It was three years ago when Christian Potter Drury, a former art director at The Providence Journal, found herself adrift in one of life’s perfect storms.
After butting heads one too many times with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Drury walked away from her job as senior art director for the Wall Street Journal, split with her longtime husband, novelist Tom Drury, and found out that their 25-year-old daughter, Claudia, was facing serious health issues.
So with $9,000 to her name, she packed her belongings into her 1989 Volvo wagon and headed to Jamestown, her “spiritual home,” where she summered for 20 years. There she began painting, something she’d dreamed about since she was 13 years old and found a Rapidograph pen on the streets of London and began making art.
“All this stuff happened at once,” said Drury, 64, who could no longer stomach working with Wall Street Journal owner Murdoch. She said he often demanded major design changes at the last minute, leaving Drury a frantic hour or two to remake the page before sending the paper to Asia for the first edition.
“He ran the place like a monarchy,” Drury said. And after several waves of layoffs and more pressure than she could bear, Drury took a modest buyout and left for Jamestown, where there is something of a family compound.
“I said: no more Murdoch, no more New York City, no more subways. I’m going to paint.”
Drury is now living in a small but sunny attic apartment in a cousin’s waterfront home. She works two days a week at the local Fuller Gallery, where she’s learning framing. And the rest of the time she paints with a passion that’s almost scary. She’ll hole up for days, with the postman being her only contact with the outside world.
“I’m determined to be a good painter,” said Drury, who is shooting for a showing in New York. “I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better.”
This is something the world can judge for itself. Soon after Drury arrived in Jamestown, she began volunteering at the Jamestown Arts Center. Last year, she entered a piece in the annual members’ show and picked up the “Best of Show” award, which earned her a small solo show that just opened.
The show, “Darwin’s dream,” contains 16 pieces, most all of them mixed media and mapping something of major transition in her work from attractive illustrations perfect for a kitchen niche to richer, bolder canvases that fall somewhere between representational and abstract. They are more emotional, not so decorative.
“I Fell in the Ocean” fills the space with swirling sea forms, along with a small orange fish and a cormorant poking its head from the water. Unlike careful arrangements of starfish and delicate flowers, “I Fell in the Ocean” moves and has energy.
There are a couple of paintings of fan-shaped blossoms, the better of the two being covered with feathery pencil scribbles and flecks of red and orange.
And there are small pieces with mysterious, ancient figures with black faces and white slits for eyes and mouths. Drury said she was never good at drawing faces as a kid, and began using black ovals that persist today.
There is one rather agitated image with orange slashes that represents family tensions after the death of Drury’s mother.
Drury comes from a family of artists. A relative, Allyn Cox, spent two decades painting the murals in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, and her father, Clarkson Potter, published art books, and was one of Drury’s biggest fans.
He would take her to New York galleries and encourage her drawing.
When she was 10, her parents divorced and Drury moved to London to live with her English mother, a complete “culture shock.” She was taunted in school. Kids called her “Yank” and took her books and pencils. She quickly lost her American accent “as a matter of survival.”
She ended up going to art school in London, studying printmaking and working mostly in black and white.
“Color scared me,” she said.
After returning to the States when she was 21, Drury continued working in printmaking at Goddard College. When she was 21 a New York gallery offered to show some of her drawings.
But she had to make money. So she took a job with a newspaper in New Milford, Connecticut, and not long after that, when she was about 25, came to work in 1978 for The Providence Journal, where she became an art director in the features department.
But she didn’t want her daughter growing up in Providence and felt it was time to move on after a half-dozen years. She and husband Tom, who was a rising talent in the literary world at the time, moved to northwestern Connecticut, where Drury took a job with the Hartford Courant. She redesigned the paper from “agate to the masthead,” she said, and won top place in two international design competitions.
Drury also worked as an art director at the Los Angeles Times, but was let go in 2008 when she balked at laying off members of her staff. Besides, she wanted to return to the East Coast.
And that’s when she took the job at the Wall Street Journal, where she thrived for a while, but found working for Murdoch just too stressful. So she chucked it all and returned to Jamestown, where she had spent her childhood picking gooseberries and learning about plants and gardening from her grandmother.
And that interest in nature resonates in her art today. For some time, she created mixed-media pieces inspired by the journals of Charles Darwin made during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, when he visited remote climes and came across unknown plants and animals.
“I’m discovering how he discovered,” she said.
Although she has wrapped up the Darwin series with a 3-foot-by-4 foot painting inspired by Darwin’s notions of evolution, her paintings are still full of natural forms, in particular, imagined creatures that might dwell in the deep.
At this point, Drury, who is largely self-taught as a painter, leads a pretty solitary life.
“Painting is lonely,” she said. “I’m not a social person. I don’t do dinner parties.”
Although Drury has been showing at the Jamestown Arts Center, she sold four paintings at the Taste Gallery to a woman who has asked for more work. And she’s been picked up by a new gallery in Stonington, Connecticut.
Her goal, though, is to be represented by a New York gallery, and at some point, earn a living from her art.
“It’s a wonderful challenge,” said Drury. “But I’m damned determined and going someplace. I’m giving myself five years.”
“Darwin’s dream” is up through Dec. 2 at the Jamestown Arts Center, 18 Valley St., Jamestown. Call (401) 560-0979, or visit jamestownartcenter.org.
Channing Gray, Providence Journal
Thursday, November 2, 2017