Dixie Dugan: Artist in Residence
By Connie Barnard
Dixie Dugan knew she had something special the day her first grade class was handed finger paint made of flour and tempera. Unlike her classmates’ chunky handprints in blobs of primary color, Dixie produced a softly muted creation of tiny fingers curved like fern fronds around a subtle watery surface. Amazing in its composition, color, and movement, the piece still hangs in her studio today, the first of almost 2,000 pieces chronicling the legendary local artist’s work across almost eight decades.
Born in rural Kansas, Dugan moved at age ten to Chicago, a rich and exciting environment for the talented young girl. Despite struggles in school which were later diagnosed as dyslexia, Dixie learned to compensate with art: “I bartered assignments with other students and helped teachers by drawing maps, making posters and helping with bulletin boards. That got me through high school.”
Chicago will always be special to Dixie because it was here that she met the love of her life, a young sailor from Texas named Tommy, who had no idea the pretty girl was just 13 years old. Five years later they married, and this month will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary. Dixie still smiles and blushes when she says his name. “Marrying Tommy is the most important thing I ever did,” she says. “He has always been there for me. At the same time, he stays out of my way. Many spouses are jealous of how artists’ work consumes their lives, but Tommy has always been so proud of what I do.” Over the years he has even learned to help critique her work: “He can look at a piece and point out a weak spot, sometimes even before I see it.” She adds thoughtfully, “I had a difficult childhood. My parents divorced at a time when there was a social stigma attached to it. After my mother re-married, I always thought of myself as a stepchild. That can stay with you, but Tommy gave me the confidence to believe in myself.”
Tommy’s career as a civilian instructor with the U.S. military provided the opportunity to live in a number of interesting places. While in the central Louisiana town of Pineville, Dixie began taking painting classes. She says, “My instructor was a Cajun woman whose accent was so strong I couldn’t understand much of what she said.” Nonetheless, the lessons provided her with time and confidence to develop her natural talents. Her very first painting, an oil Cajun swamp scene, won Honorable Mention in a local show, the first in a long string of prize ribbons now circling the wall of her studio.
When she turned 38, Dixie made a life-changing decision. For years she had worked to be a perfect homemaker and mother to her two daughters, then 10 and 18. She’d baked cookies, volunteered as a room mother and kept a shiny, spotless home. Deep inside, however, Dugan had always seen herself as an artist and somehow knew she had to pursue this dream or let it go. She sat down with her family and shared the decision to reprioritize her life, putting her art before all things social and domestic. In 1960s America, this was a brave, even radical, declaration. Dixie’s dear Tommy looked at her for a few minutes, then smiled and announced he’d give her ten years – then back to the kitchen. That was 46 years ago, and the renowned artist and teacher has yet to put on her apron!
The move to Myrtle Beach in 1966 provided Dixie opportunities to explore and learn from master instructors, and her natural talents were honed and set free. She studied art at USC and trained under a virtual Who’s Who of renowned teachers, developing a distinct style which still continues to evolve. “My paintings never complete the whole story,” she says. “I want the spectator to participate, not just be a passive viewer.” Dugan credits legendary artist and instructor Alex Powers with influencing her most greatly. “Alex taught me how to see,” she says simply. Under Powers’ tutorage, Dugan switched from oils to watercolor, mastering its complex challenges. “You have to understand what it won’t do,” she explains. Today Dugan’s prize-winning watercolors of marsh scenes, Gullah women, weathered flags and regal cats grace the walls of galleries, homes and corporate collections throughout the world.
This success is the result of hard work and discipline, as well as talent. “Art is not my hobby. It is my life,” she explains. She records details of each project on small index cards, and though they number in the thousands, Dixie can reference any one in a matter of seconds. For many years she drove daily to Murrells Inlet to paint on the grounds of Oliver’s Lodge, then owned by her friend Maxine Hawkins. One day, she laughs, Dugan was so intent on her work that she backed off the pier and into the creek. Fortunately, Roosevelt, the lodge’s resident jack-of-all-trades, witnessed the fall and rescued both Dixie and her backpack of art supplies! With business partner Sudie Daves of Conway and 16 other artists, Dixie’s works have been on display for over 20 years at the member-owned Charleston Waterfront Gallery, now Studio 151 on Church Street, and locally at the Howard Gallery, Art and Soul and the Myrtle Beach Art Museum.
As a teacher and lecturer Dixie has shared her expertise with students in colleges, public schools and watercolor workshops for over 25 years. One of her students, acclaimed abstract artist Barbara Brock, who joined Dugan’s Murrells Inlet workshop in the mid 1980s, says, “Dixie was a really outstanding teacher who turned me on to art. Our group stayed together for a number of years and became close friends. Dixie helped me view the world in new ways.”
Dugan’s work reflects her continuous growth as an artist. One major transition, however, occurred out of necessity, not choice. Twelve years ago a car accident damaged Dixie’s already fragile back. For weeks she recuperated in a Houston hospital, slowly realizing that nerve damage would make it impossible to continue her watercolors. For therapy and diversion, Dixie began cutting pages of National Geographic magazines into tiny pieces and gluing them together to form intricately designed collages. By the time she returned home, Dugan had found a new medium and a new direction: the Japanese mosaic collage.
Creating mosaic collage is tedious and time-consuming. Dugan says her early background as a seamstress helped prepare her for the exacting medium. First, she draws a design on heavy illustration board then glues layers of handmade Japanese origami and rice papers. From a distance these works appear to be painted, but at close range one can see tiny bits of paper, some as small as confetti, often laced with touches of gold leaf. Many of her subjects connect to the Asian origins of collage: colorful kimono and butterflies, the Japanese symbol of the soul. Others are amazing versions of her original watercolors such as “Amazing Grace,” the award-winning Gullah woman featured on this issue’s cover.
At a very young age, Dixie discovered her ability to draw people, not formal portraits but sketches that capture the subject’s essence and character. Her friend and fellow art enthusiast Lou Watson marvels at Dugan’s talent and generosity: “Dixie has constantly shared her drawings with others, both friends and strangers. Often in a restaurant, she will sketch other diners and give these amazing drawings to them as she leaves.” Recently Dixie presented Myrtle Beach First United Methodist Church with a true treasure: five volumes of sketches she has drawn over the years while sitting in church. Many are of ministers, teachers, choir members, and parishioners now living only through memories and Dixie’s art.
Her drawing skills have also brought several unique opportunities, such as a stint as court artist at the 1993 Ken Register murder trial, the first DNA evidence trial in the US. Because cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, defense team member, local attorney Tommy Brittain retained Dixie to chronicle the historic 11 day trial for his personal records.
Dugan’s eyes light up as she describes a special project she worked on for over a year: exquisite Christmas gifts for her daughters and granddaughter. Each received a book of 15 individual drawings capturing Dixie’s fondest memories with them: skating, riding a horse, sharing an apple with her dad, smiling while greatly pregnant with Dixie’s only grandchild. Dixie says, “My dear friend, the late artist Jane Charles, created books like these for her grandchildren, her cherished legacy to them. I wanted to do the same for Linda, Susan, and Stacey.” Dugan feels both pride and joy knowing that her creative strain of DNA will continue through her daughter, a college photography instructor, and her granddaughter, an intern at the Smithsonian completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Now in her eighth decade, Dugan continues to work at least six hours a day, painting during the day and drawing at night. Still youthful in appearance, attitude and energy, Dixie wakes up each day ready to celebrate life, live out loud, and create something new – a living example of Picasso’s words: “It takes a long time to become young.”
Art is not what you see but what you make others see.
About this writer
- Connie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.