Tracing the Lineage: A mother & daughter’s painting journey

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace

The first similarity I noticed between Dot Courson and Susan Patton was their eyes: big, bright and mostly blue with tinges of green, depending on the lighting (though I would soon realize I knew nothing about color). I told Courson about my observation, and she smiled really big and quickly pointed out a 20×16-inch portrait of her hanging on the wall. She said Patton painted the piece and titled it “My Mother’s Eyes.” That was the next similarity I would notice about this mother-daughter pair: They both spoke of each other with what can only be described as proud admiration.

The three of us chatted in the seating area of Courson’s studio – which she calls her art studio, art gallery and art school. Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see Courson chewing on a piece of gum, a gesture which made me feel like I didn’t have to hide mine under my tongue like I typically do when I’m covering a story. There, divvied up between two armchairs and a sofa, they told me their stories.

Dot Courson

Courson, 67, was basically an artist from the start, but not without its challenges. She remembers her father teaching her how to draw on a brown paper bag. She found herself growing up in foster homes, and left school at the age of 16 with an 8th-grade education. She landed a job working at a hospital as a nurse’s aid. This job was far from glamorous, but as she looked back on that part of her life, she smiled and remembered how happy she was for the opportunity.

“I can’t believe how grateful I was for that job to be a nurse’s aide,” she said. “I cared about people, and I love people.”

In no time at all, the hospital recognized her hard work. Her superiors told her the hospital would pay her way through school to become a registered nurse. They were shocked when she confessed she had never finished high school, but encouraged her that with a GED and hard work, she could still succeed.

“They said, ‘You can work hard and you can stand on your head, and you’re smart,’” she said. “I didn’t mind standing on my head — I’d do anything.”

She started classes when she was 18, with about 120 classmates. By the end, 33 students graduated with her, and she was one of roughly 20 who passed the certification boards; she was 20 years old.

“You were head nurse at what age?” Patton nudged.

“About that (same) age,” Courson said.

By the end of it, she had a double Masters in Nursing Administration with a certificate in healthcare administration and alternative delivery systems.

“Because of my background, I didn’t have a safety net. When you don’t have a safety net, you stay on the wire,” she said. “After a while, that’s just who you are, it’s what you do—you work hard.”

Through her nursing career, she could afford to pursue her passion for art. She said she never dreamt of being able to afford art supplies, let alone dream of what her career would become.

“It’s a blessing. It’s like, how could this happen in my wildest dream?” Courson said. “I trust that things are going to turn out because God’s always taken care of me. So when I just trusted things are going to turn out OK, it’s the truth. And so it’s kind of like, when you go swimming, you don’t worry about where the bottom is. You just swim.”

Eventually, Courson and her family moved to Starkville, where her husband took a job with Mississippi State University Extension Services. At that time, she was able to focus on her art full time. That was about the same time her daughter got married.

Susan Patton

Patton, 44, never thought of herself as an artist. In fact, though she has been attending and teaching workshops for more than a decade, she just started calling herself an artist three years ago. Until that time, her career was physical therapy. Even still, she likes to tell people that she felt “led to leave physical therapy for a season.” How long that season is, she says isn’t up to her.

For her, painting all started with her church. When her church hosted an auction, she decided to offer a painting.

“I’ll just get some Walmart stuff and see what I can do,” she remembered saying to herself.

Aside from an art contest she won in the 8th grade, she really had never considered herself artistically inclined. When she finished her painting, she sent a photo of it to her mother to see if she thought it would sell. When Courson opened the image, she thought it was a photo that Patton wanted to paint—the inspiration, not a completed piece.

“‘Well, I don’t know, but send it back when you get it done and let me look at it,’” Courson responded. “It looked like a photo. She just started out that good.”

After her painting sold at the auction, Patton was commissioned for a portrait through someone at her church. From there, it all snowballed. Over the next several years, she would take various workshops throughout the year. These would usually be intensive deep dives, lasting about a week. She’s studied under artists like Roger Dale Brown, who she considers her first instructor, “besides mom, of course.”

Artists Together

Neither of them went to art school, but they both trained through atelier learning. As Patton explains it, atelier is French for “workshop,” and is a style of learning that is often preferred in the world of art over tradition-style classroom instruction. Through attending workshops with well respected artists –– those who have won art shows, produce beautiful work and are willing to share what they’ve learned –– in various art mediums, students gain key learning from their instructors’ years of experience. It’s a highly respected program that pays particular attention to the lineage of each artist’s training — Courson and Patton both trace back to John Singer Sargent through master artists they have studied under. There is no official certification with the artists, as it is based off works being esteemed in the art community – letting the work speak for itself.

While they share similarities, they also have their differences. Courson prefers marketing herself through her social media platforms, whereas Patton sticks to word of mouth for now. Courson’s niche is landscapes; Patton’s is portraits and still-life paintings. Courson said she rarely starts a piece before going out and studying nature as her first step in the process. Next, she needs complete silence when she starts a piece, quietly navigating the layout, thinking ahead to where shadows will eventually fall. Later on when she’s filling it in and fleshing out the details, she’ll turn on some upbeat music or maybe a podcast because she said she likes to continually learn.

Patton said her mother’s paintings are usually from the viewpoint of a child, which is particularly noticeable when her pieces include cotton in the foreground.

“That cotton looks like it’s already starting pretty high, like you’re on the ground,” Patton said to her mother. “You’ve been observing very strictly since you were little, and that land meant a lot to you and people know (that and) see your stories in your art.”

Patton, whose oldest child is now in college and the youngest in high school, had to learn to paint under any setting. She’s currently in the process of building her own studio — much like her mother’s, but slightly smaller — but has been painting en plein air (outside) or in her dining room for the entirety of her career as an artist. She does, however, always wear a ball cap when painting. Aside from helping her focus, it blocks out excessive light and shows truer colors.

“She can see color better than I can,” her mother said.

That was another difference between the two: colors. Courson affirmed that her daughter sees colors far better than she can, pointing out the greens Patton added into “My Mother’s Eyes.” She said even something like mixing their paints on their pallets is different; Patton keeps her transparent and opaque paints separate, whereas Courson joked she can’t keep up with the differences once it’s on a pallet.

I’ve heard of some people dreaming in foreign languages after living in a different country for a while, I’ve even heard of some people dreaming in cartoons; so I was curious if either of them dream in paintings. Courson said she wishes she could, but she never has; sometimes she’ll get a tiny image of a painting she might be working on, but it’s never fully clear to her. Patton said she dreams of colors. I started to wonder just how many more colors she sees than what I can.

They seemed to know a lot about the other’s artistic process, so I asked if they ever paint together. They both said rarely. Patton said they don’t do it nearly enough, and she could probably count how many times they had painted together on one hand. Courson joked that she learned as a mother it’s best not to tell her daughter what she should do next when painting.

“You don’t try to tell her how to paint because she knows what she’s doing; what she does is totally different (than me), and now it would be a joke anyway,” Courson said. “Because I don’t have a clue what she does, she even mixes her paint differently from what I do.”

Courson was sure to talk about her daughter’s strengths, arguably the greatest is her ability to teach. From colors to the physicality of the subjects, Patton said she prepares for months before teaching a workshop. She told me how the placement of the ears on a subject’s head serves as the “axis,” dictating where the head is positioned. Instead of the eyes, she said the ears are the strongest indicator for where the subject is facing.

While Patton will travel around the region to teach workshops, she will also teach out of her mother’s studio, as hers is still being built. Courson said she likes to sneak in and watch, even though she is not taking part in the class.

“Susan is as motivating to me as I am to her because you see the talent,” Courson said. “She puts a lot into preparing for her classes and things, and when she’s teaching out here (in the studio), although I’m not taking her class, I would just sneak in just to listen to her lecture because it’s inspiring to me. It makes me work harder.”

“We’re both champions for each other,” Patton said.

Patton added that the most rewarding part of instructing is when a student can beat her own art in a competition.

“If we’re going to be in a competition together, if they beat me, that’s a compliment,” Patton said. “Because, you know, if you’re their teacher and they beat you, good!”

“Yeah and you beat me,” Courson added with a giggle.

In their first competition together, Patton beat her mother. Shortly after, they both received the honor of being showcased through the eastern exhibit for the Oil Painters of America, OPA. Only two artists are chosen for each region, though thousands of artists apply. They both marveled at how special it was that the two artists chosen were from a single state, let alone a mother-daughter pair. They said OPA had no idea they were related until after the selection had been made.

Courson has been a full-time artist for the past 18 years, and is now self-representing out of her own gallery. She is the only living female artist featured in the “Legends of the Visual Arts” exhibit in the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian. She and Patton both have back-to-back three-month gallery showings this year in Taylor, Mississippi’s, GRIT.

Because Courson has been an established artist longer than Patton, I asked if it was ever intimidating to enter the world of art due to her mother’s success.

“I’ve always felt very proud,” she said. “Thankful is the word, because it’s kind of like you not only get to paint, but your mother also has the same passion and love for it. So you get to look, you get to learn together; you get to learn under her, with her, you get to travel with her, (do) competitions with her.”

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