Words: Marla Cantrell Images: Catherine Frederick
Four years ago, Sydney Clayton was living an idyllic life. Happily married with two sons and a daughter, she spent her days caring for her family and working in her interior design business. One of the things she remembers from those days is that she shopped. A lot. Not just for her family but for her clients. Her husband did well in the commercial real estate field in Fort Smith, something he’d done for twenty years. There was so much security in that; she didn’t worry very often, especially about money.
Then, during a series of discussions, she found out that her husband was not as happy as she’d thought. His problem was this: he felt called to attend seminary. The couple had always been active in church, and they prayed daily, asking for guidance. But at this stage in their lives, Sydney had trouble imagining this great shift in her family’s life.
One of the things that initially changed was that Sydney’s husband had to study diligently, and in doing so he needed a quiet place devoid of distractions. During the day, when the kids were at school, he’d stay in his home office, his head bent over his books, his mind focused on learning. Sydney, aware of his need for quiet, found herself moving gingerly around the house, careful not to disturb him. At the same time, the family was tightening its belt, since his hours working in real estate diminished to accompany his schooling. All that shopping she’d once done was now off the table. And while Sydney stood behind her husband, while she believed it was God’s plan that her husband become a minister, she was still feeling a little displaced, a little thrown off balance.
It was then that Sydney realized she needed to find a hobby, one that didn’t cost a lot of money. As a designer, she knew a lot about color, and she wondered if that might transfer to painting. She bought a few tubes of oil paint, a cheap canvas, and she got to work.
Her first painting was not a masterpiece, but it was good. Surprisingly good. But it was the outcome from those hours in front of the canvas that hooked her. What happened when she was painting was this: all those things she worried about started to sort themselves out. There, sitting in front of an easel, her mind quieted. At times, her kids would call out to her. “Mom, are we going to eat?” they’d ask. Startled, she’d look up and realize she’d been painting for most of the afternoon. “I spent a lot of time reflecting while I worked, praying that our family would be in one accord. It became my alone time with God. When God called my husband, He called all of us, our kids included, and it was during this time He was preparing my heart. My paintings became very emotional to me because it was a real life-changing time for us. It was stressful, but out of it came great things.”
Little by little, painting by painting, Sydney’s new reality began to make sense. And painting by painting, she was becoming a better artist. Those closest to her were stunned by how well she painted. Her mother, who also had an interest in art, suggested the two of them take a class at Hobby Lobby in Fort Smith. Sydney couldn’t wait. When they showed up they met the instructor, Ann Griffin. One of the first things she told Sydney was that she couldn’t make her a great artist but she could make her a great technician.
“Ann challenges me. She says, ‘Look for the light.’ And I hear that when I paint. When I first signed up for the class I had no idea that such a great teacher would be in charge. I thought I’d go to Hobby Lobby and just see. I can tell you, I’ve been amazed.”
It is remarkable just how talented Sydney is. Her paintings are everywhere in her house, many of them on oversized canvases. There are abstracts, 3D pieces, a gorgeous painting of kayaks that Sydney saw lined up against a wall while on vacation in Colorado. She snapped a photo, brought it home and began to paint. It is as if there is nothing beyond her scope. But the most striking pieces are the three paintings hung together in a hallway, each of dozens of antique buttons that she inherited from her grandmother.
“My grandmother sewed and had a big button collection. The first thing I did was make a button collage, just taking some of the actual buttons and putting them together and framing them. And one day I posted the collage on Instagram and realized it would make a cool painting.”
As Sydney is telling this story, she is standing in front of the three paintings. “If you look,” she says, “you can see my growth as an artist. You can tell I didn’t really know much about catching the light in the first painting. But the third painting is much, much better.”
Sydney laughs. “I called that my ‘button phase,’” she says as she walks into the room that serves as her studio. On an easel is another button painting, so realistic it looks as if you could reach out and touch the buttons. On another easel is a painting of birch trees that seem to come to life, the light brilliant on the bark.
In her baseball-playing son’s room is a portrait she painted of him in his catcher’s gear. It is so precise it looks as if you’re staring at a photograph. What makes it even more extraordinary is that it’s the only portrait Sydney’s ever done. “It was raining over spring break, and we weren’t going anywhere, so I started painting this and I just had so much fun.”
These days, Sydney paints whenever she can. She works in the church with her husband, and two of her three children are still home, so she stays busy with afterschool activities. (Her oldest started college this year.) She’s sold a few paintings but still struggles with letting them go. It’s not so much the paintings that she’s attached to but the memories she has of her time creating them.
She looks back on her life four years ago. “I was living the American Dream,” she says. By all accounts she was. But she wouldn’t go back. What she has now is an even happier family, and she believes God gave her this time to discover her talent, something she might not have done without this great shift in her circumstances. Always, she is drawn to the canvas, to that quiet time where she gets to visit with God, where the worries of the day seem to fall away and all that’s left is Sydney, looking for the light in a world that gets brighter every day.
To see more of Sydney’s work, visit her Facebook page – ssclayton, or see her work at Art in the Park on October 10-11, Riverfront Park, Fort Smith.