Virginia McLaughlin may look like your typical grandmother, but this sprightly, petite woman is anything but. Upon meeting the Frederick, Maryland-based artist, most people are bowled over by her mental and physical agility—and her energy, which, at her ripe age of 88, is remarkable. However, so is the fact that she’s still working, doing what she loves as she has for decades. She sees herself as a latter-day itinerant painter—an artistically gifted person who, in times gone by, traveled about decorating other people’s houses and possessions.
“It was a different time back then. That’s the way they worked,” she says, sounding very comfortable to be walking along the same path, scrambling up ladders to single-handedly paint wall-size murals for clients, then letting happenstance determine her next job or project.
Her work is always historically inspired, whether the installation is in a private home or a public place such as the Inn at Mount Vernon, where one of her murals depicts the homestead of George Washington as it was during his lifetime, complete with fishing boats and slaves. Her stylistic inspiration comes from two major sources: Rufus Porter, an 18th-century American itinerant painter, and Jean Zuber, a French muralist of about the same period.
But painting murals is something that evolved for McLaughlin over time. She built on her early studies at Stevens College during her marriage to G. Donald McLaughlin, when they traveled the world for his career with the Central Intelligence Agency. Overseas, she was able to take furniture-painting classes in Germany and Chinese brush-stroke painting in the Far East. Returning home to raise a family near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, McLaughlin became interested first in Early American art, and then in 18th-century-style painting.
“I tried to mimic the painting style that was often done on wooden boxes,” McLaughlin says, referring to decorative objects that were popular during that period. Gradually, she moved from small boxes with faux-wood grain to larger ones depicting historic silhouettes, inspired by museum pieces from the late 1700s.
Then her paintings began to grow, and she moved on to storage-size pieces with historic scenes; it was just a small leap from there to the murals that have been her life’s work since then. Rufus Porter’s stylized trees and juxtaposition of light and shadow worked easily into her own style. Then she saw the Zuber panoramic wallpapers at the White House and became enthralled with the soaring trees in the foreground and the skies that ended in dark borders around the edges of his work.
But inspiration and execution are two different things, and McLaughlin is very humble about her talent. “I feel that I have a higher power element that is involved with my art work,” she says. “I have passion for painting. It keeps me alive and the research fascinates me.”
The work itself can take weeks, and according to McLaughlin, she doesn’t sketch, preferring to do a rough outline directly on the wall. She mixes her own colors using standard wall paint by Benjamin Moore for its durability and ease of cleanup.
“I believe that the mural has to fit the space it’s in and its surroundings, but I’m still independent the way I paint it,” says McLaughlin, who is something of a celebrity in the Frederick area, not only for her artistic achievement, but also for the way she connects with clients.
So what’s next for this very busy woman? She just launched a new web site (virginiamclaughlin.com) and landed a commission to paint a mural in the entrance hall of a historic house in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, that will mimic hand-painted Chinese silk wallpaper.
“And, we’re working on getting a book published,” McLaughlin adds, uttering the words with the same delight she always seems to take in tackling something new.
Writer Jeanne Blackburn is based in Montgomery Village, Maryland. Harriet Wise is a photographer in Frederick, Maryland.
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