By Gina Malone
If there’s one lesson to be learned from artist Clare Sahling’s life, it’s this: It’s never too late to begin the next thing.
A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either in navigating life and putting things in perspective. Sahling graduated with a degree in Soviet history with a few academic minors. “And that qualified me to be a secretary,” she says. She worked in New York and in Dallas, before moving to Atlanta. She was in her late 20s when she enrolled in art school and graduated with a degree in interior design. Eventually, she would freelance her skills, designing interior spaces for lawyers’ offices, hotels, restaurants, and retail and service businesses.
At age 50, she lost everything and realized that she needed to work to secure her future. “After that, I did not look up for about 20 years,” she says. “Not working was not an option.” When the economy took its downturn in 2009, she finally retired at 70 years old. “I went into a frenzy of cleaning up for about six months and then signed up for a class at Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) here in Hendersonville,” she says.
At the time, she thought a watercolor class was what she wanted, but only oil painting was offered. “So I started out in oil at the very beginning with ‘This is a brush,’” she says. “I cried for about three years before I began to do anything.”
That introductory class, taught by Laura Miller, sparked her competitive streak. “I was never aiming for a hobby,” Sahling says. “I knew that if I tackled it, I wanted to become good at it.” She used the internet to further her learning. She doesn’t do it for fun, she adds. Her approach to art as hard work has not lessened through the years.
“Despite the disparity in disciplines, it is all visual and an ordering of the spatial in two or three dimensions,” she says, in comparing her early career in design and her present career as an artist. Often, in design, she was working with construction documents. “It seems very far away from fine art and, in truth, it is,” she says. “But I was very good at solving visual problems, and I found pleasure in that. I liked that my drawings were beautiful and I was proud of them. That background gave me a holy respect for the pure adventure and beauty of a line.”
She began selling her paintings at open studio tours and, eventually, attracted the interest of Suzanne Camarata, owner of The Gallery at Flat Rock. “This was such a big deal for me,” Sahling says. “I can’t tell you how proud I am to be represented there. I had started so late and my insecurities raged—and still do. So, being a part of such a beautiful gallery was—and is—wonderful for me.”
Camarata says she was drawn to Sahling’s work for its painterly style and realism. “There is something very nostalgic about her work,” Camarata says, “a feeling I also experience when looking at Andrew Wyeth’s work. I long to walk within her landscapes, to listen for the stories of the past.”
Although Sahling was never aiming for a career as a painter early on, she has been encouraged along the way. “My major professor in design, in my second round of college, willed me, at his death, all of his painting supplies—oils, canvas, everything,” she says. “I had no idea why at the time.” Today, she recognizes that that validation was important as she moved toward her destiny with a paintbrush. Her classmates at BRCC were also there for her in the early days. “There was a little coterie of budding artists in that group and they became friends that have stayed friends to this day,” she says. “No one has been more supportive of me in my efforts. And they lived through the years of temper tantrums and tears. I proved my true drama-queen self in that class—and they forgave me. How lovely is that?”
Eleven years after that initial painting class, Sahling doesn’t allow herself to think that she has arrived. “Truly, I’m still just starting,” she says, “and so I am testing everything. Someone said consistency was a virtue in a body of work, but I’ve not managed that. My time on this planet is finite, so I don’t really want to settle into a formula that works. The uncertainty is scary, but somehow rewarding.”