Meeting with the artist, Phyllis Hart made me wonder what my body of work might look like over a lifetime. Phyllis focuses on nature, flowers, birds, and butterflies, with light colors. But, the mood from her earliest work to her most recent projects shifts over time.
During our interview, Phyllis mentioned frustration with her declining dexterity and vision. She gave me a tour of her paintings explaining her changing technique over the years.
I stopped before her painting of a sunset. It exuded remarkable energy. Phyllis told me that she had painted it for her husband — one of his last requests before he passed away. I imagined the labor of creating such a piece, experiencing deep pain but, making something beautiful for someone you love. That is what commitment looks like — trying to make something beautiful out of difficulty.
For these stories, Mary Garner, the publisher uses both my articles and my photography to complete the magazine spread.
Meet Your Neighbor: Phyllis Hart
Originally Published in Life in the Ivy
Stepping through the front door of Phyllis Hart’s home, you feel like you entered a light-filled art gallery. The sun shines through the windows onto cream-colored walls. Framed art, mostly paintings featuring flowers, hangs from the ceiling to the floor. Phyllis has been painting her whole life and she won’t sell any of her work, saying, “It would be like selling one of my children.”
Phyllis uses painting and poetry to recount her life during these golden years.
Phyllis was born in Pineville, West Virginia to a hardworking family that loved the arts. Her life was full of activity, from swimming in the river to singing in a choir with her sister, to canning homegrown vegetables with her mother. As a child, she picked up a pencil and realized, “I can draw anything that I can see.”
Phyllis copied images out of catalogs just by looking at them. Among her favorite subjects were the Gibson Girls with their voluminous topknots and flowing curls.
Drawing led to painting. “My favorites are the beautiful flowers the Lord gave us,” Phyllis notes from her collection.
Many of the paintings bring back memories, starting in 1951 when she left home to work in Washington, D.C.
“At that time, the government would come to small towns and administer tests like typing and shorthand,” Phyllis explains. She accepted an offer to work for the Civil Service Commission.
“I had to get a worker’s permit because I was only seventeen,” recalls Phyllis. Initially, she was excited to live in America’s capital. Three long months later, she moved back to West Virginia, partially from homesickness and also to wed her high-school sweetheart, Harold Stafford.
The newlyweds soon grew their family with a son, Jim Stafford. Unexpectedly, Harold died in an automobile accident.
To support her son, Phyllis joined a telephone company in West Virginia. Next, she worked as a receptionist for Collins Radio Company and attended night school at Strayer Business College (now Strayer University) to brush up on her shorthand and typing.
“I loved that job and I loved the people,” Phyllis remembers.
Moving back to D.C., Phyllis became the secretary for Rita Valeo, the executive director at the National Committee for Children and Youth. The job offered higher pay and more room for growth.
Phyllis explains, “Her husband was Frank Valeo, the secretary for Mike Mansfield when he was Speaker of the House. So, she traveled some with President Kennedy. She was a good boss.”
During that time, Phyllis became more interested in politics. She also met Michael Hart, a man from Connecticut, who would become her second husband and father to her second son, Michael Hart III.
“We dated for about six months and got married, As they say, ‘…happily ever after,’” laughs Phyllis. “We were married for 45 years until Michael passed away. We lived in Ivy Hill together for 8 years and I’ve continued living here for another 10 years.”
Fishing and Flowers
“My husband was with Ford Motor Company for 28 years before he retired. Both of our sons were in Virginia at that time. So, we wanted to move closer. Also, my husband wanted to fish,” Phyllis lists as the reasons they chose Ivy Hill.
When they first moved in, the house was dark and covered in wood. They renovated it — brightening the interior significantly.
They quickly integrated into the local arts community. Phyllis joined the Lynchburg Academy of Fine Arts (now the Academy Center of the Arts). She showed her art at local galleries but, never wanted to sell.
To explain the personal connection she has with each project, Phyllis points to a painting of a yellow butterfly on a flower. For several days, the butterfly would visit her as she worked in the garden. One day, she came out to find just the wings, sitting perfectly still on a branch, probably after a bird had snatched away the body. Phyllis carefully scooped up the wings and painted the butterfly into the garden scene where they had first met.
Can’t Say Enough
In those moments, you understand why Phyllis says, “It’s great to set your feet on the floor every morning and breathe.” She takes notice of the world around her, commemorating it in paintings or poetry that she plans to leave behind to her family.
She’s proud of both her children and grandchildren, appreciating the times they come to visit her and the moments they’ve shared together.
When asked to reflect on her time, Phyllis will smile and say, “I’ve had ups and downs in my life but the Lord has been good to me. I can’t say enough about that.”