Artist has been painting portraits and landscapes for nearly five decades Columbia resident also restores works HOWARD COUNTY SENIORS

September 29, 1993|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Ever since Sylvia James George gave her second-grade teacher a drawing of three grass huts she had seen in a Tarzan movie, she knew she wanted to be an artist.

"I had forgotten to sign my paper and the teacher asked the class whose drawing it was," said Mrs. George, of Columbia, now a 70-year-old portrait painter. "I identified it as mine, and she seemed skeptical; I was asked to duplicate it on the board."

Once the teacher realized the girl had actually created the work, she frequently called on the young artist to demonstrate her abilities to the class.

"I remained standing [at the chalkboard] the rest of the year," said Mrs. George with a laugh.

Years later, she is still creating artwork, spending six hours a day painting in her studio at Historic Savage Mill.

Primarily a portrait painter, she works from a custom-designed, 13-foot-by-6-foot easel, made to enable her to paint large canvasses, such as the 10-member family portrait she did for a Belgian diplomat.

She also paints a variety of other subjects, including landscapes, seascapes and buildings, using oils, pastels, water colors, and pen and ink.

And when she's not painting, Mrs. George restores damaged paintings in her new business, Oil Painting Conservation & Restoration, located in an area across the hall from her portrait studio.

But portraiture remains the core of her work, an artistic medium she has been practicing for nearly five decades.

Sometimes, those portraits begin with sketches made from photographs. Others require six hours worth of sittings, in two-hour sessions punctuated by five-minute breaks.

"I love sittings, because I have all the references that I need right in front of me in the subjects' personalities," said Mrs. George, who prefers to work in the northern light that floods through a wall of windows in her studio. "I use light as a medium to create what I need to do."

During a typical sitting, the subject can observe the work-in-progress in a full-length mirror, while listening to classical music tapes.

"I talk as I paint; I want my subjects to be relaxed. . . . I love it when we are talking, it's great," Mrs. George said.

Mrs. George's first informal portrait, a small watercolor, was commissioned in 1944 by Adele Simpson, a New York fashion designer.

The two women had met while the young artist was doing free-lance drawings of the latest dress designs by various fashion houses in New York, earning money for her third year at the Pratt Art Institute in New York City.

Impressed with the artist's work, which was published in

a syndicated newsletter, the designer asked the young woman to paint her portrait.

Two years later, the artist married Henry H. George, an engineer with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory; the couple moved to Columbia in 1959.

Mrs. George continued her career at home, snatching time in the evening to work in her upstairs studio while rearing their eight children.

Although the artist had painted occasional portraits of family and friends, it wasn't until 1968 that she did her first formal portrait, executed in oils and a more exacting process than an informal watercolor portrait.

That portrait, of Omar Jones, first principal of Howard High School, was done at the request of the school's PTA and now hangs in the school library.

Over the years, the artist says she has done thousands of casual and formal portraits, including quick-sketch drawings, paintings of brides and grooms and larger family portraits.

On occasion, Mrs. George is commissioned to do board room portraits of business executives and company founders.

Her portrait work ranges in price from $250 for a small, informal watercolor, to thousands of dollars for a large formal portrait done in oils with the best materials and methods to ensure the longevity of the painting.

Her work has been displayed in the Kennedy Library in Washington, the Elkridge Historical Society, and at the Applied Physics Laboratory. In October, she will have a display of scenes of Columbia at Vantage House, a retirement community in Columbia.

And while she loves the process of painting itself, there's another aspect of her work that she enjoys even more: the unveiling.

When a work is completed, Mrs. George likes to seat her clients in part of her studio furnished for the occasion with a sofa and two chairs. She then faces the subject or subjects, and slips the cloth off the canvass.

"I love being able to see their faces. . . . I wouldn't trade that moment for anything," Mrs. George said.

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