By Patra Taylor
There have been times in Retta Willcox Dotterer’s life when she let go of her art to pursue other endeavors. Fortunately for Mrs. Dotterer — and the many art lovers who have discovered her work — her art never let go of her.
Encouraged by her mother and a teacher, the Florence native began spreading her artist wings as a child. But Mrs. Dotterer admits she didn’t paint much during her high school and college years. “I did take a drawing class at the University of South Carolina,” recalls the Mount Pleasant resident. “It was so discouraging because I thought I was the worst one in the class. When I look back now, I realize that I really learned how to draw in that class. Drawing is a big part of the process.”
When she married Charlestonian Gilly Dotterer, the artist suddenly found herself in God’s country, a place that has historically produced, nurtured and encouraged artists of all disciplines with its magnificent architecture, natural beauty and colorful people providing an infinite source of creative inspiration. “I always found driving across the bridge everyday to be very inspirational,” says Mrs. Dotterer. “In fact, anywhere I drive around the Lowcountry, I find inspiration for my art. I also find inspiration in the tobacco country where I grew up and the foothills of the North Carolina mountains where my family visited during the summers.”
After a brief career as a paralegal, Mrs. Dotterer opted to become a stay-at-home mother. While her two sons were still toddlers, she was unable to resist the Lowcountry muse any longer. She picked up her paintbrushes again and allowed her art to reclaim its rightful place in her soul. Through the years, her renewed focus on developing her talent led her to study with a number of acclaimed local artists including Bill Jameson, Susan Mayfield and Amelia Rose Smith. With the help of her mentors, Mrs. Dotterer has emerged as a landscape artist in her own right.
Today, Mrs. Dotterer’s landscapes are defined by her own unique blend of realism and impressionism. “When I was working with Bill Jameson, I moved from watercolor painting to oils,” the artist explains. “Watercolor was a great thing for me to start in because it’s loose. That’s one of my goals … to stay as loose as I can. I like loose but I also like works that are realistic … I like to look at a painting and know what it is. So my style is realistic, yet impressionistic. I love painting with oils because they are more forgiving than watercolors.
“I like to paint fast so I don’t lose interest,” she continues. “I have this creative umph, but then I have to tweak it up. Oils allow me to do that.”
Now that her sons are grown and her daughter is in high school, Mrs. Dotterer splits her time between helping out in husband Gilly’s Summerville-based Nationwide Insurance agency and her art. Even as she continues to paint weekly with Amelia Rose Smith, Mrs. Dotterer has discovered mentors of another stripe — those skilled at social media.
“I sell a lot of paintings at Indigo Market,” says Mrs. Dotterer. “The owners, Liz Lyday and Chrissie Batten, taught me how to sell through Facebook and Instagram. It’s all about social media these days.”
Indigo Market, located at 1094 Morrison Drive, is a locally based store that sells vintage and new furniture, as well as art, jewelry and gifts on consignment. “Chrissie and I opened the store on October 1,” states Liz Lyday, co-owner of Indigo Market. “Chrissie’s family knew Retta’s family back in Florence, so Retta was one of the first local artists we thought of when we were considering art for our store.”
According to Ms. Lyday, the store sells a number of Mrs. Dotterer’s oils-on-canvas paintings each month. “We can’t keep her work in the store,” she continues. “As soon as it comes in, it’s sold.”
The owners of Indigo Market take full advantage of social media to sell all the items in their store. “Since we get a lot of traffic on social media, we post photos of her art and people show up to buy it. The paintings that sell the best tend to be her Charleston landscapes. Locals see a painting on Instagram and think it’s perfect for their homes. Or visitors see it and come by because they want to take a piece of the Lowcountry home with them.
“Recently Retta painted a stunning linear of the bridge,” continues Ms. Lyday. “It was beautiful. We posted it on Instagram and someone came over right away and purchased it. That happens a lot.”
Mrs. Dotterer’s paintings range in price from $125 to $350 and come in a variety of sizes. “Retta also does commissions,” notes Ms. Lyday. Since art has settled permanently into her life, Mrs. Dotterer seems content to continue learning and perfecting her work. “I still love watercolor, but it’s not as popular in the market as it used to be,” she says. “Abstract art is really popular right now. But you can’t be who you’re not, so I continue to paint in the style that I paint.
“Thanks to my husband Gilly, who grew up here, I’m in the right place to paint,” she concludes. “I’m fortunate in that way.”
Author Patra Taylor is a longtime contributor to the Charleston Mercury, along with a host of other publications.