Give and Ye Shall Receive

June Gibson nurtures a creative flame in her own way

Story William Browning | Photographs Ray Adkins

June Gibson is an artist who gives her work away because she believes doing so will, in obscure ways, earn her the muse’s trust.

She’s been at this for more than a decade. For a while, she kept up with how many paintings she had given away. Around the time the tally came to 420, though, she stopped caring about the number. It is probably near 500 now, and always rising. Gibson is a devoted painter. When the feeling that a canvas is finished comes over her, what follows is an urge to give it away. There are times, as the creation changes hands, the oil is still wet.

Gibson is 71 and lives alone. When her sails catch wind, she does ponder directions. Who will receive a painting can be a mystery, even to her. Family members have received them. Near-strangers have too. They have been walked into nursing homes, carried in bundles into hospitals and handed out at gatherings of bridge players. They have been sent to old friends in the Dakota plains and siblings in Florida. A felon in an Illinois prison received one in the mail. A hairdresser in Jackson was handed one. And so on and so forth.

Several years ago Gibson had a radio tuned to National Public Radio and heard a writer read a commentary on baseball. Despite having only a passing interest in the sport, she felt moved enough by the words, which mulled over gone youth and beginnings, she contacted the writer to ask for his address. Not long later, a painting of a baseball arrived in the Vermont woods, where the writer lives. He had never heard of Gibson but hung her painting in his home’s main room, above a print of his mother’s hometown of Long Harbour, Newfoundland.

This writer is a friend of mine. It was through him that I learned about Gibson. After hearing the baseball-painting story I began a correspondence with her. The idea of an unknown painter quietly handing her work away was intriguing — in a gray world, this was a perfectly formed white flower — and I wanted to know more.

What I found is that Gibson is a kind and unassuming Meridian native who picked up a paintbrush with purpose for the first time when she was about 50. She lives in Brandon and paints most every night and all across weekends. She works full-time as a nurse at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson.

For a time she took her supplies to the hospital on her off days and painted in a maintenance room because she felt the lighting there was better. She does not feel that way anymore. She is content to sit at her kitchen table and work. She favors still lifes and landscapes, and when she finishes a painting, she removes it from the easel and gives it away.


Photographed by Ray Adkins.

In a letter Gibson sent me several years ago, she told how she came to believe she could court the muse by giving work away:

This story will explain in part what I learned years ago from my elderly mother’s elderly black friend up in Kemper County.

Mother went to visit Miss Mary to take her some chicken and dumplings. Mary was not there but her husband John was in the rocking chair on the front porch. Mother drove up in her dilapidated old green Ford and was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of a rose bush which was wrapped up in gorgeous blooms. Getting out, holding on to the old car to support her poor old arthritic knees, she hollered to John, ‘John, how in the world does Miss Mary get her roses to bloom like this?’ John, never missing a beat rocking, replied, ‘Lawd, Miss McKee, she just give plenty away.’

It occurred to me that what was happening was every time the lady gave people a rose or roses, it was in actuality pruning the bush which caused it to put forth more growth. I took that to heart and began giving paintings to stimulate more growth in my art…

Gibson had been painting about five years when her mother went to visit Mary Caver, the woman who had the rose bush in Kemper County. Gibson has pruned her work ever since.

Sometimes she wraps a painting before giving it to someone. Usually she does not. She has occasionally, with no irony, placed a painting that is small enough inside of a cardboard Big Mac container from McDonalds and handed it to someone while saying, “I brought you something today, and I hope you like it.”

Photographed by Ray Adkins.

Photographed by Ray Adkins.

Gibson is a largely self-taught painter who considers Norman Rockwell of the first rank and is somewhat dismissive of Picasso. Her conservative bent comes through in her art. There are muted colors and few hard lines. To everything there is a subtleness — nothing on a Gibson canvas is designed to draw attention.

She is rarely satisfied with her own work and has never had a showing. There are certainly other artists with much deeper, much more complicated and intricate work. But it would be wrong to say what Gibson creates is straightforward and amateurish. There is kind of heavy layering in her brush strokes that denotes thoughtful movements. An elusive quality of dreams holds in the best of what Gibson paints.

In the painting for the writer in Vermont, the baseball, sitting on a wooden table, seems both innocent and stoic, worn and new somehow. What looks to be a hard midday light shines, but the scene remains soft. Timelessness is around.

One day in my mailbox there were two miniature paintings in a package from Gibson — one is of two red flowers, the other depicts a sort of glen. The flowers are healthy and seem to want to sway. The glen seems to have just had an afternoon downpour, or maybe daybreak just came to reveal a cloudy sky. There is no way to know how early or late it is.

Recently, Gibson painted a coastal scene. There is a palm tree, a sailboat off in bay’s distance, a lighthouse on a far shore. There is not a person in sight, and it is a perfect day. It feels like an invitation to a place where every possibility awaits, though only for so long.

Gibson never said what she hopes to achieve with her art besides giving it away. Or, if she did, I forgot it. Or maybe I did not catch it — Gibson has a voice that is tuned to merriment, and it is possible to simply enjoy it without fully comprehending what she is telling. Her voice is also plentiful. She piles stories in conversations the way old people in winter pile blankets at the foot of a bed. What I will never forget is something she repeated over and over again: The most difficult item to paint, by her estimation, is a white flower.