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Drawn to Aiken: Local artist Betsy Wilson-Manhoney has made the city her canvas

September 20, 2018

“Southern Living” named Aiken the “South’s Best Small Town” for 2018, but local artist Betsy Wilson-Mahoney has known that all of her life.

The Aiken native has made a successful career of painting some of the city’s best known and loved landscapes and events, and through a partnership with the Aiken Standard, she is sharing some of her favorite artworks with the community.

Today’s edition includes 12 postcards, suitable to send to friends and family, featuring Wilson-Mahoney’s work and commemorating Aiken’s title as the “South’s Best Small Town.”

The paintings follow the calendar and the seasons: bare trees over Sand River in the winter, azaleas blooming under the tunnel of live oaks on South Boundary in spring, the Thursday Market in The Alley in summer and the Blessing of the Hounds in fall.

The other postcards feature Mead Avenue, The Willcox, the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, the Aiken Steeplechase, Palmetto Golf Club, The Alley, the Aiken County Farmers Market and Laurens Street.

“It’s a good time to celebrate what we’re all about,” said Wilson-Mahoney, surrounded by her work in her studio in the Aiken Antique Mall on Laurens Street. “You might call the postcards my 12 greatest hits paintings. They’re from almost 10 years ago to about three months ago. It’s kind of a retrospective.

“Over time, these are 12 favorites that people love. I do limited editions of 50 or 100 prints. In most cases, the originals are gone, and many have been gone for a long time.”

Aiken Standard Publisher Rhonda Overbey called Wilson-Mahoney’s art “a mirror of Aiken.”

“Her images remind us of some of the reasons why Aiken was selected as the South’s best small city,” she said. “I was thrilled to collaborate with Betsy and put together this project for Aiken Standard subscribers to commemorate this occasion. I hope Aiken Standard readers will take advantage of the 12 beautiful postcards and invite family and friends to visit our unique small city.”

Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon agreed.

“‘Southern Living’ has recognized what the people who live, work and play here have known all along,” he said. “Aiken is a truly special place to live or to visit, and, to me, it’s always been the South’s best small town.”

When Wilson-Mahoney graduated from USC Columbia, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. Unlike some art majors who moved to Atlanta or New York, she returned home to Aiken.

“I just wanted more than anything to move back to Aiken because I really loved it. I felt it was a place I had a lot of passion for, and I saw a lot of growth potential in the way the community supports all kinds of arts. I love theater and music, too, and I felt like it was a place I could really bloom,” said Wilson-Mahoney, who also is known for her singing and acting talents and has appeared in numerous productions at the Aiken Community Theatre and with the Aiken Women’s Heart Board annual benefit.

Right out of college, Wilson-Mahoney opened one of the first shops in The Alley after the late Marilyn Riviere developed the shopping and dining district in downtown Aiken.

Next, she worked as a textile designer at Riegel Textiles in Johnston.

After almost seven years at Riegel, she wanted to spend more time with her young children and left to start painting furniture. When her children entered preschool, she started painting murals at churches, schools and buildings around town.

At 40, she went back to school and took some art classes with Al Beyer at USC Aiken and found her calling.

“I really felt like that was the time in my life when I wanted to become a painter,” Wilson-Mahoney said. “One of the things Al said to me one day was paint what you know – do what you know.

“Maybe he said that to every student, but it really made me think, well, I’ve invested a whole lifetime in trying to come here, be here, make a living from doing art here, and I really love to paint what is all around me and what I love about here. So I kept doing it more and more.”

Today, Wilson-Mahoney spends about 20 percent of her time on long projects, a book or a calendar, for example, that can take a year of more.

This year, she’s painting one equestrian event at Bruce’s Field each month for the Aiken Horse Park Foundation. The project will culminate in a calendar and a show of all of her artwork from the project in May.

Recently, Wilson-Mahoney expanded her artwork beyond paper and canvas to coffee mugs, glass cutting boards, jewelry, Christmas ornaments and other items.

“I know so many friends and people in my age group who would like a certain image but have no more wall space,” she said. “But they can use a glass cutting board to serve cheese and fruit on and then put it on an easel in their kitchen when it’s not in use. It’s always fun to have something new and different.”

When not working on longer projects, Wilson-Mahoney said she “likes to paint what people ask me to paint.”

“I’m not offended if they want it to match their sofa or a particular size. I like to paint it like they would if they could paint it,” she said.

Wilson-Mahoney often works from photographs provided by clients or professional photographers or she takes herself.

“I feel humbled truly by the trust my clients put in me because I’m allowed to paint things I know very little about,” she said. “I try to listen to the person or people I’m painting while they tell me what is important to them.

“Sometimes it’s about a relationship that is in the photo that I’m painting or an architectural feature or a building or room or sometimes it’s about a horse event, which I will be the first to tell you I know little to nothing about.

“But I think they’re beautiful, and I love that they surround us. All of these things and people for whom I paint make my job interesting as I try to do the subject matter justice in a creative but loyal way.”

Wilson-Mahoney said she does not regret – “not ever, not for one minute” – returning to Aiken and making the community and its people and events her canvas.

“I feel really lucky,” she said. “I feel lucky that people have trusted me to paint their children, their animals, their homes. I feel lucky that Aiken has trusted me to illustrate it in a way that is flattering to a place that I love. I’m not an exhibition artist. I’m not a competition artist. I just try to be every man’s artist.”

Aiken Standard subscribers will receive a booklet of Wilson-Mahoney’s 12 postcards in today’s paper. The postcards and notecards with the paintings also are for sale at the Aiken Standard from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. The cost for either is $15. The Aiken Standard is at 326 Rutland Drive N.W. For more information, call 803-648-2311.

The postcards and notecards also will be for sale at the Aiken Standard’s seventh-annual Fall Home and Garden Show from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center at 1700 Whiskey Road. Admission will be a $1 donation to benefit Aiken County Habitat for Humanity.

The notecards also are for sale at Wilson-Mahoney’s studio in the Aiken Antique Mall at 112 Laurens St. S.W.

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