To say the last few years have been a challenge for artist Sarah Rushing Doss and her husband James would be an understatement. In 2016, Rushing Doss’s then-fiancé and James’s childhood friend, Ben Privott, was senselessly murdered near his Wilmington home. In the aftermath Rushing Doss and James became closer—and a couple. After withstanding a harrowing series of public court proceedings, they became engaged and began planning their life together. Then Hurricane Florence hit, damaging their home and threatening plans for a quiet elopement.
“We have some very special friends that welcomed us for hot showers and a place to lay our heads, and then got us to the airport on time,” Rushing Doss remembers. “It’s still hard to believe we made it [to Colorado] for our ceremony.”
When the couple returned to Wilmington, they were without a place to live. For a while, they rented a friend’s home. When that lease ended, still awaiting the completion of construction on their own house, they lived as nomads with family, often making arrangements elsewhere on the fly.
“I will never forget James routinely heating water on our camp stove for our morning coffee,” Rushing Doss says, “and our frequent discussions of where we would sleep that night.”
During their struggles, the couple was faced with a choice: Make the most of a situation or succumb to frustration. “Of course there were so many discouraging times along the way, and it was a struggle to maintain positivity,” Rushing Doss admits. “Many times I failed; regardless, I recommitted myself daily to pushing forward and actively choosing happiness by counting our many blessings.”
She channeled that commitment into a series of new artworks, “Choosing Happiness,” on display at Flytrap Brewing through the end of the year. The 24 pieces range in size from 12-inches-by-12-inches to 36-inches-by-48-inches and include 14 paintings on canvas, six drawings on paper, and four framed prints. They are available for purchase, with prices ranging from $75 to $1,000.
In addition to being an artist, Rushing Doss is in charge of food photography, art curation and marketing at her husband’s popular Castle Street restaurant Rx. Those familiar with her work will recognize the bold, brightly colored oysters, farm animals and landscapes that line the walls at Flytrap. However, her two favorites are a departure from her usual subject matter. “The Dream” depicts Privott in the backyard of the house he and Rushing Doss once shared. He’s standing in front of the greenhouse he and some friends built for Rushing Doss as a Christmas present. Though the artist admits it was jarring to realize the elements in the painting now are gone, it was important she capture them as a way to preserve her memories.
In “Himalayan Dreaming,” her husband looks out a window, as light spills onto his face. The painting was the last Rushing Doss completed for the show, and the first she completed in her studio after she and James moved back into their house. It’s also the darkest piece in the exhibition in terms of coloring. Still, Rushing Doss calls it the most hopeful.
“[James’] face is full of strength, love, light and possibility, which are the feelings he inspires in me daily,” she says. “To me, it is the most important piece in the show: a symbol of unwavering love and hope.”
Rushing Doss credits a drawing class with local sculptor and mixed-media artist Michael Van Hout for helping her move forward through her art.
“His class saved me,” she says. “It was meditative, low-pressure, fun, and ultimately confidence-building. It was the bridge I needed to get me back to painting.”
She also acknowledges her participation in Wilmington’s annual No Boundaries International Art Colony, which she calls “life-changing.” After attending the two-week residency on Bald Head Island in 2018, she became a board member this year. Recently, she and artist Mark Weber began work on a 1,600-square-foot mural on the island.
“It’s this magical place where you can be vulnerable with this wonderful group of people who understand the struggle of the creative process and inspire you to let go and be free,” she says.
For Rushing Doss, “Choosing Happiness” marks a step forward both artistically and personally. On November 21, dozens of friends packed Flytrap for the exhibition’s opening. Just last week, she and James finally cooked dinner in their kitchen for the first time as a married couple. While she admits her work sometimes takes her in a more somber direction—“I do have works that are just for me,” she says—the decision to choose happiness remains a deliberate one.
“I prefer to express negative ideas and move on from them quickly,” she says. “Again, that’s the active choice I make in my work. If I’m going to spend hours with a painting while I’m working on it, I want it to make me feel good.”
It’s a small gift she gives herself and others who view her work. It’s also therapeutic output—something artists, whether just beginning or veterans, have the privilege to harbor.
“Your ability to create will help move you forward through your struggles,” Rushing Doss says. “I like to think a lot about balance. Of course, you can’t be happy all the time, and it’s critical to healing to truly feel and work through sadness or anger or hurt, but you don’t have to stay there. That’s where the choice comes in.”