Most people were a little bit afraid of Iris Rutherford’s paintings. The strange ones, at least. And so many of them were strange.
Her home town of Maple Ridge, Virginia, was a former mining camp that hung on when most of the old company coal and timber towns in Appalachia dried up and blew away. Part of it was the stunning beauty of the mountaintop community. Once clearcut and barren, the steep mountains and deep, blue valleys now held mature oaks, pines, poplars, and of course, several stands of huge old sugar maples.
A few people complained bitterly not long after the turn of the century when soaring white windmills appeared to sprout out of the forest, following the curves of the highest ridge lines. Decades later, agreements with a university to test new designs led to free electricity for the residents.
Broad, three-blade models still dominated, joined by single blade turbines and several with more than a dozen blades contained in an outer circle. But many looked more like sculpture, artwork that happened to supply power. Graceful upright blades in endless curves and variations, whirling in a dizzying ballet, bulky control units hidden among the trees.
Most natives and visitors alike now found the additions to the landscape charming, if not beautiful.
The main road into town twisted and curved, giving attentive drivers breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the sparkling Grasspe River cutting through the valley far below. Enough people pulled off of the narrow two lane road to take a look that muddy wide spots were a permanent fixture.
The town, and the region, were too remote and isolated for anything as official as a scenic overlook. The few tourists who found Maple Ridge were always enchanted, and their business at the restaurant, craft shop, and convenience store was much appreciated.
Visitors savored and treasured their maple syrup and candy, wishing for just one more taste when it was gone.
The other reason Maple Ridge survived was the fiercely independent - some said stubborn - nature of the few hundred hardy souls who clung to their ancestral homes. The elementary and middle school teachers and administration prided themselves as much on their efforts to get less than one hundred students ready for high school and life down off the mountain as on their traditional old school house. The brick walls had been built to last, over one hundred and fifty years ago.
More of those children returned after their educations than folks from other parts of the state would believe. They returned well-qualified from good colleges and universities, frequently after turning down or taking and later leaving excellent jobs elsewhere.
Many took advantage of the lightning speed Internet brought through town fifty years ago on the way to a bigger town and worked from home. A few took on the challenging but beautiful commute into nearby Wolf Branch or an hour further on to Hidden Springs.
More than the peace and quiet, the slower pace of life, and the deep fondness for the Grasspe River brought so many people back to Maple Ridge. The natives, and after a while the partners they often brought back with them, found they could not do without the peculiar magic and eccentricity of their home.
Iris Rutherford loved her home town as much as anyone else. But her own peculiar magic made her an outsider in a town full of them.
Everything changed for Iris when she started to draw and paint at age eleven. Seemingly overnight, the shy, quiet child who happily let her older brother and sisters take all the attention found her passion. The art teacher, delighted to see such unusual drive and raw talent, offered to let Iris practice before and after school.
She did both.
She understood the technical aspects of composition, color, and balance immediately. Iris surpassed most of what her young teacher had to offer within a few months. She moved on from typical bowls of fruit, faces, and landscapes to startling, surreal visions that even she didn’t quite understand.
Shapes often vaguely human, colors that should have clashed but flowed smoothly under her brush, and wild, thick strokes that followed a pattern no one could define poured forth. The art teacher spoke to Iris’s parents, and later to the high school art teacher in Wolf Branch. A student with so much promise must be handled carefully, guided in appropriate and controlled paths.
The high school counselor was the first to realize that whatever drove Iris to spend so many hours practicing would never be controlled.
After enough stern conversations about disturbing the other students, and the teachers, Iris learned to keep her special paintings - the true ones - private. She developed great skill with more acceptable work, and the talk died down. She never stopped painting the wild visions and images, the ones she saw burning in her mind as soon as she opened her eyes many mornings.
Her bedroom walls were lined with those distressing sketches and paintings, the ones she had no choice but to get out of herself. Iris learned of abstract and impressionist art from many decades before. She had high hopes of finding acceptance for her true work in art school.
The first person to understand what Iris painted, to see the meaning and significance even she never did, was Gena Wallace.