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Gari Stephenson lets the paint tell her what’s on the paper or canvas. The Roanoke native says she has been painting since she was a child. She took art classes in school, majored in art at Longwood College (now University) and even taught art in Henrico County for four years. But, she admits her process is “backward.”

Stephenson says she never draws the subject, never mixes paint colors together and has an idea what the painting will be only when she starts.

“I don’t have an idea in my head at the beginning. That’s really fun for me,” she says.

She begins with watery colors on YUPO paper, she says, noting that she is drawn to water media, such as watercolors and acrylics, especially the latter which “will do everything I want.” After the paint is on the paper, she puts another piece of top to create texture. She likes YUPO for its slickness. From there, she lets the paint tell her where to go. A dark patch may indicate an eye; another spot will become a weathered building. She follows up by filling in the details.

Her unusual method is on full display in her painting, “The Guardian,” which won Best in Show at the San Diego Watercolor Society’s International Exhibition last year. After applying the acrylic paints, she saw the shapes and textures that evolved into a raven guarding a nest of eggs. The raven honors her friend and fellow artist, Sandi D’Alessandro, who died of ALS.

The painting also features a cruciform composition, as do many of her works. In fact, she says, that’s one of the aspects of the painting that drew the eye of the exhibition juror, Mark Mehaffey.

“I didn’t know it was there, she says. “The paint did it.”

About the award, she says, “I still can’t believe I won. It’s the biggest award I’ve ever received.”