DIANE GIBSON fills her small artist's box with a few paintbrushes and warm and cool red, yellow and blue paints. She places the box into her backpack along with a watercolor pad, collapsible water container and blotting tissues.
She takes one last look, zips up the backpack and heads out to hike her designated route. As she walks along one of her favorite trails -- which have included sites in England, Scotland, France, Italy and Switzerland -- she finds a flat rock to sit on and to use as an outdoor painting studio. She spreads her materials out and examines the scene before her. After choosing a subject, she begins a flurry of brush strokes, never stopping until she has finished.
For most people, this description of scenic inspiration evokes feelings of serenity. But, for Gibson, it summons feelings from deeper within that have helped to distinguish her work with watercolors.
For a living, Gibson, a graduate of Columbia University and the Johns Hopkins University, headed the Department of Rehabilitative Therapy at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital for 25 years. She studied under Margaret Naumberg, known as the grandmother of art therapy, and entered the field with a desire to use art to help her patients express themselves.
Over the past decade, Gibson has held various positions on the board of the Baltimore Watercolor Society, including a term as president. According to Gibson, the society is the oldest watercolor society in the United States.
"It dates back to 1883, when women artists weren't allowed in the Baltimore men's Charcoal Club, and so the women formed their own," Gibson said. In addition to an exhibit at Pratt's conference center, she shows her work at the society's six annual exhibits.
During Gibson's tenure at Sheppard Pratt, Michael Powichroski, vice president of Right Management Consultants, said he got to know Gibson's work when she served as a mentor during his student training.
"I was fortunate I got to work in the conference center where she exhibits her work at Sheppard Pratt," Powichroski said. "I would go in every day and see her art. I saw a combination of warm feelings and psychology in her work. There's some mechanism working there that I can't explain."
Powichroski said the deep emotion-evoking quality of Gibson's work prompted him to buy three pieces and commission several others.
"The first piece I bought from her is called Ghost," said Powichroski. "This painting has beautiful pastel colors in it, and you can make out the faces of people, of the ghosts, in it. It's very evocative. It seems to deal with people who're dealing with ghosts inside of them. She may not have intended this, but it seems purposeful to me."
Powichroski said the thing that he finds most incredible is that Gibson doesn't do it for any reason other than a love of painting.
"She could easily sell her work for three or four times what she sells it for," said Powichroski. "She's not in it for money, she does it because of the joy she gets from painting and from knowing that so many people enjoy her work."
Gibson said she recognizes there's something different about her work. But she attributes it to artists being a different breed.
"I think that all artists see the world in a different way," Gibson said. "When an artist looks at something, they're looking for unusual shapes. We see textures. Whenever I'm outside, I'm always looking. Artists see things outside of the box. We have to be careful about who we're talking to or run the risk of being an outsider. I think that what I see is so far off, it would make me socially unacceptable. Over the years, I've become increasingly nonjudgmental."
Although she says her methods are out of the ordinary, some of her best art is created when she spots a scene spontaneously while on a hiking trip. She frequently stops her travel abruptly to see the quality of a gray stone or an old tree or house. She said the scenes that inspire her the most are old, dilapidated or lonely houses or other landscapes.
"What made her work so appealing to people was that she was so well-traveled," said Pat Mitchell of Timonium, who has purchased Gibson's art. "People would come into the gallery in the conference center and recognize the places she painted. It was surprising because some of the locations were very remote. It was memorable for them, so they buy her work. It really is quite lovely."
Gibson said her husband, Bob, who served as president and chief executive officer of Sheppard Pratt Hospital from 1960 to 1992, has been supportive.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world," she said. "I'll see something like an old silo against the dark green trees, and I have to stop and paint it. I will stop for an hour or so and paint an unusual scene such as a white shepherd's cottage set against a dark green hillside or a lovely iron-oxide swirl of a canyon carved out by flash floods. I've been known to just go up and ask someone if I can paint their barn or house or whatever it is that I've seen on their land."
"Bob's very accepting of the way I am with my art," said Gibson. "We'll be driving down the road and I'll say, 'Stop.'"
Her husband said, "When she makes me [stop], we go up to a house and she'll tell someone, 'I just have to paint your barn.' And they'll just look so surprised. And then I'll tell them, 'But you have to provide the paint," he said.
In a more serious tone, he said, "I'm so pleased she's found painting. When she worked, she didn't have time for it. Then she retired, and Sheppard Pratt knew she painted and asked her to paint some things to exhibit in their conference center. They also commissioned her to paint 20 paintings depicting the buildings on the grounds. People see her work and they take a great interest in it. She sells her work like wildfire."
Diane Gibson attributes her sales to an understanding of her market.
"Oils are worth more in the public's eyes," she said. "It's hard to fix mistakes when you make them on a watercolor painting. But I love the transience and luminousness of watercolors. I have to plan like a turtle and paint like a hare and get it right the first time."
When she needs a release from the tension of painting, she frames her work.
"Painting is not relaxing, it's filled with tension," said Diane. "Framing is relaxing. It's a mechanical and craft-like skill. The combination of having both skills is marvelous."
When asked how often she paints, she said, "Every day."