Portrait Poetry: A Glimpse into the Personal Creative Process of a Psychologist-turned-Painter
By Niambi Davis
Above:the finished portraits, “Flamingo” and “Elegance”
Fern Loos Beu was always artistic. As a child growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, she was given easels and pads of paper instead of dolls. Her mother’s greatest wish was that her daughter would become an artist. After Fern had earned a master’s degree in psychology, she was on her way to a Ph.D. and won an award for research. It was then, her mother remaining singularly focused, stated, “Now that you’ve got that out of your system, you can become an artist!”
“I blew my mother off,” Fern recalled. She wanted a more secure income and could not envision a career in art. When a clinical internship and postdoctoral opportunity arose in the District of Columbia, Fern moved north to the DC-metro area.
In 1996, Fern and her husband Fred Beu, now a retired business executive, lived on the Severn River in Annapolis. “We were also avid boaters who fell utterly and completely in love with the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore,” Fern recalled. A move across the Bridge was inevitable.
Fern Loos Beu, shown working on the portrait,
“Flamingo,” sketches and refines her portraits
countless times before she begins to paint.
Photo by Pamela l. Cowart-Rickman
The couple’s search took them through Talbot and Kent counties with no success. Fern grew weary of house-hunting, but Fred persevered. They had never considered Centreville and certainly not a historic house. When Fred finally convinced Fern to take a look at the Wharf House, she never made it inside. One look at the property and its historic State Champion Osage orange tree was enough to convince her. They made an offer the same day.
“Moving to Centreville exceeded all our expectations,” Fern declared. “Moving here was phenomenal good fortune.”
Although she enjoyed a career as a successful clinical psychologist, Fern still held to the belief that someday she would paint. Fear, however, proved to be a formidable opponent. “If I tried and failed at something I loved, it would break my heart.”
“Fred was finally tired of my whining,” as she described the first gentle shove towards her dream. Finally, Fern and her mother would both get their wishes, but by a more circuitous route than either could have imagined. For Christmas that year Fred gave Fern the gift of a watercolor class at St. John’s College in Annapolis.
“The hook was in,” she recalled emphatically. By the end of the summer, she was looking for an instructor. At the time, Fern was 51.
Fred Beu, Fern’s husband, works in his wood
shop on the first floor of their two-story
art studio where he crafts fine furniture.
Photo by Pamela l. Cowart-Rickman
To her dismay, however, Fern discovered that middle-aged women who want to pursue art are not taken seriously. Undaunted, she found teacher David Lefell who did not let her settle for just good enough. She describes current instructor Abigail McBride as a relentless teacher and fabulous, inspired artist.
About her own work, Fern is clear about the seamless connection between her profession and her painting. “When I’m doing the work, I love that there’s no difference between me the psychologist, and me the painter.”
The synergy between the two is obvious in Fern’s approach to portrait painting; she has no interest whatsoever in painting what she describes as the stiff, standard portrait. Instead, she creates “tone poems” of her subjects, inspired by connecting with the essence and character of a person. Fern describes making this crucial connection with a recent subject. The young woman’s engaging, dynamic, opinionated personality resulted in a portrait that transfixed Fern and others who’ve seen it.
“I’m sure I’ve done paintings that were ‘better’ but there was something about an expression in her face and eyes that was just mesmerizing,” she reflected.
According to Fern, the timeline to create each one of her portraits cannot be measured in days, weeks, or even months. “It takes 20 years for each one,” she quipped. “And here’s why. It’s taken 19 of the 20 years I’ve been painting to get to the place where I’ve finally figured out my process.”
She explained that 70 percent of the process comes long before a single drop of paint is put on the canvas — finding the right subject, the photoshoot, learning the face and body, and drawing a sketch. What remains is the requisite waiting period where she struggles with the painting to see what she did wrong. Full circle from conception to completion could also result in a bittersweet period of mourning for the sale and subsequent loss of a painting she particularly loves.
The creation of a portrait often takes place in Studio Taj on the grounds of the Wharf House. “The name is a nod to the Taj Mahal, another over-budget building built for love,” according to Fern.
Top left: “Resolute,” one of two portraits of this article’s author Niambi Davis
Top Right: “Puck,” show the expressive nuances Fern masterfully adds to each of her “tone poems.” Bottom: “Bird of Paradise"
Because Fern had been painting in any space she could find — in the basement, bedrooms, and the kitchen — she and her husband decided to build a structure where they both could create. From the light provided by floor to ceiling windows, Fern can finally see what she’s painting. Fred now has a woodworking studio where he built a huge, magnificent table for Fern’s upstairs studio, as well as furniture of his own design.
Fern believed she’d never paint anything worthy of this studio space. Once she got in the building and began to work, she said it goaded her to get better in what she describes as the synergy between grandiosity and doubling down on her efforts. As evidenced by her work, shown in galleries in Annapolis, Bethesda, and Talbot and Queen Anne’s counties, the goading worked.
For Fern, gratitude inspires giving back; two halves of a whole. She’s grateful for the people in graduate school who picked her up by the scruff of her neck and said they would help her. Giving back in the arts community means donating a portion of sales to charity. In her professional career, it means training and mentoring other therapists.
“I have gratitude for the phenomenal gift of having a husband who’s willing to support me in the pursuit of my dream.” She also credits the support of her local Queen Anne’s County Arts Council and people like Easton artist, Nancy Tankersley. Of the good fortune she’s found socially and artistically on the Eastern Shore, Fern’s heartfelt appreciation is a metaphor of her journey to becoming a painter.
“It’s one thing to want to be something. It’s another thing to find the right soil to plant yourself in.”