Women build friendships, hone skills through years of painting together

TUPELO • They declare different backgrounds and various vocations, but they were brought together years ago by a common appreciation of art.

These seven women would likely agree they’d feel lost without a paintbrush in hand, and the company and critiques of one another at least once a week.

Their styles vary – several do portraiture; one loves painting wildlife, a few like landscapes. Most prefer oil while one has a penchant for watercolor.

Among the group, they can’t agree on just how many years they’ve been painting together – they’ve joined the group at different times – but nearly two decades would not be an unreasonable guess.

Some of the women first met at a place called The Gallery, where they took art lessons from JoAnn Wood. The others met when Wood began teaching classes at Hobby Lobby.

The Gallery, owned by James and JoAnn Wood, offered art and photography supplies, as well as art lessons.

Since Wood’s illness and death four years ago, the Hobby Lobby class ended, but the group has continued to gather on Wednesdays to paint, each working on her own project and eagerly anticipating honest critiques from the others.

The longtime paint pals agree Dru Jolly of Shannon is the one who has kept them together.

Jolly, the only painter proffering her age with no hesitation, is said to be the matriarch of the group. She’s 83.

Retirement came at the end of a 33-year run as a furniture instructor at Itawamba Community College, Tupelo.

Jolly’s more than honest when asked what drew her to painting. “I’d see other people’s paintings and I’d think, ‘I can do that.’”

Suzanne Long of Tupelo is a retired nurse. She’d had no official training when she started taking Wood’s art class.

“I think I was her last student before she became ill,” Long said of Wood. “She got me started and I have not quit. I always painted, but I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Long learned about the painting class from Jolly.

“I met Dru when she was a patient at the Cancer Center,” she said. “She said she couldn’t come for any appointments on Wednesdays because that’s the day she painted.”

Sarah Beckham grew up in Leland, admiring an art teacher and her Delta paintings.

“I took classes here and there,” she said. “I always piddled, but didn’t have a lot of time when I was raising a daughter by myself.”

Beckham’s the junior member of the group – “We call her the baby,” Jolly said, laughing.

Pat Garrison became interested in art when living in Vicksburg. An art class in Mound, Louisiana, was her introduction.

When raising a daughter and tending a career in real estate, Garrison said her art was neglected. In 1996 when her husband retired from the Corp of Engineers and they moved to Tupelo, a friend told Garrison about the art class.

“My husband carved ducks and wanted me to learn to paint ducks,” she said. “I never got good at painting ducks but I was introduced to canvas painting.”

Alycia Stegall of Pontotoc worked as a maintenance administrator for Bellsouth – “for 31 years, four months and 10 days.”

When living in Memphis in the late ‘90s, Stegall’s daughter was attending a church where the pastor’s wife taught art lessons for $5 a lesson. Stegall signed up.

She noticed a sign touting art classes at Hobby Lobby after she and her husband moved to Pontotoc.

“I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it,” she said.

Linda Riggan has always painted and has taught art lessons since the late ‘80s. She worked in home health.

“I’d come by and visit Dru on my days off,” Riggan said. “When I retired four years ago, I started painting with them, and I’ve been painting with them ever since.”

Sharon Works rounds out the group. When her husband retired, the couple moved from Houston, Texas, to Mississippi. First Aberdeen, and nine years ago, they moved to Tupelo.

That’s when she discovered The Gallery and JoAnn Wood. Works studied portraiture for several months before leaving Texas, and her love of painting people has continued to grow.

Clearly, a reverence and appreciation for their art instructor is something else these seven have in common.

“She called us her Wednesday Girls,” Works said. “She said we were the best group of women she’d ever had.”

They miss Wood and her name is evoked often. But they all agree they don’t miss having a teacher.

“We’ve been painting on our own for so long now, we just rely on each other for help and critiques,” Works said.

Besides, they’ve got Jolly to keep them on task.

“I called Dru one rainy Wednesday to tell her I wasn’t going to come paint that day,” Riggan said. “She told me a little rain never hurt anybody.”

Stegall nods her head in agreement.

“Dru won’t let us drop out or not show up,” she said. “She’s got a whip and she cracks it. Dru motivates us all.”

Despite the fact some of the artists fretted about the mentioning of ages, their playful demeanors and physical appearances belie the numbers.

“It’s the paint fumes,” one said and all laughed.

Every Wednesday, the seven start gathering to paint about 9:30 in the morning – some are earlier than others.

“I come about the crack of noon,” Riggan said. “I didn’t quit work to get up early.”

They bring lunch and normally paint until 5 or later.

There are no rules – they’re truly a laid-back bunch. Sometimes their painting is peppered with chitchat. Jolly says in all the years they’ve painted together, they’ve solved lots of the world’s problems.

Other times, hours pass with no words spoken. The seven are comfortable within their creative silences.

“Sometimes it’s so quiet, you can hear a pin drop,” Garrison said, as several sets of eyes looked toward Works.

“It takes me a while to settle down,” she said, in her own defense.

“Is that what it is?” Jolly said.

As the group’s laughter dies down, Works said Jolly keeps her in line – “I’ll be talking and Dru will sometimes just tell me, ‘Sharon, paint.’”

No one plans to put down their paintbrushes and leave the group in the foreseeable future.

“Not while we’re reporting to Dru,” Riggan said over group guffaws. “As long as she’s cracking that whip, we’ll keep showing up.”