I don’t intend to give up the sky,” muses 82-year-old Memphis artist Veda Reed, “but I’ve got to put it in a new place.”
For much of her 60-year career, Reed has looked to her native state of Oklahoma, and the wide-open space of the prairie, as inspiration for her work. She’s focused on expansive landscapes marked by the horizon, and sky scenes — sunrises, sunsets, and cloud formations — subjects that give her “a warm, safe feeling.” With perfect smears of yellow that act as sun streaks, and gentle puffs of gray and white over dark swaths of night sky, her paintings evoke a poetic sense of reverence, calling the viewer to look up — and to look within.
Reed has a delicate and self-assured demeanor and speaks behind a warm smile. A 1956 graduate of the Memphis Academy of Art (today the Memphis College of Art — MCA), she has become a nationally renowned painter, her work having been displayed in galleries all across the United States. Upon graduation, she traveled to New York and England before returning to the Academy in 1962, where she taught painting, drawing, lettering, design, still life, and landscape painting for 34 years.
Her home on the eastern edge of Midtown, in which she’s lived since 1974, is filled with art. Some of her own paintings adorn the walls, but many works on display were created by students and colleagues: a watercolor by Ted Rust, longtime director of the Memphis College of Art; a night skyscape painted by Burton Callicott; sculptures by Greely Myatt. A living room coffee table is home to dozens of artistic renditions of houses, some formed with clay, others carved from wood. One, an ornament, attached to a silvery green band, was made by Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, who was one of Reed’s students. “She graduated from MCA [in 1991], and President Carter came to her senior presentation,” says Reed. “I bought this for $5 at the Christmas Bazaar one year.”
Teaching, she says, is one of the most rewarding things she’s ever done. “It’s so wonderful to see an idea become reality in another person. When things finally come together for students, it’s amazing to watch.” Reed retired from MCA in 1995, but was recently asked to come back to teach. “I taught for three [more] semesters and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I don’t have the stamina I used to have. So, I retired a second time,” she laughs, adding, “But if you want to really learn something, teach it.”
Reed’s own artistic inspiration was originally sparked by her mother’s youngest sister, Joyce, who’d copy pictures out of movie magazines in watercolor. After high school, Reed spent a year in Salt Lake City with her Aunt Joyce. “She enrolled me in a drawing class, and that was my very first experience,” Reed says.
In 1952, Reed moved to Memphis to stay with her father, a pipeliner who worked for natural gas companies across the country. “My only entertainment was to drive around Memphis,” she recalls. “One day I was driving down Adams Avenue and saw this big Victorian building. I had never seen anything like it in my life, having come from the prairie.” A sign over the door read “Memphis Academy of Art.” Reed stopped the car.
Landscape with House #3
1956, Oil on canvas, 27 × 26 inches
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Bequest of Julie Isenberg 87.20.5.
“I went in and asked what the place was, and the woman who greeted me happened to be the registrar. She said, ‘This is an art school; are you interested in going here?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure.’ By the time I walked out, I had registered for the fall semester without paying any money or showing any proof that I had any talent.” The extent of Reed’s arts experience at that point was the drawing class she’d taken at the behest of her aunt. “I promised [the registrar] that my father would write a check, and he did, but he took away my driving privileges,” she laughs.
When she graduated from college and began to paint her own subjects, aside from what was taught in the classroom, she sought out scenes in the local landscape. “Usually I would drive to Arkansas,” she says. “There were rice fields over there, and at that time, the interstate hadn’t been built yet, so there were just these rural roads, and I could find isolated little houses and things that I had also been interested in in Oklahoma.”
Many of those early paintings, Landscape with House #3 (1956) and Field House (1961), for example, were highly abstracted, with heavy brush strokes and few colors. In her twenties, she says, “I felt like anything I did was going to be okay — it was going to be great. I knew how to put the paint on and I could do that quickly or slowly or however.”
In the 1970s, she briefly let go of the landscape and began experimenting with different subjects: scenes of her cats, an image of a blue lamp in her living room, and large flower paintings — single flowers blown up to six or seven feet. While working with these, she realized, “It’s not really what I wanted to be in tune with in my painting,” but, she says, they were necessary. “If I hadn’t made those paintings, I never would have known that that was not what I was meant to do.”
As she’s matured, she’s begun to pay more attention, technically, to her process. “Especially when I started painting the sky more so than the land, I began to want a very particular kind of surface, one that had no brush marks, one that could be defined as air,” she says. In the past 15 years or so, she’s developed a technique that produces that kind of surface — one that is seamless and has no edges.
“In the sunrise and the sunset — that’s what I was concentrating on when I began to think in these terms — I couldn’t paint the sky and then paint the sun over it. I couldn’t even paint them one at a time and edge to edge because I wanted the color to appear to come from beneath the cloud or the sky,” she says. “I finally figured out how to do that. Right now, it takes me twice as long to plan and develop the scheme for a painting than it does to put the paint on the canvas.”
The technique, which she’s now mastered, has resulted in beautiful works, such as King of Clouds (2011), Lunar Halo (2012), and Day into Night (2015). The paintings encompass her love affair with clouds. When she moved from landscapes to the sky, she says, “I was seeing all these different kinds of clouds and being fascinated by them and actually paying attention to what they did and what they produced and what they were capable of. So, I began to read everything I could on clouds, got all the guide books, and joined the Cloud Appreciation Society.”
In her studio, a building erected in 1991 behind her home, she requires complete silence to work; no music, no distractions. “I have to be only in my own head,” she says. And when she’s in the zone, her head isn’t just in the clouds, it is the clouds. “When I’m working, I can feel myself in the place, or in the spirit of the place, that I’m painting. I feel at one with the subject.”
Painting landscapes and cloud formations, Reed says, feels natural, having grown up on the prairie, because “that’s what you’re surrounded by — the space. And you can see the sky at night because there’s not all the ambient city light.”
2011, Oil on canvas, 44 × 60 inches, Courtesy of nexAir, LLC
Since moving to Memphis, Reed has regularly traveled back to Granite, Oklahoma, where until last year, she owned a home; each visit provided her with fresh material to bring back to her Memphis studio to work with. “All of my family has moved from our little town in Oklahoma, so I’ve sold my house [there],” she says. And now, she has to move the sky, too. “I love Memphis, and I love all the greenery and the trees, but it’s very enclosing and I’m not used to that, not in my subjects. Now I want to see if I can do something with the sky in an urban setting.”
A recent effort resulted in Backyard Sky Early Morning, an oil on canvas that shows a sliver of sky between neighboring angled rooftops, a much different work than what Reed typically produces, but a visual that would be familiar to anyone living among the tree-laden, urban neighborhoods of Memphis.
Reed, whose casual drive through Memphis in 1952 led to what would become the centerpiece of her life’s work, says, “Anybody can learn how to paint. It’s a skill that you can develop — the creative part is in addition to learning the skill, and sometimes that part can’t really be taught in the same way the skill can. But people should never give up trying to make something. Creating something is really the most wonderful thing one can do.”
As for continuing to create today as an octogenarian, she says, “It’s just who I am. I couldn’t do anything else.” As much as she’s put into painting, it also gives back.
“When I receive an email or a telephone call or a text message saying, ‘Veda, have you looked at the sky tonight? Your clouds are up there!’ — that’s what it gives back to me,” she says with a lighted smile. “It means that I have accomplished, in at least small measure, what I have set out to do.”
1 of 3
2005, Oil on canvas, 60 × 48 inches, Anonymous loan
2 of 3
Nightfall: Clouds and Moon
2006, Oil on canvas, 42 × 42 inches, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Maxwell
3 of 3
Day into Night
2015, Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 inchesCollection of Alice and Matt Crow