As long as Juanita Sigmon can remember, she has looked at the world around her and thought about how she might paint it.
Her paintings, she said, are inspired by her desire to record and keep scenes and remembrances. Sigmon uses art to keep special moments and special places close to her. Mixed among more than 500 paintings of scenes from western North Carolina, including Burke County and Catawba County, are some really captivating oils and watercolors. Take for instance, the many dogs and cats painted from photographs sent to Sigmon from her three children and grandchildren. Still lifes of flower arrangements are reminders of the flowers she received on special days such as Mother’s Day, birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and flowers sent “just because.”
Stacks of paintings — framed and unframed — and lots of memories. The collection represents years of work, almost a lifetime. Sigmon, 92, began to paint when she was a student at Lenoir-Rhyne College (University) in 1939.
“I’ve always drawn — we didn’t call it painting then,” Sigmon said, from Pinecrest, an independent retirement living community, where she resides. “In 1939, the WPA hired an artist to come to Lenoir-Rhyne to teach.”
Sigmon met her husband, C. Miller Sigmon Sr., at Lenoir-Rhyne and within a year, they married. Both graduated with degrees in education and began to teach. In addition, in the 1940s, she tinted photographs for area photographers before there was color film.
Sigmon taught 43 years, first in Burke County schools, then in the Morganton city school system, and finally in the consolidated system. She retired teaching third grade.
“My life from the 1940s through the 1970s was filled with family, friends, teaching and supporting Miller’s career,” Sigmon said. “I continued my love of art and with crafts.”
Sigmon said her mother passed down artistic abilities to her — sewing, knitting, crocheting and making dolls. Born in 1918, Sigmon, grew up during the Depression.
“I never knew the difference, although I’m sure my parents did,” she said. “I can’t say it was hard because I didn’t know anything else. All my memories are happy ones.”
Most of Sigmon’s works were painted after 1980, a time when her life changed dramatically. She retired from teaching, her husband died, and then her mother died.
Sigmon continued to paint every day — oil and watercolor paintings of beloved and familiar scenes such as Table Rock, old barns in Burke County and landmarks in Morganton. Sigmon’s art depicts her love for nature and the year’s seasons as seen through her eyes during trips up and down N.C. 181, from Morganton to Jonas Ridge.
The oil and watercolor paintings may take as little as a few hours to complete or may take months of working to get the feeling and expression she is looking for, she said.
In 2007, her book, “Through My Eyes: The Art of Juanita Houser Sigmon,” was published and was an instant success. More than 100 photos depict the beauty she found in Burke County and in her life.
And, May 15, Sigmon’s work will be displayed through July 15 at the Georgia College & State University Music Therapy Gallery.
Her one-woman show at GCSU highlights her new paintings that tell her story of life since moving to Pinecrest in June 2009. Older works provide a glimpse into her life in Morganton, where she lived with her husband.
“I painted more than 30 oil and water color paintings since I moved here,” she said. “In fact, I came to Pinecrest because it was promised that I could paint. That lasted two years.”
Up until Easter, she painted daily at Pinecrest in a room set aside for arts and crafts.
Now, she said, she can’t paint, and hasn’t, since Easter.
“They took it away — they took our room away,” she said. “For all of us. None of us can paint.”
Sigmon said the room was a regular apartment that was empty, and that now Pinecrest wants to rent it. Sigmon said she understands — it happened before, in an apartment the artists previously used.
“They told us we would have another room,” she said, “and we did.”
Sigmon and other artists still hope for a place to paint. Meanwhile, her oils are “stuck in boxes in a storage room, piled away.”
For an artist who painted every day for 72 years, abandoning her brushes and oils is difficult.
“You have to have a place to paint,” she said passionately. “I don’t know what to do with myself because I can’t paint.”
Her apartment is filled with stacks of mounted but unframed oils and some watercolors. Still, she pulls out more paintings. Her life is before her — in her art. Although she can’t travel up and down the byways and backroads of western North Carolina to paint beloved scenes, she paints from photographs her family sends and from photographs she makes.
Those special flower arrangements received in the past are still with Sigmon — on the canvasses stacked around her apartment.
“When I receive a gift of flowers, I want to keep it forever, so I paint it,” she said. “I always loved being outdoors with my flowers and plants. These are times just for me with no phones or commitments to interfere.”
For now, her days are spent knitting and crocheting in her room. And, in a small corner of her kitchenette, Sigmon found just enough space to watercolor birds.
“If I can’t use oils, I’ll use watercolors,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sigmon hopes to travel to Georgia to see her exhibit. One of her daughters, Chesley Sigmon Mercado, is curator of the GCSU Music Therapy Gallery.
“ This is an exciting show that will appeal to students, faculty and the community,” Mercado said. “It is a chance to see the beautiful countryside of North Carolina through the view of someone who experienced so much of life, and testimony that we are never too old to follow our passions, be productive if given the opportunity, and express ourselves.”
Mercado also chose the paintings for Sigmon’s book, and her husband, Eduardo Mercado Jr., a professional photographer in Georgia, photographed each painting.
“I tried to select paintings that best represented my mother’s love of nature, her belief that old barns should not disappear and moments in her life that I know she cherished,” Mercado said. “My mother is very private so it took a lot of persuading to get her to agree to publishing a book of her art. I think her work needs to be shared and enjoyed.”