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Carol McCrady uses a rolling pin to flatten reeds from a papyrus plant, at right. Trimmed reeds are soaked for weeks before they are ready to be rolled and overlapped into a kind of paper. The process takes a month.
Daily photos by John Godbey
Carol McCrady uses a rolling pin to flatten reeds from a papyrus plant, at right. Trimmed reeds are soaked for weeks before they are ready to be rolled and overlapped into a kind of paper. The process takes a month.

art & life

Artist grows papyrus plants and makes paper for her ancient ‘ministry’ — colorful works full of angels, Scripture

By Melanie B. Smith · 340-2468


From her front porch, Carol McCrady can see a hilly vista worthy of a painting, but her artistic vision instead takes her to an ancient era.

McCrady creates “illuminations,” art first done in Medieval times to decorate manuscripts.

Just as monks hand-copied Bibles and other books and illustrated them in the eras before the printing press, so she writes Scriptures and quotations in calligraphy and decorates them.

But that’s not all. McCrady makes the paper she uses from papyrus plants she grows herself. And then she frames her artwork in her shop.

McCrady, 64, said she is the only artist in North America creating as she does.

At the Alabama Jubilee in May, she was among artists at Point Mallard. Her angel paintings and illustrated Bible verses drew customers to her tent. She travels to Minnesota, Michigan and other states to show and sell her work.

A mostly self-taught artist, she said it was while visiting a university library in Amsterdam years ago that she found a description of a process that intrigued her and eventually turned into a passion.

A book written in Old French, which she had to get translated, explained how to turn papyrus plants into paper.

Back in Enterprise where she lived then, she tracked down a source for the plants and grew them herself. She cut, peeled, sliced and dried the stems. Then she learned how to soften, flatten and join them, creating tan or ivory sheets with a textured look and feel.

The process takes a month, she said, demonstrating in her kitchen in Madison County near Capshaw, where she now lives. The papyrus reeds grow just off her patio in a pond. On a countertop, she used a rolling pin to spread the fibrous stems that had soaked for 15 days in water. Then she layered them expertly, again rolling them until they stuck naturally together in a thin sheet.

All of this work is just the foundation for her art. After the papyrus paper dries for two weeks, McCrady draws and writes on it with ink and watercolor. Decorative embellishments, which almost always include angels, and carefully inked texts distinguish her work.

One of Carol McCrady’s papyrus paintings depicting Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season ...”
One of Carol McCrady’s papyrus paintings depicting Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season ...”
Her original pieces sell for $1,500 to $3,000 or more, she said.

Decorations, paintings

For a recently finished work “The Lord’s Prayer,” she drew a small scene with grandfather-like God set in an oversized “O,” the first letter in “Our Father who art in Heaven.” Four tiny angels appear in the illustration.

“A Time for Peace” uses a passage from Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season ... ” The verses outline a cloverleaf shape encompassing scenes of the four seasons. She said she had to erase three times to get the lettering right.

McCrady has painted an archangel series with portraits of Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. Her Celtic-style works include “Christ on the Cross” and “The Prayer of St. Francis.” She also has created illustrations of each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.

One of her newest pieces is “The Last Supper,” showing the 12 disciples in a wheel with Christ as the hub. A work in progress uses the poem “Desiderata,” which begins, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste ...”

Healing art

McCrady said her art evolved as she needed to pay the mortgage and rear two daughters after going through divorce.

She began by selling calligraphy through gift markets. Today, her works are not the sort people buy to match their sofas, McCrady said.

“I do feel like an old soul,” she said.

After the death of her 18-year-old daughter, Edien, McCrady said she quit painting for eight or nine months. She said her daughter was working at a department store in Enterprise in 1993 when a robber on drugs took her hostage. A police officer accidentally shot her when aiming for the lawbreaker, McCrady said.

She said she had to forgive so she wouldn’t poison herself. The first painting she did after the tragedy was of the archangel Raphael. She said she didn’t know then that Raphael is considered the healing angel.

“God made me so aware of the importance of every moment ... My daughter’s last words were ‘I love you, Mom’ before she left for work,” McCrady said.

She said she feels angels guarding her and even saw angels appear as a “wonderful glow” in her father’s room when he died.

$5,000 painting

McCrady seems to have lived on her wooded property for years. Works by fellow artists line walls of her home. A copy of “The Book of Kells,” a famous illustrated manuscript from eighth-century Ireland, and similar books fill bookshelves. One drawing nook is a drafting table in a corner of a sunroom. Two cats wander the house, perfectly at home.

However, McCrady said she only moved in last year after 28 years in Enterprise, and one of the cats just arrived, rescued from a shelter after the death of a beloved cat.

‘Meant to be’

The artist said she needed space for her work and for her frame shop, as well as for the Harleys she and her husband ride. When she saw the mountainside home and its outbuildings on several acres, she knew they were perfect, she said.

“It was meant to be,” she said.

A native of Glenwood, Minn., she studied art history and social work at the University of Minnesota. McCrady first moved to Alabama because her husband at the time was an Army pilot stationed at Fort Rucker.

She moved to Madison County after marrying Gary Rasponi, an engineer who works in helicopter safety.

A shop in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has carried McCrady’s artwork. She agreed to donate one of her original pieces to a fundraiser for leukemia research held at the park. Watching the auction at the gala event, she was amazed that it brought $5,000 in three minutes, she said.

McCrady said her art is a ministry.

“I’m definitely doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” McCrady said. “I feel that I touch people in a wonderfully positive way.”

McCrady sells prints and original works through her Web site and at shows and festivals. She will be in Decatur, Ga.; Biloxi, Miss.; and Pensacola, Fla., in the next few weeks.

What is illumination?

“Illumination” refers to the art or act of decorating a text, page or initial letter with ornamental designs, miniatures or lettering. In the Middle Ages, artists often used gold or silver leaf on illustrations, making them seem lit up, or illuminated. Today the term refers to any decorated manuscript.

American Heritage Dictionary/World Book Encyclopedia

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