Painted Stories

Trena McNabb builds a successful career as a creator of site-specific paintings

By Tom Patterson

Trena McNabb began using her artistic talents to earn a living in the early 1960s, right after she graduated from high school in her hometown of Thomasville.

A former commercial-design artist, she took up painting while she was in her 20s. In the last 15 years she has parlayed that pastime into a successful career, creating site-specific paintings for corporate offices, government agencies, hospitals and other architectural interiors.

Her works can be found in China, Japan, Germany and numerous locales closer to home, including Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Hollywood, Charlotte, Raleigh and all three Piedmont Triad cities.

Since 1990, McNabb has completed 23 such commissions, the most recent of which is a 15-foot-long installation of seven triangular paintings that she finished this year for a nursing home in Land O’Lakes, Fla. Also this year, she created a painting that Old Salem has reproduced as a series of posters and note cards.

The latter composition is typical of McNabb’s distinctive style in that it is a multilayered montage of brightly lighted, realistically rendered, thematically related scenes and images. The work depicts familiar buildings in Old Salem and people wearing traditional Moravian costumes as they engage themselves in various traditional labors and pastimes.

For the first time in several years, McNabb is between commissions and has time to experiment with images of her own choosing — subject matter that doesn’t have to meet a client’s specifications. Hanging on one wall of her studio is a large painting in progress. It’s an aerial panorama of a city at night, a mosaic of bright dots standing out on an otherwise dark expanse of landscape.

The studio is a large, high-ceilinged upstairs room in McNabb’s contemporary brick house overlooking a wooded creek in Bethania. Interviewed there on a recent afternoon, she talked about the evolution of her painting style.

"I was 12 or 13 when I announced to my family that I wanted to be an artist," she said. ‘’That was an unknown concept to my family at the time. But my parents went out on a limb and let me take a correspondence art course when I was in high school. The lessons came in the mail once a month."

That was the extent of McNabb’s formal training. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, but her artistic abilities were sufficiently developed by the time she finished high school in 1961 that she was hired as a graphic artist by an advertising agency in High Point. ‘’Commercial art seemed to be the only avenue that was open to me for making a living as an artist," she said.

By 1965, McNabb was ready for a change of scene, so she brought her portfolio along on a vacation trip to Florida, and it helped her land a commercial-art job with a packaging-design company in Tampa. She decided to try her hand at painting about three years later, after watching a co-worker prime a large canvas with gesso.

She structured her earliest paintings around the color contrast between the white gesso she began using and the off-white of her raw canvases, whose resemblance to pale skin she exploited by outlining human figures in those un-gessoed areas, which she would then coat with gloss varnish. Eventually, she began superimposing more colorful, thematically related images over these pale figures.

During her eight years in Tampa, McNabb married an airline pilot and gave birth to her first child, a daughter. After leaving Florida in the early 1970s, she said, she and her family started moving all over the country. ‘’And I was spending all of my time painting and being a mother."

McNabb lived in Minneapolis from 1973 to 1977, and she said that it was during that period in her life that she began to focus serious attention on her art and had her first gallery exhibitions. The birth of her second child, a son, in 1975 hardly slowed her down.

She continued to paint prolifically after she and her family moved to Atlanta in 1977. She showed and occasionally sold some of her work at a small gallery in Marietta, on Atlanta’s northern outskirts. But it would be several more years before a series of breaks helped her career take
off.

In 1981 McNabb and her family moved to Winston-Salem so that her husband could take a job with Piedmont Airlines, which was then headquartered here. Not long after returning to her native state, McNabb submitted some of her work to Pace Magazine, published by Piedmont Airlines for its passengers, and the editors decided to reproduce one of her paintings in the magazine.

An executive for A.H. Robins Company, a vitamin-manufacturing company in Richmond, happened to see that issue of the magazine while traveling on Piedmont Airlines. He was sufficiently impressed with McNabb’s work that he commissioned her to create a painting to be reproduced on posters and limited-edition prints that promoted the company as a sponsor of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

McNabb’s next commission — the first she received to create the kind of site-specific paintings that would become her specialty — came from a German businessman who had bought one of her paintings from a local gallery where she had begun showing her work. A representative for companies that make cigarette-manufacturing equipment, he commissioned her to create a triptych, about 6 by 9 feet, on the history of tobacco use for Focke and Company, a West German company with which he worked.

McNabb completed that commission in 1986, and her client was so pleased with it that he commissioned her to make a thematically related piece for a hallway at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s new cigarette-manufacturing plant in Tobaccoville. Three of the seven panels that make up the latter piece, also completed in 1986, are plexiglass — a material that McNabb had never used as a painting surface.

By this time, McNabb had separated from her first husband. To maintain the momentum that her career had picked up, she submitted samples of her work to an organization called The Guild, which publishes an annual source book for architects interested in commissioning works of art for their projects. She said her acceptance into this relatively elite group of artists and artisans turned out to be a significant career boost and led to many of the commissions she has received in the last 10 years.

In characterizing her art, McNabb said she tries to tell a variety of interrelated stories in each site-specific piece by using a technique that she called ‘’transparent collage," in which ‘’painted scenes overlay each other to form a kaleidoscope of colors."

Among McNabb’s commissioned works in the Piedmont Triad are paintings for the offices of Truliant Federal Credit Union, T.W. Garner Food Co. and Sara Lee Corp.’s Hanes Hosiery Division — all in Winston-Salem — and Banner Pharmacaps in High Point. Other examples of her work, including the recent painting she made for Old Salem to reproduce, can be seen at e r l originals.

On Jan. 14, an exhibit of McNabb’s paintings will go on view for six months at Wake Forest University’s Babcock Graduate School of Management.

Published: December 12, 1999
Reprinted from the Winston-Salem Journal
© Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.

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