‘My best paintings are yet to come’: This 71-year-old artist is still breaking new ground

Nearly 60 years later, American expressionist Holly Patton Shull clearly remembers the moment she stepped into her uncle’s southern California art studio for the first time. Immediately, the then-12-year-old was enchanted by the brilliance of his oil paints. Their aroma, sharp and floral, flooded her senses, solidifying a lifelong love for the challenging yet gorgeous artistic medium. She recalls walking out of the studio that day with a newfound resolve. “I want to do that,” she thought.

So why did she wait until her mid-forties to begin?

“Years ago, I had a dear friend and mentor of mine say, ‘Holly, not every piece has to be a masterpiece,’ ” Patton Shull, now 71, said, laughing. “I just think that fear of failure was my block.”

Before the oils

Though she never forgot her experience with the oil paints, the bright young artist nourished her talent by creating in other mediums – particularly pen and ink. After graduating high school in 1968, she enrolled at Western Kentucky University, majoring in art, as she’d always wanted.

But when her parents, highly concerned about job prospects for women at the time, said they would not continue to finance her education unless she added a teaching component to her degree, Patton Shull refused. No longer able to pay for her schooling, she dropped out two years into the program.

“I didn’t like to babysit, let alone the idea of teaching a room full of kids! So I bailed on that before painting became an option.”

Patton Shull, a self-described “free spirit,” spent the next few years traveling and exploring, even spending some time in a Canadian commune. Though she eventually settled for a while in Austin, Texas, with her first husband, beginning what would become a storied career in sales and retail, she continued to follow her creative passions on the side.

“I was huge into being a seamstress and did a lot of sewing and embroidery,” Patton Shull recalled. “Drawing, too, of course. Always crafting with my hands.”

 ‘Picking up the brush’

In 1991, Patton Shull found herself on a new adventure as she moved with her daughter and third husband to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Though the marriage didn’t last, she stayed in the area, immersing herself in the local art and theatre scene. There, she met her fourth, and last, husband – who, on her 43rd birthday, gave her what would become the most meaningful gift she would ever receive: her very own set of oil paints.

“That was a life-changer for me. I remember going, ‘Oh my God, here they are! He gave me these paints, so I’m not gonna be chicken and not do it.’ And it was love.”

Under the wing of an artistic mentor and friend who gave her an informal apprenticeship at the Pajama Factory, Patton Shull finally began to learn the intricate art of oil painting. With each piece she completed, her passion for the work grew. “When I wasn’t slamming the dollar, I was painting.” So when Patton Shull was able to retire in 2016, she decided to go after the dream she’d had since childhood – to become a full-time artist.

A different ending 

As fate would have it, Patton Shull would temporarily leave Williamsport the next year to help take care of her ailing brother-in-law in Kentucky. While there, she recalled an interesting tidbit she’d heard growing up – that people over a certain age could attend in-state universities at free or reduced prices. After looking into what was available, she decided to apply to the University of Louisville’s prestigious Hite Art Institute, where – after submitting nearly 50-year-old credits and a comprehensive portfolio – she was happily accepted.

Finally on track to earn her college degree, Patton Shull spent four semesters – eerily the same amount she spent at her first school back in the ’60s – completing senior-level courses and perfecting her craft. Then, COVID happened. During the shutdown, Patton Shull did some self-reflection. What mattered to her most?

The answer, of course, was her daughter and growing granddaughter, who still lived back in Williamsport. In a move of characteristic boldness, she decided to leave school once again to be closer to them. This time, though, the decision was all her own.

“I had to weigh, for me, what was most important,” she said, smiling.

‘Here for a purpose

Today, Holly has been at her live-in art studio at the Pajama Factory for just over a year – the same center where she apprenticed all those years ago. There, she is working on her second show for the Peter Herdic House, debuting this October. Like her first (titled “She-Scapes”), this show will explore feminist themes, along with an exploration of the in-between spaces in life. While the collection loosely follows her own story, she hopes it will resonate with every woman.

“This collection is going to be more positive – empowering women. I’m really trying to put the good out there. I’m hopeful that women will save the day.”

It took decades before Patton Shull chased the dream she’d had since she was 12 years old, over half her life. But now, when she stops to reflect on the winding road of her artistic and personal journey – the many paths she took before taking a chance on the medium she loved – she only feels one regret.

“My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier! But I did do it. My best paintings are yet to come. I truly believe that.”

To anyone of a certain age who feels they may have missed the boat on their dream, Patton Shull urges them to dig deep and do the bravest thing a person can do: try.

“I just feel like we’re all here for a purpose,” Patton Shull said, gazing at her latest painting, an abstract dream of greens and purples. “Everyone has different gifts to bring to the table on nurturing society and nurturing this world. And no matter what point you build up the realization of what’s in your heart – what your purpose is – you better go for it.”


  • Allison Lax

    Allison is a graduate of Lycoming College. She is a Lycoming County native, lover of writing, the arts and people.

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Allison Lax

Allison is a graduate of Lycoming College. She is a Lycoming County native, lover of writing, the arts and people.