is full of energy and movement, rather than a static representation of time and space.
Now her painting is mostly done in acrylics from memory. She added that for her, the creative process requires that some things need to die in order for new beginnings to take place.
In the end, Underwood said her Muse’s message is one of simple joy and self-acceptance. “There are no mistakes, just something to build on,” she said. “There’s a lot to be learned from a failure.”
To see more of her work, visit www.donnaunderwood.com.
Faith in her Muse
Donna Underwood paints mood, memory, imagination
By Heather Killen
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