A nationally renowned oil painter and author recently relocated from Huntersville to what is known as the Old Burris Home in Lincolnton. At this magnificent estate, Donna Downey offers artists a sanctuary and the freedom to be artists. Situated on 23 wooded acres, the 7,000-square-foot house has high ceilings with reclaimed wood beams and trusses, massive windows and skylights to let the outside in, stone fireplaces and an in-ground swimming pool.

The home and property are beautiful and serene, but it’s the artist’s creative spirit that makes the setting whole.

“I’ve always offered retreats,” Downey said. “It was a different type of thing in Huntersville. I had a brick and mortar store on a main street. Given it was a retail store, there was more walk-in traffic. This property is stunning and even though it’s in the middle of Lincolnton, no one knows it’s here. When I found it – it was just ‘yes.’ It’s set up so beautifully.”

Downey’s paintings are hung throughout the house. There are various series of work, such as one called a “Hundred Faces.” 

“Anybody can paint a face and it can be as loose and as arbitrary as you want it to be as long as it’s got eyes, nose and a mouth,” she said. “Painting real people is really daunting for people who are just beginning. It’s the idea of practice and you can’t learn how to do something once. If you do it 100 times in 100 different ways you start to own what it is about your style.”

There are two classrooms in the home. One has easels and the other worktables. On Wednesday, two women were working in the classroom with tables, Sue Spencer and Elizabeth Bellmer. The women, who live in two different parts of the country, met each other through other workshops they’ve attended and have kept in touch.

“I’ve watched Donna’s YouTube videos and you can see that her work has changed and evolved, which really impressed me,” Spencer said. 

Bellmer, who flew to attend the retreat from Seattle, said that she admired Downey’s work and technique but was really attracted to her ability to allow herself to be herself and to open up.

“That’s what I needed to learn,” she said. “I paint small so I’m continuously learning how to paint larger and not so tight and confined.”

All supplies are provided in the cost of the retreat so attendees don’t have to carry supplies with them. During retreats, Downey employs a professional chef to cook meals.

Busy at work on an easel, Kirsten Pirko is a relatively new artist. She lives outside of D.C. and had been a stay-at-home mother devoting herself to her family.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” she said. “I’ve only been painting a year and a half. I saw a picture of this place on the website and I had to come – it was my dream.”

Life changed for Downey during a recent divorce and this is reflected in her newest body of work, consisting of 12 paintings, entitled simply, the “O Series.” Married for 25 years to an alcoholic left its scars on the artist but she managed to turn the negativity into empowerment. In addition to the paintings, offering these retreats, which are mostly attended by women, have been both empowering and healing for Downey.

“I hadn’t painted in a year,” she said. “I was just running the business. I was that wife who didn’t pay the bills, he did. I did the art. Then all of a sudden these paintings started coming out with these strong, beautiful women. They were desirable and vulnerable. It’s just changed the course of my life.”

Women have come to her home and sat in the room where the “O Series” is hung and cried.

“Either they remember the guy that they should have married, or the guy that made them feel that way, or the guy they wished they had that kind of relationship with,” she said. “This work represents who I am now.”

Downey is a former elementary school teacher and a self-taught artist who started out with scrapbooking before picking up a paintbrush. 

“For some reason, I love broken people and feel like artists somehow have a little bit of brokenness and they want to share it,” she said. “They come here and it’s a safe haven. The women who come here, I feel, leave something for the next woman and it propagates somehow. They all come here looking to learn from me but something happens while they are here. Tears and wine are shared and they all leave as family.”

Visitors come from all over the world to attend retreats offered by Downey. She also travels to do workshops for part of the year. She’ll be heading to Australia in a few months. Downey’s written five books and offers online workshops, some of them for free, as well.

“I love Lincolnton,” she said. “I think that it’s such a great small town. People are friendly and nice. I wouldn’t have been able to find this property any place else.”

Downey is working with the Arts Council of Lincoln County to offer an open house meet and great at Downey’s studio on Sept. 6 from 5-8 p.m. For more information on Downey or to view her work, visit https://www.donnadowney.com.

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