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The French Connection | By Margaret Fisher

Sunday, Oct. 11 “We journeyed to the cliff town of Rocamador today. … There is a grand cathedral in the top center of town. Those on pilgrimages would walk up the hundreds of stone steps on their knees to reach the cathedral. Walking down those same steps I felt a wave of emotion fill me.”

New city, new baby, new grief, new joy, and now another “first,” artist Jeniffer Hutchins’ first solo show in Fayetteville. Like layer upon layer of paint upon canvas, it’s an exhibit of transformation. From the first meeting of brush to paper, she discovered in school a passion for oil painting and fellow artist Dan Hutchins. They married in 2000 and the next year, Hutchins finished a degree in art education from Rhode Island College. She began a succession of teaching jobs that took her from Rhode Island to San Diego and back east to Raleigh. “I just love that energy being around children,” she said, “but I decided I wasn’t devoting time to art.” So she quit teaching and focused on painting. The North Carolina scenery inspired two series of landscapes, “Carolina Back-Roads,” exhibited at The Nature of Art Gallery in Cary, and “Our Backyard” at the Sertoma Art Center in Raleigh. Hutchins even collaborated with a photographer to capture just the right light, the perfect outdoor moment in the “Backyard” series. In fact, Hutchins rarely turns her brush on people, and even when she does, seldom are they the focal point. In “Gone Fishing,” an empty dock becomes the viewer’s dock, no one else’s. It’s a tool Hutchins often uses to make a link between a painting and its audience. “It connects the viewer with the place,” she said. “It sort of becomes the connection between man and nature and man and God, to bring it in that deeper level.” But above all, it’s a sense of peace that Hutchins wants to convey in her paintings, a lush field in “Fenceposts” or a rich sunset in “Grace.” But Hutchins also knows about life’s upheavals. Two years ago, her husband accepted a job as a lead artist at Immersion Media, a Fayetteville computer animation and graphic design firm. The couple also discovered they were expecting their first child. Hutchins called her mother, Janice Gilbert, in Rhode Island with the exciting news. Hutchins said her mother was so elated it gave her reason to take care of a medical problem she had been avoiding and hadn’t mentioned to anyone. Within the week, Gilbert saw a doctor about the lump on her arm, a lump that turned out to be a rare form of cancer which had spread to her brain and lungs. As Gilbert endured brain surgery and chemotherapy, Hutchins was faced with buying and painting a house, moving, adjusting to pregnancy and worrying about her mother. “It was just an overwhelming amount of emotions at that time,” she said. Her mother insisted she was doing well and her daughter didn’t need to come to Rhode Island. Then, her aunt called in tears and told her she needed to come right away. At her mother’s side, Hutchins only had time for a few words – Gilbert would never live to meet her grandson. Hutchins was soon overwhelmed with mind-boggling obligations and expectations in Rhode Island and in between, in Raleigh and Fayetteville. “Honestly, I would wake up in the morning and not know where I (was),” she said. With all the turmoil, she completely stopped painting. Sometime after the birth of her son, she began to feel a deep guilt about having given up the artistic part of herself. But with a new baby to take care of, there was little time for creative indulgences. Instead of oil painting, Hutchins turned to journaling and collages using acrylics. She had done both before, but now she was using the medium as a means to sort through her emotions and reconnect with her creativity. At first, she simply slapped paint around with her hands. Her first collage was dark. She added meaningful quotes mingled with paint, then various kinds of paper. Just as she made these first forays back into the world of art, an opportunity arrived for an artist’s retreat to France. With her husband’s encouragement, she went. “It’s what I needed to push me to the next step,” she said. In early October, Hutchins traveled to France with a group of North Carolina artists. For a week, she and 12 other women made the ancient Le Vieux Couvent their retreat. The church bells would ring at 7 a.m. to begin days filled with delicious food and travels to out-of-the-way villages and scenic areas. Hutchins kept a journal of her time in France. She also began sketching quick drawings in charcoal and capturing hundreds of photos to be used as artistic fodder back home. When she returned to Fayetteville, Hutchins finished her first painting in two years, a tiny cottage in a floral garden. The trip to France not only refreshed and inspired her, it gave her a different outlook on art. Her repertoire of collages has changed as she layers paint, photographs, magazine cutouts and inspiring quotes with thoughts and emotions. Nature and inspiring words have replaced dark gloomy colors. The collages portray the present with hints of the past peeking through; the art is evolving. Hutchins says the changes, even the temporary departure from painting, were necessary steps in her creative search for self. No longer does she define herself as an oil painter but as an artist. “(Change) forces you to realize your own definition of self and who you think you were,” Hutchins said recently, “and, more importantly, who you feel you are now.” Jeniffer Hutchins will be exhibiting a variety of her works at Olde Town Gallery, 124 Maxwell Street, March 4 through May 31. A reception will be held at 7 p.m., March 4.