Written By Laura Thompson
Vibrant, fluid, yet detailed paintings of finches, wrens, and chickadees line the hallway leading to the light-filled studio. A James Taylor song plays at a low volume. Paints and canvases are spread about on easels and along the walls in various stages of work. This is the sedate workspace of Charlotte-based artist Wendy Bilas. An established, and much-loved, painter who has been honing her craft over the past 20 years, Bilas has found the right light and touch to pull the outside in to her quiet sanctuary.
A native of western Maryland who grew up hiking and exploring the outdoors, Bilas left her small hometown for Durham, North Carolina, receiving a BA from Duke, followed by an MBA from Wake Forest. While she left the mountains of Maryland behind, Bilas still turns to nature—being outside, hiking through the mountains—as the resonance in her work.
The birds along the walls of the hallway are part of her “Messenger” series. Each finch, wren, and cardinal tell a different story, and each are accompanied by a piece of piano sheet music fused onto the canvas.
“These paintings definitely pay homage to my dad. He was an ornithologist—in addition to being a medical doctor—who traveled the world photographing and studying birds, and my paintings are inspired by his photography. In our household, we grew up recognizing bird species and appreciating their beauty,” says Bilas. “The sheet music is from my childhood piano books. They seemed to be appropriate as backgrounds for my bird paintings since birds touch our senses through their visual beauty and their songs.
Bilas used her creative talents in very different ways early on, focusing on corporate writing, first for a corporation and then as a freelance writer. Bilas found local workshops that fed her passion and honed her talent. One workshop, in particular, an oil painting class at Queens University, opened her up the world of oils, and her work took off.
“I have always been creative and loved painting, but that class really opened up new possibilities for me,” remembers Bilas. “My work has always been grounded in reality, in nature, and I was able to find a way to do something unique.”
“Painting was something I did for myself when my children were younger,” Bilas says. “I would paint while they napped. Then they would wake up, and I would quickly clean up,” she laughs. “Over time, friends were interested in my work and wanted to buy paintings. Along the way—out of the blue—a gallery in Linville asked if they could represent my work. That was a moment of validation.”
Since that call, interest and demand for Bilas’ work has only increased. Her paintings are treasured in homes throughout Charlotte, across the country, and for the past year and a half, her work can be found in Sozo Gallery in Charlotte.
Nature remains Bilas’ source of inspiration. She spends most afternoons in her studio, after the daily to-do items are checked off and she is able to paint with a clear head ready to focus on her work with loose, flowing brushstrokes. Heathery purples, lush greens, and splashes of vibrant orange dance onto the canvas. As the playlist changes from James Taylor to a vintage Eagles tune, quiet farmhouses in a distant field, an arrangement of flowers, and the birds take shape in Bilas’ paintings in abstract, yet engaging, portraits.