The Sheer Joy of Painting: Finding Pobai, Presbyterian Painter
Pobai (pronounced “po-bee”) Hefelfinger was a pastor’s wife and also loved painting. We first met her when she and her husband William Hefelfinger retired and moved to Sunnyside Presbyterian Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Parkinson’s Disease stole away the smooth functioning body movements most of us enjoy, but it never stole her giving and loving spirit. Nor did it filch her ability to paint.
I recently came into possession of one of Pobai’s awesome watercolors (this one somehow reminds me of a Renoir painting) which includes our two oldest daughters, Michelle and Tanya. For the record and my Trinity Presbyterian friends, the girls in this painting include from bottom left and around the table, Michelle Davis, Rebecca Held, Pam Starick, Tanya Davis, Catherine Barber, and Eleanor Held.
I wanted to know more about Pobai and her paintings but I was having trouble finding anything online. Pobai died in 1997 at the age of 73, a few years after her husband succumbed to complications of Alzheimer’s. I sat down with our pastor of 24 years and still a good friend, Ann Held, now retired (young!). Ann’s daughters Rebecca and Eleanor were close in age to our daughters, Michelle and Tanya.
Ann’s husband, John Held, was the children’s choir director at Trinity which became a dear and valued part of their elementary years. Ann remembered that the scene in this painting, which was created from a photograph, was most likely taken at the end of the Sunday school year when the choir typically had a picnic at church or a park to celebrate the year. (And also, let’s face it, celebrating the end of trudging to late Sunday afternoon choir practice which John often made a fun delight, but sometimes girls—and their parents— don’t always like to quit playing or relaxing and hurry off to church.) They especially loved the annual trip to a weeklong Music and Worship Conference at Montreat, N.C. for children and adult choirs in the Presbyterian Church, and learned to know their pastor and choir director very well as they all shared a cabin together.
John Held, in a cabin at Montreat, checking music literature.
Ann said creating and giving paintings to people or the institutions that were important to her was Pobai’s gift and ministry.
William Hefelfinger and Pobai, left, talking to two visitors at our church in the early 90s.
In those later years, I can imagine painting was also an outlet and survival mechanism for coping with her and her husband’s ailments. Pobai would assist with artistic efforts at church such as helping make a banner, artwork at a retreat, or help with Celebration Sundays several times a year where we typically enjoyed intergenerational activities often in an outdoor setting.
Pobai listening in with other women at a Trinity event.
I tracked down Pobai’s paintings at several nearby Presbyterian institutions including this large depiction of Massanetta Springs Conference Center (a synod-owned camp, conference and retreat center that anyone can rent or book for such occasions) that presides over the fireplace in the dining hall there.
Pobai’s painting at Massanetta Springs, of the grounds and wonderful old hotel there.
I love that the painting alludes to a favorite resting place at Massanetta: the rocking chairs on the front porch entrance way. (below)
At the nearby Sunnyside Communities for retirement living, one of Pobai’s best paintings of irises is found on the third floor of the Pannel Health Center. When our church goes Christmas caroling to those in health care there, we old-timers are sure to point out the Pobai painting.
Pobia’s watercolor on the third floor of Pannel Health Center, Sunnyside.
Ann owns a lovely chalk drawing of her two daughters created by Pobai. Ann’s husband, John, died of cancer in 2010, a traumatic loss for our whole congregation but especially his daughters and wife.
Left to right: Eleanor and Rebecca Held.
There’s also a flower painting in the church administrative office at Trinity.
Still life in Trinity’s administrative office.
Before our new pastor, Stephanie Wing Sorge moved into her new pastor’s office, several of us painted her new digs and the “Children’s Choir Picnic” was bequeathed to me in order to make room for whatever the new pastor wanted to hang on her new office walls.
Pobai’s painting “Children’s Choir Picnic” will watch over my grandchildren’s toy corner in the living room of our home.
I’m happy to be the painting’s temporary steward until someone wants it back for the church walls or elsewhere. We will enjoy it and the memories as we pay tribute to a woman who never stopped painting and reached out to touch others in beautiful ways until she was just too ill.
Just before finishing and publishing this, I looked closer at Pobai’s signature on one of her paintings. I had been spelling it Pobie (which is how the church memorial plaque spells it). Wrong! Her true spelling was Pobai!
Using the new spelling, I was able to find a current painter in the arts guild in Rockbridge County, Lexington Va., Eleanor Penn, who mentions studying with Pobai as being important for her own artistic style. Pobai and her husband lived and pastored there for a number of years. I’m sure there were many others.
But my real find—was an article in the local James Madison University’s student newspaper The Breeze, where Pobai is quoted saying, “My artistic intention is to paint for the sheer joy of painting. I try to communicate some of the joy I feel in the presence of beauty.”
Now that sounds like the sweet and lovely woman who was Pobai! The article also mentioned that there was a display at JMU’s Women’s Resource Center celebrating women artists (usually students, but they had chosen Pobai’s work and another artist Rebecca Flores because “They not only offer visual stimulation, but also intellectual stimulation.” The director of the center at the time met Pobai in an art class and was so impressed with her work that she asked her to submit her pieces to the art committee.
Pobai is quoted saying, “I want to be famous and there are not so many years left,” and that she paints every chance she gets. Pobai was recognized for her art with a John Singleton Copley award in Boston, Mass., and was a charter member of the National Museum of Women in Arts.
My blog and writing is not so famous either but I’m thrilled to let Pobai’s work and joyful spirit shine a little longer through this medium—now that I know how to spell her name correctly! (Please don’t tell me I have Hefelfinger wrong.)
Pobai, between her husband William, left, and my husband, right, at a church Epiphany dinner in the home of Jim and Mae Guthrie. Jim (far right) was the chaplain at Sunnyside before retiring.
What do you do for the sheer joy of doing it?
What would you like to be remembered for?
I found another of Pobai’s paintings at Invaluable.com’s art auction. Which of Pobai’s paintings you’ve seen here would be your favorite?