On a gorgeous, sunny afternoon in Homewood, Ashley McCullars dips her paintbrush into a bowl of water, then onto a tiny blob of paint, dabbing it back and forth, until she finds just the right shade of pink she’s looking for. Leaning over her kitchen island, she lets the fine bristles brush a large sheet of watercolor paper, and almost by magic, the delicate petals of a pink peony begin to appear. The strokes are so subtle, it’s like the flower was always there, just waiting for her to coax it out.
You could say the same thing for her as an artist. She did not grow up taking painting or art classes. She was more into dancing. She’s never even taken a class as an adult, yet her paintings hang in houses from Homewood’s 18th Street to the Gulf Coast.
“My dad is artistic. He’s a graphic artist, and I grew up watching him,” she says. So, a few years ago she bought a travel kit of watercolor paint and started playing around with it. “I watched a couple videos,” she says.
Like a lot of people, Ashley made her first attempts at painting after she and her husband, Ben, bought their first house and couldn’t afford to buy artwork. But unlike a lot of other people, her paintings were good.
Friends noticed, and eventually, she invited two friends over for a girls’ night in. The three of them painted, laughed and sipped a little wine, and at the end of the night, her friends were amazed. “You have got to do this more!” they coaxed. They told her people would pay money for her work. Even then, it took a couple of girlfriends from college to urge her to specifically call the Market at Pepper Place and see if she could set up a booth there. “She let me in,” Ashley says, “and it’s been three years.”
Not only did her paintings sell, but people started asking her if she would do commissioned paintings. She was stunned, but said, “Sure!”
She squeezes her painting in between working as a first-grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary, and raising her own two children. Ren, who is 5, walks into the kitchen on cue. He’s hungry. And he wants a snack. “Pizza,” he says, or potato chips. He holds up a bag of M&M’s, optimistically. No dice. He settles for Goldfish, before wandering off, giving Ashley the opportunity to start another peony.
I ask how she knows when a painting is done. She doesn’t, always. “I’m just painting until it looks nice,” she says. Riley, who’s in the third grade, comes home from her piano lesson and heads upstairs.
“I usually wait ‘til they’re in bed,” she says. “I can’t be still. I’m a piddler.” So, at night when her husband is watching TV, she paints, sitting on the couch in the living room. “That way we can be in the same room together.”
Her husband, a good artist in his own right, according to Ashley, admits to being amazed. Especially when acquaintances of his realize his wife is the artist of the work they’re talking about. “Everyone’s impressed,” he says.
Even, it turns out, Ashley’s students. They were doing a project together the other day when Ashley overheard one student tell another, “You know, Miss McCullars is a REAL artist!”
And when her artwork turned out a little better than her students’, she heard one explain, “Well, yeah, because her name is ‘McCOLORS.’”