From powerful abstract expressionist oil paintings to vibrant watercolors for wine labels, Silver Run artist and arts educator Renee Kirby is making sense of the moment by doing what she was born to do.
“I have to do artwork because it grounds me and helps me deal with everyday life,” Kirby said. “Art is an outlet. I think I would lose my mind if I could not paint.”
Art is in Kirby’s blood. Both of her parents were creative. Her late father, a former engineer at Westinghouse, was a woodworker who built and flew model airplanes. Her mother used to help in her grandfather’s tailor shop in Brooklyn Park when she was only 7 years old and she continues to customize clothing to this day.
Kirby remembers dyeing Ukrainian Easter eggs with her mom, and one of her fondest childhood memories was when they drew together.
“She drew pictures for me to color,” Kirby said. “I remember a Raggedy Ann she drew and then I tried to copy it.”
Kirby first realized she had an unusual talent for art in a third-grade art class while sitting under a tree drawing landscapes. When the other students saw her work, they brought her their sketchbooks.
“I did their drawings for them while they played,” she said.
At Patapsco Middle School in Howard County, Kirby was invited to join the Gifted and Talented Arts Program.
“I was involved in the performing and visual arts,” she said. “My work was entered into county art shows. Getting recognition and winning ribbons made me work harder. At the time, I realized I could copy anything from life in amazing detail. That would blow people away.”
In high school, Kirby took art classes every semester.
“My teacher, Mr. Adkins, provided little direction,” she said, “but he was incredibly supportive and encouraging. Under his guidance I was able to develop a strong, diverse portfolio. One of the pieces was a life-size sculpture like that of artist George Segal. Another student and I took plaster medical casting material to make casts. We wrapped ourselves in casting, let it dry, then cut it off and attached the pieces to create human forms.”
Kirby applied to only one college, the Maryland Institute College of Art and was accepted. MICA was a wake-up call for the developing artist.
Her first year at the institute consisted of five hour-long studio Foundation Art classes, including painting, drawing, 2-D design, color theory, life drawing, clay, and metals.
“Although I was great at realism,” Kirby said, “I found it to be holding me back in the process of exploration.”
To challenge herself, Kirby majored in general sculptural studies so she could have her hand in everything. She graduated in 1989 with a Bachelor of Arts in fine art.
“After graduating from the institute and living in the city for a year or two, I moved into a windmill, converted into an apartment, in Sykesville in 1991.” Kirby said.
Kirby worked various creative jobs in Baltimore as a technician at a jewelry manufacturer, a visual display coordinator at Macy’s Department Store, and a muralist for a faux finish painter.
“I was married in 1993. We bought an old log home in Hampstead and spent the next 20 years refurbishing it,” Kirby said. She painted commissioned work when she could find the time, but when her second daughter was born, Kirby’s priorities were forced to shift.
“She was born extremely premature and visually impaired,” Kirby said. “Life was a bit chaotic for a while, but as time went on, we were able to find our new normal.”
Once family life settled into a groove, Kirby was able to get back into making art with a passion. She has been actively working, teaching and doing shows for the past 10 years.
One of her first exhibitions after she returned to painting was a successful open studio at her home. “You realize how many supporters you have at events like those,” Kirby said.
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Kirby joined the Carroll County Artists Guild and participated in a few of their group showcases. She was then commissioned to paint an outside mural at Bud’s at Silver Run, a restaurant in Westminster. This touching memorial for the owner’s son has the look and feel of a Carroll County farm landscape.
Last year, the Luann Carra Gallery in Fells Point produced a popular solo exhibition of Kirby’s large abstract expressionist paintings. Their colorful evocative imagery, often depicting the complex vitality of nature and family, is drawn from the artist’s life experiences.
Most recently, Kirby was commissioned to paint a series of dynamic watercolor labels for Free Range Flower Winery, an innovative small-batch winery that handcrafts premium wine from organic flowers, not grapes, located in Livermore Valley, California.
While working at McDaniel College now, Kirby is also teaching virtual art classes through 21st Century Learning, a new online platform that brings together students from all over the world with forward-thinking English, humanities, music, art and nutrition educators.
Kirby currently sells her art at Innerbloom, a floral shop and gallery in Ocean City and through her website, reneekirby.com. A portion of sales goes to local animal rescues.
Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column, An Eye for Art, appears regularly in Life & Times.