Many women would be content to put their feet up after a 30-year nursing career and savor views of the Lowcountry landscape from the comfort of a porch rocking chair. But Esther Piazza-Doyle likes to stay busy. So, when a neck injury in 1995 pulled her away from bedside trauma care, she decided to take up acrylic painting. And furniture making. And drawing. And scratch art. In fact, the wildly prolific artist has yet to find a medium she doesn’t like.
“It’s so much fun to discover the differences between all these mediums and how to handle them,” says Doyle, who works out of a 330-square-foot studio in her home on Dewees Island. “It’s the tools and the techniques that interest me as much as what I end up with, and I love focusing on the intricacies of my subject.”
What she ends up with includes everything from vibrant acrylic, oil or pastel landscapes to graphite drawings of old barns and buildings, lifelike portraits rendered in colored pencil, and detailed illustrations of pets and wildlife delicately engraved onto scratchboards coated with India ink. More recently, she learned the skill of pyrography to translate her illustrations onto her hand-turned wooden bowls with a fine-tipped woodburning pen. Her creations grace the homes of patrons nationwide, and her latest work is showcased at Perspective Gallery in Mount Pleasant.
Although she did not pursue art full time until later in life, Doyle knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. “I’ve been drawing and coloring since I can remember,” she says, brightly. “I grew up in a family with six kids, so there was always a pencil and paper nearby.” Her parents lauded her natural talent but encouraged her to pursue a more practical and predictable career path. So, after finishing nursing school in 1976, Doyle worked in Level 1 trauma care ICUs and held managerial roles at several hospitals, moving whenever her husband’s employer transferred him to another region.
“In nursing, there’s no such thing as a 40-hour week,” says Doyle of the reason she put her art on hold for so long, other than an occasional sketch. “It’s always been fun for me, and I was taught to get your work done before you play. If I had work staring me in the face, I wouldn’t get to the fun part.”
Ironically, Doyle may never have pursued her artistic talents professionally were it not for her previous injury. Not one to sit idle, she decided to take up acrylic painting to use her time productively while recuperating. Shortly thereafter, she uncovered her husband’s radial arm saw and crafted a child’s footstool. The project ignited an affinity for woodworking, and Doyle soon launched a decorative arts business. “I started making toy boxes, then clothes racks, then wall hangings, and eventually tables and chairs,” as well as headboards, bookshelves and wall-mounted shelves, she recalls.
A decorator from Architectural Digest bought her first rocker, and Doyle received commissions to paint large-scale murals in private homes and day-care centers. Despite her rapid success, however, the former health care worker felt a tinge of dissatisfaction. “My heart’s desire was always to do flat art,” she explains. When her father had a stroke in 2000, Doyle put her business—and her artwork—on hold again to take care of him. She finally turned her attention back to her creative gifts in 2006, after relocating with her husband to the Charleston area, and set up a studio to begin pursuing her new career in earnest.
These days, the multitalented artist divides her time between working on commissions and her own creative inspirations. She might spend the day drawing a grizzly bear with graphite, then return to the studio that evening to work on an oil painting of a rustic hay barn. “I’ve set up stations, rather than have to put away things,” says Doyle. “I’m ready to go with whatever medium I choose for the day or the week.”
Her latest passion is scratch art, which she discovered by chance when she saw an artist using the technique at a wildlife expo in 2018. “I must have stood at this woman’s elbow an hour and a half watching her,” recalls Doyle. “I came straight home and ordered scratchboards and X-Acto knives.” Originating in Europe in the 1800s, scratch art is a form of direct engraving onto a Masonite board covered with a thin layer of clay then coated with India ink. Instead of an additive method, like pencils or paints, scratch art is
a subtractive method that involves removing the surface color
with a sharp instrument to expose the white underneath, thus creating an image. The process is time-consuming, and some scratch art pieces have taken her 200 hours to complete,
But creating things of beauty never feels like work, she says, and Doyle still gets enthused about the process. “When I’m sitting down doing this kind of work, I don’t even think about how much time passes,” muses the inexhaustible artist. “I enjoy every little stroke I make.”
Esther Piazza-Doyle is an active member of the Mount Pleasant Artists Guild, Charleston Artist Guild and International Society of Scratchboard Artists. She will be exhibiting at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival 2022. *
Leslie J. Thompson is a Dallas-based freelance writer with a passion for the visual arts, interior design and international travel. Read more of her work at lesliejthompson.com.