Artist Wilburn's watercolor portraits of children win awards at fair, juried exhibition

| Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In contrast to the tan and beige surroundings, a little girl's blue eyes piercingly gaze out in a watercolor painting by Tracy Wilburn.

The New Alexandria artist was inspired to paint her 6-year-old niece when the girl asked to borrow her hat at a local park.

“I really try to go after more than a likeness,” Wilburn said. “She has a very bright, sunny personality, and that really, I believe, does come across in this painting.”

Wilburn's watercolors have won her Best in Show accolades at the Westmoreland Fair for the past two years. “Meggie Wearing My Hat” was chosen for an award of merit at the Mr. Fred Rogers Juried Exhibition on Sept. 5 at the Latrobe Art Center.

The award was given to six of the more than 60 entries reviewed for entry into the exhibit by watercolor artist Bill Vrscak.

Wilburn is a mostly self-taught artist who began painting with watercolors about 20 years ago.

“I find that I'm able to have a large amount of control with watercolors, which is the exact opposite of what most people will tell you,” she said. “It's just a wonderfully expressive medium. I love it.”

With about an hour devoted to painting per day in the upstairs studio space of her home, Wilburn said, she enjoys creating portraits, usually from a series of photographs.

“I guess I'm just drawn to people and faces,” she said. “You can't fudge it; it either looks like the person or it doesn't.”

A portrait of her niece Mia standing on a surfboard — a pony-tailed toddler in a vivid green bathing suit and pink hat smiling in front of a bright blue sky and ocean — won the 2012 Best in Show award.

Just a few weeks ago, “Waiting for S'mores,” Wilburn's painting of her 3-year-old chubby-cheeked cousin wearing a blue jumper, won the same prize at this year's fair.

That is an impressive feat, since a different judge reviewed the open class art submissions, which numbered about 50, said Dori Campbell, Penn State extension educator who coordinates superintendents at the fair.

While she couldn't reveal the judge's identity, Campbell said there are basic requirements, one of which is that the work must have been created within the last year.

“We find somebody (to judge) with a strong art background, and it's up to their discretion,” Campbell said.

Wilburn said she can look back now over the bulk of her work and see how her skill has developed.

“I can see improvements, things that I've learned, things that I've refined,” she said.

For her next project, she is working on the largest piece she's ever done. It will include two of her nieces, and she is unsure if she'll finish it in time to retain her title at the fair for a third year.

Being a part of an exhibit that honors the late Fred Rogers is enough for now, Wilburn said.

“To me, (the piece) just celebrates what a beautiful child she is and how lucky we are to have the children we have in our lives,” she said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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