I have a line in the play I’m currently in that says, “Bob and I like to think we know people when we meet them”. The moment I met Catherine Walden of The Secret Garden Gallery, I had that same sensation. I knew she was a kind and gentle soul. An observer, detail-oriented, and sensitive to the stimulus life offers on the daily. Lucky for us, she’s worked her entire life to hone the skills that bring those visions to life through her art.
Her landscape paintings captivate what nature makes you feel, not just what you see. The way the light hit the trees that morning you walked the trail, or the funny and almost human-like expression on a bird’s face as it sat on a tree branch singing its morning song. Calligraphy, pressed flowers, prints, oils, watercolors, custom framing. She keeps her eyes open and her hands busy.
She found her home in this little southern town, finding common ground in the admiration of nature and how that connects every one of us. After all, isn’t that the point of art? Enjoy the interview below and a small glimpse into her collection of pieces, then go visit her at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 8-1pm at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market Pavilion off of Main Street or at her shop at 416 W. Main Street in Abingdon! You can also visit her online Etsy shops for artwork and prints & calligraphy.
Sarah: First off, how did you get started?
Catherine: Well, I went to art school when I was in college. I got a degree in Fine Arts.
S: Where did you go?
C: University of Arizona. Then I left Arizona and I became a studio potter and I had my own little pottery studio and I sold pottery and I did art shows. I never really stopped drawing or painting but I’ve had periods where I’ve done other jobs, focused on other things because, you know, it can be challenging to make a living as an artist.
C: Any kind of art, right?
S: Yeah, yeah.
C: But when I moved here…I moved here from…well I’d been living in Staunton (Virginia) for a long time and I had a shop there very similar to this and I was doing more of the art that’s like pressed flower art, I was doing that mostly. And then when I moved here I started painting again, I started painting because I got kind of bored with what I was doing and I wanted to start doing fine art again. So, I’ve really been focusing on that and really enjoying that. I moved here because I used to do art shows all over the state when I lived in Staunton and we used to come here for the Highlands Festival, used to come here with my kids. The whole family came and we’d do art shows and we’d travel.
S: That’s so much fun!
C: That’s what we did. My kids have really good memories of growing up and always being at a festival on the weekends. The playing…
S: Meeting so many people, too.
C: Yeah, yeah. It becomes kind of like a tribe of people that you keep meeting everywhere you go. But then I kind of got to a place where it was hard to do it alone with my kids, so I decided to settle into a shop. My kids are grown now. But I really didn’t want to have that lifestyle forever. A gypsy lifestyle…even though it’s fun. Shows got to be less profitable, so many of them. And I don’t know what it was, the economy…
S: I’m sure traveling to them, too.
C: …Is very expensive, and the fees are really high and they’d just keep going up every year. So, I find that I do just as well or better at the farmer’s market because I don’t have travel expenses or any of that, hotels, and food. But it’s very up and down. I could go there and sell ten dollars or I could sell seven hundred, you know? I never know.
S: I was wondering about that, what the market was like here?
C: Well, it’s better in the summer. Really, my business picks up in May. I’ve got about four months where it’s almost completely dead. That’s the time where I do the paintings. I have some business in the shop, but not a lot. So, from May until December, that’s pretty much my business. So, it is kind of seasonal. This time right now is really pretty busy, and it’s really good at the market usually. I always like to say that it’s kind of like going fishing. It just depends on who’s there, it depends on the weather, on what else is going on around town or if it’s graduation week or Mother’s Day. All those things affect whether people are coming. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with how many people are there. But I really enjoy doing it. I work pretty much alone here, you know, painting is a solitary thing. So, it’s really nice to have the market, and I also get a lot of business there through people who see me there and then they find out I have a shop here. I also do custom framing, so a lot of my business comes from the market.
C: I do all my framing for my work and I have a whole board of samples and stuff. I can do any kind of custom framing. And I do a little bit of online framing. I have two online shops on Etsy. Abingdon’s a small town and there’s very little foot traffic here. I think there’s even very little foot traffic in the middle of town, ‘cause other businesses have told me that they can go all day without getting a customer. I thought it was just ‘cause I’m down on this end. But, it’s just, you know, we’re small. But I get tourists and people who are going to the theatre. They say, oh, we’re just in town and we’re going to see a show and we’re just wandering around.
S: I know that whenever I travel I want to bring a piece of art home and that’s kind of a big thing for me. Whatever country I go to, I always bring back paintings. Where did you grow up? And how did you get to Arizona to go to school?
C: I grew up in New York and I wanted to go to art school and I wanted to go as far away as I could go.
S: Fair enough.
C: So, I picked the University of Arizona. I don’t know why or how I ended up doing that. I wanted to study representational art and they were still teaching that. Figurative and representational art. So, I went to Arizona and lived there for about four or five years and I graduated. I went from Arizona to Colorado and lived in Colorado for a while. I’ve moved around a lot…then I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and lived there. I didn’t do art there. I became a massage therapist there. I moved from there and lived in California for a little while, lived in New Mexico. I always liked the west but I think because I grew up in the East, it always feels more like home to me.
S: Me too.
C: So, I always have to come back because of the four seasons. Just the landscape and all that. I went out to New Mexico because I was going to get a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and as it turned out I realized I didn’t want to not do art. I just like to do art. So, I came back and since I knew about Abingdon, I decided to come back here. I knew it was an arts place.
S: So, where do you get your inspiration for a lot of pieces? I know that’s such a general artist question.
C: That’s okay. I just really like anything that has to do with nature. I know that’s a big topic but I love landscape. I love still life and flowers and animals. I used to do portraits but I have to kind of focus on what people will buy. People do really like landscape and animals. I love doing the still life but it’s only occasionally that I’ll sell one of those. But that is something that I really love to do, a lot. The still life.
C: Because I really like building a space, a real space. Creating a little piece…I don’t know how to describe it…it’s like a naturalistic space, it’s real, but it also has it’s own…there’s something magical about making something look like it’s real in the space. And it takes a lot of observation. You begin to see so much color in variation, you know, in an object. That’s one of the things about art that’s really exciting, I think. When I started doing art, all of a sudden everything took on a different look. A different life. You begin to see color like you never could before. Things just got more alive. I mean, you look at somebody’s face and you see beauty in someone’s face that doesn’t have to be conventional or a classical kind of thing. You start to see beauty in everyday objects. Incredible beauty in the landscape and I guess that’s one of the reasons I like being here, is because in just a few moments…I can drive out on Valley Street and if I keep going out there, there’s all these rolling farms and hay fields and there’s cows and streams and trees and it’s just beautiful.
S: That’s something that keeps me calm. Every time I drive out of my house I get to see the Blue Ridge Mountains right in front of me and how many people get to see that every day?
C: But you’re an artist and so, that affects you that way and I think a lot of people are not affected by that and they don’t crave that. Because, you know, my kids say why are you living here? There’s nothing here. And I say, well there is. Look around you. Look what’s here.
S: Especially in the past couple of years, a lot of the young people who have been coming up. You’re getting a new generation of folks, too.
C: I really love the south because people are very civil. And they’re very sweet. Even if you’re not from here and you’re a Yankee. There’s things I’ve learned about just the way people interact with each other, it’s a little more gracious, a little slower…even if that can be hard for somebody who’s from New York.
S: It’s a good lesson in patience.
C: That’s right. And you know, I remember when I first moved to this town I was amazed because everybody kept saying hello to me like they knew me and I didn’t know anybody. Like, I only know one person here, but they all greeted me as if they knew me and people even wave to you in your cars. And that’s really nice. As a community, people are more community-minded. And that’s just a really nice thing.
S: What’s your favorite thing to create right now?
C: Oh, did you see the paintings when you came in? I started this series because, you know, I walk on the Creeper Trail just about every day, and I’ve taken hundreds of pictures and I just love the trail. So, I’ve started painting the trail…You know, the light’s different every day. One day it kind of had this blue/purple light on the water, must have been from the sky. And so, I did that one looking down over the bridge. I’m just fascinated with that stream and I want to do maybe some oils.
S: Do you take pictures and then come back and paint them?
C: Yeah, yeah, but some of them are composites. So, people ask me where it is and I go, well…
S: A couple different places!
C: Yeah, and photographs are pretty limited as far as color and all that goes, so you have to make up the color a lot of the time.
S: It gives you more creative freedom.
C: I always do sunflowers because people love them and I like to paint them. And I always do nests, too, because people love those.
S: Crab! Maryland girl!
C: Oh yeah, that’s a very popular print.
S: Is framing something you learned in college?
C: No, I just kind of learned it with the years because, you know, you have a piece of artwork and you want to be in a show. You have to go get it framed and it’s super expensive. So, I started doing that myself. And I actually like doing it. It’s kind of a creative thing in itself. You know, setting something up in the right way. I like doing it for other people too because choosing the right framing can really set it off or not, if you don’t do it right. And it’s physical. I don’t like to sit forever. I stand up a lot when I paint but I get to do a lot of different things in my shop. I can frame, I can paint.