Eliza DuBose ’20 Arts Editor
During the months of January and early February, upon entering the Burgin Center of the Arts and looking to the left one finds the Coffrin Gallery walls lined with beautiful oil and watercolor landscapes and still lifes. The first two of the paintings are full of crisp details and stark lines, illustrating picturesque pastoral scenes. The others follow the same themes but are bursting with a vibrating colors, lines indistinct and blurred, in the impressionist style. These first five paintings illustrate the journey of their creator, Virginia Hair.
Virginia Hair, 91, is soft-spoken with a cloud of white hair that she inclines towards her companions as she listens to them chatter around her. Her hands are steady as she pulls out the newspaper articles written about her accomplishments and her perseverance. As an artist facing the slow degeneration of her sight due to macular degeneration, Hair had every right to give up but she has simply adapted and continued to commit herself to the practice of her artistry.
Creating art was always a part of Hair’s life, though it was never really part of her career plan. Growing up on a farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Hair was always more inclined to sketch her families’ animals rather than bring them back to the barn at her father’s request. After her marriage, Hair began working as the assistant alumni secretary for then-Mercersburg Academy Headmaster Charles Tippetts. In between her campus duties, however, Hair kept up her painting until finally, she decided to become a full-time artist.
“[Painting] started out as a hobby then it turned into a business,” Hair said. “I just loved art. I loved the feeling of working outside in the fields with the grass and the trees.”
Hair left Mercersburg Academy after seven years of dedicated work to begin taking art courses at Ridgewood Art Institute in New Jersey. At that time in 1973, Hair was 50 years old.
It was there that Hair met Betty Kaytes, a teacher whom Hair credits with being an instrumental source of encouragement over the years. It was Kaytes who led the program which took Hair overseas to Dedham Vale, England, where students had the opportunity to stay at a bed and breakfast and study with various teachers. Hair comes alive at the mention of her ‘second home,’ straightening up with pride as she announces “I’ve been [to Dedham Vale] 27 times. I’ve gone every year for 27 years.”
Inspired both by her travels overseas and at the Ridgewood Art Institute, Hair invited her professors to nearby Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, to teach the residents to paint. They were the first workshops of their kind and continue to run once a year to this day.
What truly makes Hair inspirational, however, is her stubborn ability to overcome even a disease that targets her sight. Only a short decade after beginning her career as an artist Hair learned that she had age-related macular degeneration, a disease that causes loss of central vision and is the most common cause of vision loss in people over 60.
“I’m legally blind truthfully,” Hair admits. And yet, Hair refused to give up the art that had become her life’s passion and has simply adapted to the situation life has thrown at her.
“Now I’m an impressionist rather than a realist.” This change, happily is one Hair loves and given the chance to choose between the two styles, she’d still paint in the latter. “I like that I’ve become an impressionist and my teacher likes my peonies better.”
She is no longer allowed to drive but Hair, with the aid of extremely powerful magnifying glasses which she holds close to her canvas, only just gave up painting commissioned works last year.
Hair has become an inspiration to her fellows and has had shows at John Hopkins University, where she received her diagnosis, to show people that a diagnosis, no matter how seemingly damning, never has to spell the end of your dreams.
Hari smiles, “I’ll still keep painting as long as I can.”