Painting the 'Faces of Waynesville'

Artist captures residents in paint
By Stina Sieg | Jan 16, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Before this project, Char Avrunin had done several high-profile portraits, including Arnold Palmer.

Painter Char Avrunin enjoys Waynesville’s quaint collection of shops, historic buildings and eateries as much as anyone, but she also knows that is not what makes this town.
People make this town. And she wants to celebrate them — one face at a time.

In her latest project, “Faces of Waynesville,” Avrunin is out to paint portraits of a rich cross section of locals, from her friends to absolute strangers.

With each portrait, she hopes to show “what Waynesville is and what each person brings to it to make it what it is,” she said.

This idea originally sprouted when she and her husband, Mark, visited The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C, and stumbled across Rose Franzen’s “Portrait of Maquoketa.” Avrunin had never been to the small Iowa town, but as she looked at the faces of 108 of its residents, she felt connected to the place. The experience was so intimate and inviting that she ended up contacting Franzen to see if she could borrow the concept. Avrunin soon got her green light and began her most ambitious project to date.

But dubbing this a “project” maybe isn’t quite right. Avrunin sees it as an assignment from God.

“He guides my brush as well as my life,” she said.

She admits that’s a lesson she has had to learn more than once. Avrunin, whose face is framed in a white bob and who speaks with a comforting gentleness, explained that for a long time she didn’t know what she now sees as God’s plan for her. For years, she was an executive at a giant car company, where she worked in video conferencing. Living in big cities and working for a big corporation, she was at the pinnacle of her career, but still knew something wasn’t quite right. Her whole life she had been so motivated, so set on forward motion, that when she decided it was finally time to stop and pray for guidance, she had a tough message for God.

“I remember saying ‘You’re probably going to have to break me,’” she said.

So He did, she believes. Avrunin was felled by neurocardiogenic syncope, basically a short between the brain and the heart. She began years of painful tests, powerful medication and extreme fatigue, some of which she still deals with today. At one point, she even spent a year in bed. The condition, while frustrating, also slowed her down and made her more receptive to a world beyond her former big-shot job.

“I’m listening now,” she remembers telling God. “What do you want me to do?”

He answered with three words, three times. “Paint my people,” Avrunin remembers hearing. Each time it got a little stronger, a little more emphatic, until she couldn’t ignore it.
Those words got her portrait career off the ground, and she’s not afraid to say so. In the business world, she had to keep such religious thoughts muzzled, but now she doesn’t care for being politically correct.

“I’m really trying to get away from what people think,” she said.

This dedication to what she believes has given her an entirely different life, one in which she is known for her art instead of her place on the corporate totem pole. In recent years, she’s been commissioned to do portraits of golf great Arnold Palmer, NASCAR driver Leilani Münter and others, and she has taught classes at Haywood Community College. Her proudest accomplishment so far, however, is Inspired Art Ministry, based at Waynesville First Baptist Church. Twice a week, she teaches drawing and painting to adults in a way she feels is uplifting. She doesn’t hold critiques but “protiques,” during which people must focus on the good and what can be improved.

For Avrunin, this is all part of the unforgettable instruction she received from God years ago. She tries not to stray from it and knows what happens when she does. In the summer of 2011, she got away from painting and ended up having a relapse and taking an overnight trip to the hospital.

“It’s timed so much with my not painting,” she said, of her medical troubles. “Yes, it’s a doctor. Yes it’s medication. But it’s also closely related to ‘Am I doing His mission or not.’”

That doesn’t just mean painting His people but doing it in a way that’s devoid of the vanity that is always a risk for artists. Her paintings aren’t about her, but about Him.

“It’s a God thing,” she said. “I do think He is working through me, and I’m my biggest problem. I’m my biggest enemy. The painting will be horrible if I try to control it.”
So she doesn’t, especially with “Faces of Waynesville.” Perhaps more than any project before it, this is out of her hands. Sure, she’s the one recruiting subjects, and she’s the one bravely standing in front of blank canvases, but she believes the rest of her work comes from a higher power.

She hopes people feel this when they finally stand in front of her finished series, which she plans to show at a gallery in Waynesville. She would like to think that when her subjects see their painted selves surrounded by images of their neighbors, they will feel a sense of belonging.

“This is their home. They’re a part of Waynesville,” Avrunin said. “They’re part of what makes it what it is.”

When asked when this project might be done, she smiled and admitted that she wasn’t sure. Still at the very beginning of this series, she doesn’t know where it will take her. But she’s not worried. She learned long ago that she’s not the only one in control here — not of her life and not of her art.

Avrunin is currently looking for more subjects for “Faces of Waynesville.” Those interested in being photographed (as she works from photos), may call her at 456-9197 or send her an email at She may also be reached for more info about her art classes.

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