Fairley amazing: Scratching her way to fame

Clarkston artist specializes in scratchboard, pastel; shares her passion for art with others



Artist Judy Fairley with the cheetah cub scratchboard she will be teaching a workshop on.

ISABELLE BUSCH, Evergreen reporter, columnist

Walls covered in artwork, a cozy connection to the gift shop and a window that looks out onto the hills of the Palouse make Judy Fairley’s studio the perfect creative space.

Her artwork showcases the wildlife and people of the west. Fairley said her childhood is the foundation of her inspiration for each piece.

“I was raised on a quarter horse and Hereford cattle ranch,” Fairley said. “When you’re growing up, you don’t realize how much you’re going to retain for the future.”

Fairley is a remarkably accomplished artist. Her art has been shown throughout the U.S. and Canada, and she’s even shown work in the prestigious Chicago Institute of Art, according to her website.

She said she has been a member of the Women Artists of the West for over 40 years and is now vice president of the association, which holds shows throughout the country.

“Every place you can imagine, there’s been some beautiful shows,” Fairley said.

She said she has also been a signature member of the International Society of Scratchboard Artists since its founding in 2011.

Surprisingly, Fairley didn’t begin pursuing her passion for art until later in life.

“I never took any art classes until I got married,” Fairley said. “Then I took an art class, and it was like, oh my gosh, this is what I want to do.”

Fairley first worked in oils but said she didn’t have enough patience. Then she heard about a fellow artist in Lewiston, Idaho who was teaching a scratchboard class.

“I took that class and I loved it,” Fairley said. “It was instant.”

Scratchboards are covered in a black India ink and clay coating; scratching reveals the white surface beneath. Traditionally, scratchboard artwork is left in black and white.

Fairley said she was one of few artists in the Palouse area working in scratchboard.

“The galleries wouldn’t take this medium because they said that it was illustration; it wasn’t fine art,” Fairley said.

However, Fairley said she heard about an artist in Utah adding color to his finished scratchboards with great success. She began coloring her scratchboards in a variety of ways by adding watercolor, airbrushing or marbling the top clay layer.

Now, her scratchboard pieces are sought after by galleries near and far, she said.

“I’m probably best known for my scratchboards because it’s unusual,” Fairley said.

Besides scratchboard, Fairley also works in pastel.

“I took a pastel class, and I realized this is great,” Fairley said. “I can learn color theory, I can work quickly, I can make mistakes.”

Soon, Fairley said she was teaching pastel classes through Walla Walla Community College. She taught at the college for over 40 years and now continues to teach classes through the Valley Art Center in Clarkston. Teaching art and seeing students surprise themselves with what they can do bring her the most joy.

“I love that light bulb that goes on,” Fairley said. “They’re proud of the process and what they’ve accomplished, but it really makes me feel good too that I was able to transfer my love of what I do.”

One of the first things she tells her students is to do research and understand their subjects, she said.

“Know the structure of the animal,” Fairley said. “You can’t build a muscle with hair if you don’t know where the muscle is.”

Although she works from reference photos, Fairley said she is always excited to check the anatomical accuracy of her pieces with a student from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

“When I have students come through and I find out that they are vet students, I’ll ask them, ‘have I got this in the right place?’” Fairley said.

It’s important to have pieces scientifically accurate before they are shown, Fairley said. For big shows, she does half of her work in scratchboard and half in pastel.

Fairley said she often works on her latest pieces in her studio at the Dahmen Barn, where she has been a resident artist since the barn opened in 2006.

“I got this studio before there were even walls up in the barn,” Fairley said.

The barn fosters a hearty community by providing a space for artists to display their work, create new pieces and collaborate.

“When I first started, I thought, it’s going to be nothing but a cat fight, but it’s totally the opposite,” said Julie Hartwig, Dahmen Barn managing director. “All of our artists help each other and are supportive of each other.” 

You can visit the barn from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday to peruse the gift shop, purchase resident artists’ work and meet the artists.

Many resident artists at the barn have taken classes from Fairley.

“Judy brings a lot of comradery and helps all the other artists,” Hartwig said.

Right now, Fairley said she is working on several pastel dog portraits, a few grizzly bear scratchboard pieces and one black and white scratchboard of a Pontiac hood ornament. 

“I usually have about seven or eight pieces that I’m working on at the same time,” Fairley said.

Fairley said she is fortunate to have found what she loves to do and share it with others.

“I do not take it for granted any day,” Fairley said. “All I want is somebody to feel as happy about what they’re doing as what I do.”