Part experimentation, part magic, medieval alchemy impacted modern chemistry and influenced the work of Asheville artist Virginia Derryberry. While the alchemists tried but failed to turn various metals into gold, Virginia’s art practice—which uses a similar formula of experimentation and questioning—led to a golden career as an educator, showing artist, and storyteller.
Born of the South where storytelling is an art form, Virginia started drawing doodles at the age of five, often of friends trying their best to sit still in church. “I would do profile drawings, and it just really charged me up,” she remembers. The inner artist in Virginia ignited, and she started a life of making with abandon. “I know sometimes kids around that age worry about judgment of their work and whether it’s good enough, but for some reason I never cared. I just wanted to make things,” she tells Artsville.
Pursuing an art career was never in question, and though she studied art history at Vanderbilt, she consistently escaped to her studio to paint. “Up until about the early 2000s, I considered myself more of a landscape painter—making these dreamscapes that were partly observed, partly invented,” she says. But, during an artist residency in France, Virginia embraced a new direction inspired by the beautiful European cathedrals and the art that adorned them. “In the cathedrals, I saw a lot of sculptural and relief carvings of floating and flying figures,” she says. “I thought, that’s what my paintings need. When I got back to the studio, I started a series of work that began the process of showing figures that seem to be floating in air and/or reaching a hand into the landscape.” Thus began her fascination with magical imagery and figure studies, and she started to plant enchanting portraits of people in her life into her landscapes.
Currently, Virginia’s working on her most figure-heavy series to date called Private Domain, inspired by mythology, alchemy, and duality. In the series, she often revamps classical myths—“I love the idea of a myth that is from the past, but is something that people still respond to,” she says. “It's human nature that's being depicted, right?”—showing Artemis (or Diana) the hunter as a man covered by her mom’s fur coat and Echo (of Echo and Narcissus) as the one that falls in love with her reflection. Making sure to guide the spotlight to the women in her narratives, Virginia portrays them as strong, independent, and calm—a counterpoint to their representation in classical myths as deceitful and uncontrollable.
A key theme in Private Domain is contrast—showing images that float, others that sink, and by extension, a reconciliation of spirit and matter. “What alchemists were trying to do, in essence, was address the concept of Rebis, which is duality, contrast, or almost conflict,” Virginia explains. “The purpose was not to ignore duality. It’s a part of human nature, too.” In the works, contrast emerges texturally, with naked skin and furry capes, and in a dramatic, Caravaggesque use of light and shadow. Virginia isn’t looking to find balance, but a relationship where opposites complement each other. Applying this to life outside of her paintings, Virginia says, “There are a lot of things we can't solve, conflicts and divisions, but alchemists posed questions about how separate, contrasting parts could come together. They weren’t posing conflict and duality as warfare.”
Often combining multiple panels to create her large-scale works, Virginia illustrates scenes, sometimes even panoramic displays, that pull you in like a movie. Instead of a set moment in time, her work takes you on a narrative journey—enveloping you in mystical moments, wrapping you up in the drama of revised myths—all while honoring the place she has always called home, the South.