by Sayaka Matsuoka

Liz McKinnon’s eyes focus sharply on her canvas as she carefully applies layers of paint to the delicate face of the slowly forming hawk in front of her. She’s set up in her usual spot, nestled in the right window of Vida Pour Tea on State Street in Greensboro, which proves to be a prime spot for painting as light from the powerful summer sun pours in.

Waves of blue cover the background of the canvas in the form of a moonlit sky with a scraggly tree off to the right. She gingerly dabs excess paint off of the head of the bird of prey, smudging areas of gray and brown ever so gently to create the softness of feathers. Mouth slightly open, McKinnon’s attention never breaks as customers straggle in off the street outside. She’s in her element here.

McKinnon is usually the first one in Vida Pour Tea every Wednesday, and has been for the past year.

“It’s almost our one-year anniversary,” McKinnon laughs, referring to Sarah Chapman, the owner of the tea shop. “We’re kindred spirits.”

The two best friends met almost a year ago before the shop opened in August when McKinnon came looking for work. She had been doing chalk lettering for the now closed Grass Fed burger bar in downtown Greensboro and had been referred to Sarah’s shop. Now, it serves as her second home.

“This is pretty much my studio space,” McKinnon says. “I had been coming here to sketch from time to time and I don’t know how it came up but one day [Chapman] asked, ‘Why don’t you set up artist hours here?’”

Now she comes to the quiet haven to paint at least once a week. But McKinnon has her own work space at home that she retreats to when she needs to be reclusive.

Painting in jeans and a T-shirt, McKinnon’s easel is surrounded by materials essential to her craft. A large box not unlike one a fisherman uses sits in the corner, filled with a variety of paints and brushes. Along the walls of the shop hang many of her creations including a golden seahorse, a bright red cardinal, a goldfish and some moths. It’s apparent her passion lies in the natural realm.

”Nature to me is the most perfect creation,” McKinnon says. “Man is not.”

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Her paintings don’t just realistically depict the animals in their natural element; they exhibit a secondary essence that McKinnon brings out in her own way, many times by painting scenes in the animals’ bellies. Her seahorse for example, depicts colorful Russian buildings.

“Paintings, to me, have personalities,” McKinnon says. “When I saw the picture of the seahorse he was this beautiful golden thing. The structure of his body reminded me of St. Basil’s cathedral in Russia and I thought, He’s royal and he would live there.”

Some of McKinnon’s other artistic touches adorn the space as well. White magnolia and dogwood flowers are drawn onto the windows. Strings of cranes hanging from a rod decorate the entrance. Hand-painted ceramic mugs that sit in front of the register on the counter sold within the first hour of the shop being open.

When she’s not creating in her free time, McKinnon works at the Arc of High Point as a creative-arts director. She teaches painting to adults with mental disabilities and works to make art more inclusive and therapeutic.

She’s also been expanding her work into the community, entering exhibits and calls for artists. This year, at the 100 for 100 show at the Center for Visual Artists in Greensboro, McKinnon sold a painting of a bluebird. As an introvert, she expresses that branching out has been a journey for her.

“It’s been a really interesting progression to this point,” said McKinnon, who has been a resident of the Gate City for only three years after moving to the area from Randleman. She expresses her enthusiasm for the growing arts and food scene in Greensboro and her excitement to be a part of it all. And finding a home at Vida Pour Tea has contributed to that.

She cites the relaxing music, the comforting decor and the friendly faces she has come to know as reasons for why she comes back every week.

“You can tell [Chapman] has put a lot into the store,” McKinnon says. “And you get to know people; you know who they are and they know you.”

She talks about regulars she has connected with including a man named Bob and his dog Dylan, and later chats with a regular named Steve.

“It’s friendly without being intrusive or forced,” McKinnon says.

And that relaxed atmosphere will likely be the reason McKinnon keeps returning.

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