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The Sheer Joy of Painting: Finding Pobai, Presbyterian Painter

April 25, 2016

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.

P1030234

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.

WilliamAndPobie

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.

PobiaCelebrationSunday

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.

MassanettaSpringsConferenceCenter

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)

MassanettaSpringsRockingChairs

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.

SunnysideIrises

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.

EleanorRebecca

Left to right: Eleanor and Rebecca Held.

There’s also a flower painting in the church administrative office at Trinity.

TrinityOfficeSized

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.

KidCornerEdited

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.

PobaiSignature

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!

Memorial

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.)

EpiphanyDinnerInHome

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?

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8 Comments
  1. I recognized your daughters immediately in the first painting even though the technique is very stylized. How wonderful that the disease never invaded the painterly part of Pobai’s abilities.

    Remembering others (hand-written notes, notations on my prayer card) gives me joy as does blogging. Memoir writing is more of an uphill climb for me now. Thank you for spreading more joy here, Melodie.

    • You know, Marian, I actually thought a different girl was my daughter on the painting; our pastor “straightened me out.” So you did well!!

      I wish I had watched Pobai paint–never saw that. I think her tremors came and went with meds.

      I think I can understand why the memoir feels uphill right now–certainly any major project like that has it’s pauses. You’ll get there.

  2. Beverly Silver permalink

    Hi Melodie! What a wonderful article! Thanks so much. I know of another Pobie painting. It is in the living room of my daughter and son-in-law! A portrait of them soon before they were married it was their wedding gift! It is prominent over the sofa, and we love it! Please call her if you want to see it! You have probably seen it before, but maybe forgot or did not realize is was one of Pobie’s! Thanks again! Also, the article should somehow get into the TPC records or archives. I hope but don’t know how stuff is being acquired and kept!

  3. So Lauren and Mike have a portrait of them! Wow, no, I didn’t know. I’ve been in their living room but it’s been a while now. I probably wasn’t paying attention that day.

    Amen to keeping good TPC records. I was so thankful for whoever organized, dated and named people in various photos in the scrapbooks at Trinity when I went looking for picture so Pobai. Blessings!

  4. Lauren Strawderman permalink

    Pobai also painted our portrait as a wedding gift and it hangs in our livingroom. The portrait was a gift and so was the time spent in her livingroom as she painted it, 2 newlyweds soaking in the wisdom of one much farther down the roads of life and marriage. What a beautiful legacy she left!

    • Thanks for commenting, Lauren, and sharing how it it was to pose and be painted by Pobai–and for putting it on Facebook. So cool!

  5. Cressia Roberts permalink

    I am not sure if you are still active on this blog but I wanted to share another of Pobai’s paintings she did in, we think, 1970. My husbands grandmother was a member of Collierstown Presbyterian but she happened to be in Lexington for a special event and Pobai painted her picture. When the piece came out in the paper, everyone said that it looked like my husbands grandmother. He was about 10 years old and bought the painting from Pobai. It hung in the home of his mother and now it has a place of honor in our own home. It is titled “The Worshiper” I would like to send you a picture to add to your archive of rememberances if you will allow me to.

    • Yes, sure, I am active on this blog and I would LOVE to see that picture and add it to Pobai’s “gallery.” You can email it to melodiemillerdavis@gmail.com

      I’m thrilled to hear from another Pobai fan–and what a neat honor for your husband’s grandmother.

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