Coffee with ... Pauline Clay

By Ray McAllister | March 6th, 2018

Her career suddenly disappeared, so she turned to her passion

Pauline Clay
Colored pencil drawing of a lorikeet | Art by Pauline Clay

The end came without warning. One day, Pauline Clay was returning from vacation to her job at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The next day – well, the same day, actually – she was without work.

“We had just come back from a three-week vacation to Australia and New Zealand,” she explained. “That day I was laid off. It came out of left field. It left me reeling.”

We sat down recently for coffee at the Delta Hotel in downtown Richmond to discuss her end – and her beginning. Many baby boomers – first careers behind them, productive hours ahead – seek a rewarding change of pace, a “second act.”

Pauline Clay didn’t have the choice. She had been three months short of the 30-year mark at the Times-Dispatch when she and a dozen others, mostly senior staffers, were jettisoned last spring.

She had a wealth of newspaper experience. Didn’t matter. Rejections piled up.

“Not many people want a 60-year-old woman who doesn’t have social media experience,” she said.

So she turned to her artwork.

Personal disclaimer: I know Pauline from years ago, when I was at the Times-Dispatch. I knew she was talented and personable.

I had no idea she was an artist.

Actually, she didn’t, either. Not entirely.

“Many years ago, I was dabbling in pastels,” she said. Then, almost two decades ago, she took botanical illustration classes at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. One class, using colored pencils, clicked. “I really enjoyed it,” she said.

“But you get busy, work gets busy, life gets busy. I put it aside.”

But in 2013, she began taking classes in colored pencil and then joined the Bon Air Artists Association.

“I felt I had found my medium,” she said, adding with a laugh: “No mess, no cleanup.” She could draw for a couple hours at night after work. It was perfect.

“This was going to be my retirement hobby,” she says.

“Then I got laid off.”

Last summer was tough, and she had no interest in drawing. She turned to her other love, gardening in her one-acre yard in rural Dinwiddie County. There are all types of perennials. “I have 121 hellebores,” she said, laughing. “I know from trimming the dead blooms.”

At last she turned to her art.

Pauline brought a couple of drawings to our discussion. They were striking. One of a lorikeet bird she saw in Australia was particularly detailed. It appeared to me to be a painting, not a colored pencil drawing at all.

People often think that, she says. The richness – and the time spent – come from the layering upon layering upon layering, up to 20 or more layers. A small portion of the flowering branch, for instance, took her 15 hours.

Her work already has gotten attention, being one of about 150 featured in the Colored Pencil Hidden Treasures annual publication and, in January, being accepted into the Colored Pencil Society of America online juried show, Explore This!

Meanwhile, you can see her work Feb. 24-26 at the “Artful Healing” art show at the University of Richmond, put on by the Bon Air Artists Association to benefit the World Pediatric Organization. (Details: Clay

The new artist admits to being lucky that her husband’s paycheck allows her the luxury of not having one, though she has picked up a part-time copyediting job. Eventually, she hopes sales from her work will at least pay for materials.

“But even if it doesn’t, I’m going to continue because I love doing this,” she said. “If I’m having a really bad day, I go into the studio … It’s better than therapy. It’s better than yoga. … Everyone says I seem happier.

“I am.”

Ray McAllister, former Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and former Boomer editor, is the writer of six books, including four award winners on the North Carolina coast, and the publisher of several others. This spring he is publishing Ocracoke: The Lighthouse & Old Salt, by Ellen Fulcher Cloud.

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