When you first walk into Virginia McLaughlin’s home you can’t help but feel that you have stepped into the walls of a fine art museum. Intricately designed furniture, stenciled ceilings, and elegant murals fill the rooms. The overall artistic splendor in astounding and yet the artwork is just a fraction of what Mrs. McLaughlin has accomplished over her lifetime.
Virginia is the subject of Jeanne Blackburn’s book; Itinerant Painter.
Virginia began her art education at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and after two years, Virginia transferred to the University of Missouri where she achieved her undergraduate degree in art.
Following World War II, Virginia moved to Washington, D.C. and continued her art education at the Abbott Art School and taught painting at the Chevy Chase Women’s club. She also began to pioneer her way into the commercial art industry, which was not commonplace for women during this time. Women were just beginning to have more opportunities open up in traditional male occupations. For example, most women with an art degree went into teaching, whereas men went on to work for newspapers, magazines or advertising for department stores.
So when Virginia obtained a job at Jelleff’s, a large department store in DC, it was a pretty big deal. That didn’t mean she didn’t have to put in her time. She was required to prove herself by first working in the sign department, printing letters for six months. But after those six months, Virginia was promoted to the display department which was in charge of creating the large backdrops that went in the display cases in the store, allowing her to demonstrate her artistic talent.
From there, it was a natural transition to murals, and the large canvases became her primary medium. She was inspired by muralist Rufus Porter initially for his self-taught, simplistic style and use of color. Rufus Porter was a post-Revolutionary War painter that truly embodied the idea of an itinerant painter. He traveled to Hawaii in the early 1810’s but did most of his work in New England and down south as far as Virginia. Porter used darker colors in the foreground and lighter colors in the background. Virginia took his style and made it more sophisticated; including more details in her pieces and maintained his use of shadows and light that initially inspired her. She also used the historic vibe of Porter’s style doing large amounts of research in the Maryland Room at the C. Burr Arts Library and taking her own photographs for reference. For one of her murals that was commissioned by a veterinarian, Virginia went to the farms of all the animals he treated and took photographs in order to maintain the accuracy of the painting. In order to stick with the historic theme of her work, she even dug deep to find out what a traveling veterinary carriage would have looked like in the late 1700’s for the mural!
Virginia has painted over 110 murals all over Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina; she is not afraid to travel for her work. She traveled to Germany and Japan for her husband’s career. While she was oversees, Virginia not only taught painting and drawing at the Frankfurt International school to the enlisted and their families but also was a student herself. She picked up the craft of furniture painting that had German and Swedish influence. Some of Virginia’s furniture pieces are displayed in her home and are truly remarkable. In keeping with European fashion, the insides and outsides are painted with intricate flowers and details.
In Japan, Virginia learned the artistic technique of Sumi-e brush stroke painting and Chinoiserie which is the Chinese influence of decorating and motifs that was used in European furniture decorating. Enamored by the detailed water colored paintings, she wished to apply the same delicate style of Sumi-e painting into an acrylic mural on a wall. She accomplished this feat in several projects including the Martin House in West Virginia and the Futcher House in Frederick.
Once back in the United States, Virginia started her itinerant painter career while also raising her sons, both of whom were born oversees. Being a mom and a professional artist was a challenge, she said, but it was never an issue for her. Her husband and sons were always incredibly supportive of her art work. She taught her boys how to paint when they were young and even teaches her grandchildren now in the basement of her house, which now serves as her studio. In terms of advice for women who are currently trying to balance a career and family life, Virginia recommends “letting one energize the other. Having something you are passionate about, that is your own, makes you a better mom and wife.” Her sons Salyer and Bruce are still supporting her today; Salyer is a faux painter and helps her with her murals, particularly in the skies of her work, as that takes a lot of physical work. Both sons encouraged the production of Jeanne Blackburn’s book about Virginia’s life, the “Itinerant Painter,” as they felt that her work ought to be brought together and recognized in a centralized and formal setting.
After living in Chevy Chase, Maryland for 16 years, Virginia and her husband Don retired to Emmitsburg, Maryland where they bought and remodeled and old farm house. It was here, while restoring their home to its historic glory, that Virginia’s interest in early American history was sparked. She practiced the art of woodgrain on all the door and fireplaces in the home and stenciled ceilings. Doing her extensive research on the historic stenciling techniques led Virginia to find more painting styles for small boxes, chests and cupboards which she then sold in her antique store she opened in Emmitsburg. It was also around this time that Virginia began to paint murals in the style of early American itinerant painters.
When Virginia first started painting, she started with oil paints and then moved to acrylics. But for the past several decades, Virginia has been using Benjamin Moore wall paints for her murals. She prefers Moore’s eggshell paint as her base because it dries quickly, its bright colors and because it mixes easily. Virginia mixes her paints herself and then stores them in various salsa jars in her basement. In 2012, she was honored with the Hue Award which is presented annually by the Benjamin Moore company to individuals for special achievement and innovative use of Benjamin Moore paints. Virginia views this as one of her proudest accomplishments as she and her family and Ms. Blackburn traveled up to New York City for the award ceremony to receive her trophy, which now sits on her dining room table.
Virginia retired professionally a few years ago at the age of 92 and was still climbing ladders until that time! Even though she has not commissioned work, Virginia is still making her impact on the Frederick Community and the art world. She moved to Frederick from Emmitsburg not only because her son lived here but also for its thriving art community. Virginia says that Frederick is filled with “highly educated, entertaining and artistic people” and loves how supportive Frederick is of the arts with its public works of art and places like the Delaplaine Center and the Weinberg Center for the Arts. Her work is scattered through downtown in private homes and businesses. Her favorite mural that she did in Frederick is the painting in the dining room of the Ross House on Court House Square in which she depicted the historic scene of Marquis Lafayette visiting Frederick on his way to address the United States congress. The painting includes Lafayette riding in a barouche carriage specifically, over the Jug Bridge, which spans the Monocacy River and an all-encompassing view of the city of Frederick.
Virginia also encourages young artists. Virginia’s words of encouragement to young female artists is to: “get as much exposure to as many different people and environments as possible. Paint as much as you can from good sources. Be curious with an open mind and a strong work ethic.” Additionally, all the proceeds from the book about Virginia’s life are going towards scholarships for struggling female art students at Stephens College, University of Missouri and Frederick Community College, as Virginia is extraordinarily passionate about giving back to the art community.
Being given the opportunity to talk to Virginia and hear about her life story was inspiring. As someone who is just beginning a career in a creative field, I was motivated to strive even harder to achieve my goals. Virginia is a women who never let what was expected of her deter her from what she wanted to do. From starting out her career in the sign department of a department store to climbing ladders in her nineties, she has always pushed through. “I have been blessed to be enthusiastic about art my entire life,” Virginia told me.
I hope I can be half as enthusiastic about my craft as she has been.
Virginia will be signing copies of “Itinerant Painter” at The Delaplaine (40 S Carroll Street in Frederick) on September 29 from 6-9 p.m.