Breckenridge Texan

For artist Tonya Holmes Shook, painting is a passion she must pursue

For artist Tonya Holmes Shook, painting is a passion she must pursue
April 19
16:32 2019

In a 100-year-old rock house in the middle of Snyder, Texas, Tonya Holmes Shook paints every chance she gets. Sometimes, she paints all night and most of the day.

A self-taught painter who’s been creating art most of her life, Tonya says she usually gets about four hours of sleep a night, sometimes only two, often getting up in the middle of the night to paint for hours. She says her limited sleep habits came about after she had the opportunity to paint as much as she wanted to.

Tonya and Clarence Shook moved to Snyder nine years ago and had to do extensive work the 100-year-old rock house they bought. Today, their home is filled with Clarence’s woodwork and Tonya’s paintings. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/ Breckenridge Texan)

“I don’t want to miss anything,” she says. “I’m 83 years old. How much time do you think I’ve got? And, so, I want to paint everything. I don’t know why I think it’s so important, but it’s a part of my life. It’s just the way I feel. It’s like breathing. God gave this to me. It’s life. A lot of people don’t understand that, but that’s just the way it is. It’s not a passion I learned; it’s a passion that’s in me.”

Many of Tonya’s oil paintings are currently on display in the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center’s Main Gallery. The exhibit, titled “History of the Common Man,” will be open to the public through May 3.

“Going to Breckenridge has been the most wonderful highlight in my life,” Tonya says. “To think, at 83 years old, I had 150-some-odd paintings in an art show, and it lasted as a solo (exhibit) for over a month. It’s amazing.”

Born in Oklahoma, Tonya moved with her family to New Mexico when she was a young child. She describes herself as curious from a very young age and says that she started drawing before she started school.

Tonya is married to Clarence Shook. Since they met in 1977 when they were in their 40s, Tonya and Clarence have been a packaged deal, often working together on various projects. They were married on Christmas Day in 1977 just four weeks after meeting at First Baptist Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his nephew was the minister.

Clarence tracked down his wife’s childhood saddle and bought it back for her.

In the beginning of their marriage, the couple lived in Wichita Falls, Clarence’s hometown. After several years, they moved to a property in Duncan, Oklahoma, where they built a large house and lived for 25 years. They’ve lived in Snyder for nine years, and when they moved in, the couple had to do extensive work on the old house, which was about half the size of their previous home.

One of their joint projects is the mural painted on the garage door. It features the New Mexico mountain where Tonya rode her horse when she was a young girl. Tonya’s favorite saddle had been sold, and after they got married, Clarence tracked down the man who had bought the saddle and bought it back for $13. He built a display stand for it, and they keep the saddle in the foyer of their home.

The two octogenarians are going through life hand-in-hand, helping each other around and finishing each other’s stories. Their love for one another is especially evident when they brag on the other, making sure their spouse gets due credit for all they’ve done.

Clarence, 88, is retired from asphalt paving and dirt contracting. After he initially retired in 1995, he did building and woodwork for churches and individuals. Today, his creative pursuits include building furniture from old fence pickets, as well as building all of the frames for Tonya’s paintings, which are all over the house, despite the fact that much of her work is on display in Breckenridge.

Tonya mostly paints from photographs, many of which are old pictures and many of which are of her family members. Because of the age of the original photos, quite a few of Tonya’s paintings are in black and white or sepia tones.

This Tonya Holmes Shook painting is one of dozens on exhibit the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center. It shows the artist with her grandfather in 1936.

Nowadays, Tonya paints in the corner of the kitchen in the small rock house. She has an easel set up beside the kitchen counter, and her paints and brushes sit on a nearby table.

“I’ve had the most gorgeous studios in my life, but I started out in a kitchen,” she says with a laugh. “My daughters used to say, ‘Doesn’t every mother have an easel in their kitchen?’ Because they grew up with it. And, now, I’m back in this tiny little spot. But, you see, I get big stuff out of it; it doesn’t stop me.”

Last week, Tonya was working on a commissioned piece featuring a family’s pets. The large canvas dominated the room as the artist described her process.

“Whenever I paint, I have to get the soul first. I have to get their eyes, and that’s if it’s an animal or it’s a person. You see what’s in their life in their eyes,” she explains, pointing out the pets in the painting pictured at the top of this article. “This one’s a lazy boy, and that one at the top is an alpha. And, this kitty is nonchalant and he’s big. This kitty is little and ornery. And, this precious little thing…it used to have a heyday, but it’s 16 years old. It’s a darling little dog. I loved doing that one; I loved doing all of them. Look at the expression in the eyes of that dog!”

Many of her paintings are of people, but animals often are the subject, as well. One of her earliest paintings was of a girl and her dog that she painted and titled “Pals” when she was 10 years old. She sent it to a friend back in Oklahoma after Tonya and her family had moved to Tucumcari, New Mexico. Some of her art on display at the BFAC features longhorn cattle, horses and other farm animals.

When Tonya was 11 years old, she entered a painting of stampeding horses in the Quay County Fair and took home first place in the Open Age division. That led to a job with the local newspaper, drawing political cartoons, some of which are available for viewing at the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center.

“But, I got sick of that and quit after about a year,” she says with a little defiance mixed with amusement in her voice more than 70 years later. “I didn’t like the deadlines!”

Tonya Holmes Shook’s exhibit at the BFAC also includes her drum carder for processing wool, as well as several of her handcrafted items. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

When Tonya was about 14, Zula Mae Prunty, a woman in her 80s in Tucumcari, taught kids how to mix paints on her screened-in front porch. “I took lessons from her for about a year,” Tonya says. “I learned how to mix my paints and what colors will make different colors, etc. She just did it, and I watched her.”

Although she’s taken a few art classes throughout her life, including classes in jewelry making and pottery, Tonya is mostly a self-taught artist. “I’ve been one of these people that pretty much teaches myself,” she says. “I taught myself how to crochet, how to spin on a spinning wheel, how to process wool and make yarn, and then I designed and made clothing and sold that. And, it’s not been because I wouldn’t take lessons…I couldn’t afford them, but I wanted to do it, so I taught myself.”

Tonya attributes most of her talent to God. On the back of every painting, she places a seal that says:

“The LORD my teacher was, to do this piece of art.
Any pleasure received, give credit to HIM,
For this would warm my heart.”

Painting for profit wasn’t always something that came naturally. Early in her art life, Tonya didn’t try to sell her work. “She just painted, and we just displayed it,” Clarence says.

She had her first art show in 1980 at the Wichita Falls Women’s Forum, and since then, her work has been included in magazines, books and exhibits. Clarence points out that New Mexico State University did a 14-minute documentary on her work, and last year she received the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award from Marquis Who’s Who.

When she’s not painting, Tonya can usually be found creating beaded necklaces, crocheting something or maybe writing a book. She also has a spinning wheel and spins her own wool yarn that she uses to crochet. According to her husband of almost 42 years, the 83-year-old keeps busy. “She’s just gotta be doing something all the time,” he said. “She won’t just relax.”

As a testament to that, the bookshelves in the couple’s home are filled with books that Tonya has written and/or helped publish. She has written 14 books, including three that are being offered for sale at the BFAC during her exhibit. “Our Incredible Journey” tells the story of Tonya and Clarence and features reproductions of many of her paintings, as well as the couple’s history. “Anyone Can Be a Wool Spinner: An Easy Guide for Beginners” is just that — a how-to book on wool spinning.

“The Drifters: A Christian Historical Novel About the Melungeon Shantyboat People” tells the story of Tonya’s ancestors, who lived on the rivers of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri before the Civil War. “Drifters” is historical fiction. “The stories are all from oral histories and civil war records, but they’re all true,” Tonya says. “I researched the history.”

Tonya and Clarence traveled around the country conducting research for the book, which also inspired some paintings. “In order to write a book, I needed touchstones to get into the history,” she explains. “I did some Civil War pictures. It was through Civil War records that we found information leading to our family.”

The “History of the Common Man” exhibit features many brightly colored paintings by Tonya Holmes Shook, as well as some black and white and sepia toned paintings.

Tonya credits God with her ability to write so many books. “The Lord has taught me everything. He did it; I can’t claim it. I’m dyslexic…how did I write a book? It’s not perfect, but it got published,” she says.

In addition to writing books on her own, Tonya also has had a business venture helping others publish their books. And, she created a plan and organized an authors’ festival.

As she recounts some of her accomplishments and adventures, the artist acknowledges some hardships in her life but says she prefers to focus on the more positive aspects. “I’ve done so many things in my life. I look back…you know, when things happen, you don’t think much about it, but as I have looked back, I see how the Lord has worked in my life,” she says. “I have had so much heartache in my life, a lot, but you know what, He has blessed me in many other ways. So, when there’s been such bad stuff, He’s just said, ‘Hang on,’ and He just blesses us again and again.

“I look back, and I see so many wonderful things that have happened,” she continues. “You can’t think about bad stuff all your life; you gotta think about the good. I always ask myself what good is this gift of art that I have just absolutely eaten day in and day out. Because, if I’m supposed to be of service to the Lord, what good is this? What do I do with it? I don’t know what it is or what His plans are, but I’m still doing it.”

At 83 years of age, Tonya Holmes Shook exudes a sense of wonderment in the world around her. As she steps out onto the wisteria-shaded patio, she points out the flowers growing in the backyard and raves over the many things Clarence has built around the house. But, that’s not the extent of her attitude. She also expresses a constant feeling of astonishment that she gets to — not has to — paint every day.

“You know, the Lord tell us ‘Everything in its own season.’ We have a time to do this and a time to do that, and that’s exactly right,” she said. “It’s all in its own season. I never thought I’d make any money doing art, but you know what? Sometimes I do! We just live day-by-day.”

The Breckenridge Fine Arts Center is located at 207 N. Breckenridge Ave. and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call the BFAC at 254-559-6602.

Tonya and Clarence Shook worked together to create a mural of the New Mexico mountain where she used to ride her horse when she was a young girl. The painting is on the garage door of their Snyder home. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: Tonya Holmes Shook paints every day in a corner of the kitchen in the 100-year-old rock house where she and her husband live in Snyder, Texas. The 83-year-old often gets as little as two hours of sleep a night, staying awake to paint as much as she can. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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