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When his first wife, Carolyn, became ill with multiple sclerosis, artist Robert Dance found that spending time in his garden provided a satisfying respite from the intensity of caring for her.
Over the years, he has painted watercolors of some of the flowers he has grown. And, now, in honor of her memory, he is donating a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of a set of botanical prints to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Carolyn died in 1991. Dance has since remarried and lives with his second wife, Coleman, in Kinston, where he went to high school.
Robert and Carolyn Dance lived in Winston-Salem for about 35 years. The youngest of their three sons, Stuart, is studying sound design at the N.C. School of the Arts.
Carolyn took responsibility for the business side of her husband's art and was active in a number of arts organizations. She was a docent at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art and a president of Friends of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. And, after her open-heart surgery in mid-1960s, she became active in the Forsyth County Heart Association.
In the late 1980s, she contracted a particularly devastating form of multiple sclerosis. Dance eventually became so wrapped up in caring for her that, for a time, he had to set aside his art.
"When my wife was ill with MS, I took up gardening in a big way," Dance said. "It was sort of a way to get away from everything."
Now 66, Dance continues to enjoy gardening. His sunroom doubles as a greenhouse for the seeds he germinates, and he and his wife also grow orchids and other plants there.
Shortly after they married, Coleman learned that she had breast cancer. She is doing well, he said.
"She has this wonderful, positive attitude which has really borne her through this cancer scare."
In her honor, Dance is considering donating a percentage of the proceeds from another set of prints to an organization associated with breast cancer.
She, too, is an artist. Her style is more impressionistic than his. Recently, she was the featured artist at a show at the Beaufort Historic Society in Beaufort, N.C. Her work has also been exhibited in juried art exhibits in Chapel Hill.
In years past, Dance's work was regularly shown at SECCA. His work was selected for the permanent collection of the N.C. Museum of Art, and his painting of the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was one of six chosen for the stamps for the National Park Service's 1988 Golden Eagle Pass.
Before he was able to devote himself full-time to his own art, Dance worked first in advertising and then freelance, creating art for magazines and other publications and for such businesses as General Electric, Hanes, Wachovia and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Much of Dance's original work is sold through a gallery in Mystic, Conn. (Julia Roberts fans may remember the town as the setting for her movie Mystic Pizza.)
"I'm probably better known there than I am in North Carolina," Dance said.
Dance also writes about art and builds model boats. (Some serve as models for boats in his paintings.)
Today, he is known primarily for his realistic nautical scenes. Although he strives to create an image that appears to depict a scene someone might have seen, he does so by putting together elements gathered from different places.
The boat might be one he examined closely while it was moored at a dock. The clouds might be ones that he saw driving down the road one day. For the people he has even used himself, his sons and neighbors as models.
"It's a kind of assemblage of things from different places," he said. "Seldom will you find something that I paint as I first saw it."
What makes them seem real though, he said, is his careful study of nature.
"You are doing it according to the rule of nature and that's what makes good realism look right," Dance said.
The botanical watercolors were also "assembled." Flowers that he grew from seed form the heart of each the four pictures. To make them livelier, he added birds and butterflies. For some of the butterflies, he used a butterfly that he had constructed out of paper as a model. He painted the goldfinch in one picture from memory.
"I know enough about birds that I can paint them from almost any position," he said.
Dance describes himself as a slow worker.
"Watching me work is like watching molasses dribble down an inclined plate," he said.
He has been known to spend up to six months on a single painting and generally takes at least a month to finish even a small painting. A watercolor might take three weeks. He likened painting watercolors to playing chess.
"If you don't think ahead 25 moves you're going to make a mistake," he said.
In Winston-Salem, he worked at a studio in his home. In Kinston, he works in a studio on the second floor of a downtown building. After the flooding that followed Hurricane Floyd, three weeks passed before he was able to get back into his studio.
Even if he isn't particularly in the mood to paint when he goes to the studio, once he starts he becomes transported. He can hear the wind and smell the water, he said.
"I feel like I can walk around
inside the painting."
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