Floating Inspiration

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Southern Living. It has been reprinted with permission.

Apple trees bloom on an April morning in northeast Georgia as Libby Mathews sets up her easel. "I've kept an eye on this spot for weeks," the excited artist says. "See how the orchard grows right to the edge of the lake? See the thin fog swirling around and rising like smoke signals? The mist will disappear soon. I knew I'd need to get here early and work fast."

Working fast defines Libby the way sunlight defines shadows. The former dancer, who stands 6'1", paints with a whole-body effort that is part improvisation, part choreography, and all intensity.

"Painting challenges my awareness physically, emotionally, and intellectually - just like dancing once did," Libby says. That awareness, transformed into images of lakes, mountains, forests, boats, flowers, vineyards, and other visual treats near her Lakemont home, make Libby the toast of Lake Rabun. Her paintings grace art galleries, lake houses, her own studio, and even the cover of a community cookbook.

On the Water

Lake Rabun regulars - at least those out at dawn or dusk in the slanting daylight Libby likes - often find her standing on her pontoon boat with a busy brush in hand. If the water gets too choppy, she might stay on her dock instead, which also allows spectacular views of the lake and the mountains.

Using rapid strokes she dabs, smears, and feathers her colorful oils with almost the same energy as if she were again wearing tights and leaping across floorboards. Her devotion to the plein aire (open air) method - painting on location and quickly recording nature even as the light changes - suits her.

"I'm fascinated by all the old two-story boathouses scattered around Lake Rabun," Libby says. Home-owners sometimes ask her to commit boathouses to canvas as lasting heirlooms, especially in case disaster destroys the vintage structures (already the fate of many). Libby paints other boathouses for herself or to display at art galleries in Clayton and Atlanta, Georgia, and in Highlands, North Carolina.

Drawing On Experience

Libby grew up in Atlanta, joined her high school's ballet company, studied modern dance at The University of Georgia and Georgia State University, and performed with a troupe at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. She turned pro by landing a spot in Atlanta's renowned Mary Staton Dance Ensemble.

"I truly love dancing," she says, "but I actually majored in printmaking. It seemed more practical, and I made a career at it. Later, when I discovered an interest in painting, I put both backgrounds to use in a different way. All three subjects involve movement, rhythm, texture, and energy. The combination of improvisation and choreography that makes dance interesting translates pretty directly to painting, or at least to the way I paint. I danced because I loved to move through space and relate to the music and to other dancers. I paint in order to translate my personal vision through the pigments, the brushes, and the canvas."

Home Sweet Rabun

Travels to Italy, Central America, the Western United States, and elsewhere influence Libby's painting too. She says her corner of Georgia, where she bought a lake house in 1991 and has lived full-time for about seven years, inspires her as much as any of those exotic locales.

"The lake itself offers countless options," she says. "I watch certain meadows where the hills make a great backdrop, wait for just the right conditions, and then show up with my brushes ready. I get a painting close to where I want it in a couple of hours on-site and then fine-tune it at home."

On mornings when she's not dashing out before dawn to a promising locale, Libby paints on the deck of a studio added to her house. She can gaze down a steep, wooded slope toward the lake and her dock, and up toward rolling terrain. "I could spend years on my porch and not run out of subject matter," she says. "The way the sun lights up the mountaintaops first and then creeps down the slopes, turning each tree into a sundial, it's magical. It makes me want to paint. It makes me want to dance."