By Harley Nefe
Peg Carino, an accomplished acrylic painter, has been splashing colors together and using brushes to create distinctive, bold and vibrant paintings that have been seen by many across the High Country, including on the cover of several December High Country Magazines. However, Carino hasn’t always been found here doing her original works of art.
A Richmond, Virginia native, Carina also lived in Florida before making her home in Banner Elk in 2008. Her initial work background came in the yachting industry as a chef. She recalled that craft being rewarding, but that she fulfilled a keen desire to move to this region.
“Like so many, I started coming up here at Christmas time, and I decided I wanted to move here,” Carino said. “I did, and I haven’t looked back.”
Peg said a talent for painting runs in her family and that she obtained hers without any formal or specialized training.
“I have been painting a long time and never tire of it,” Carino said. “As I am completely self taught, I also never tire of learning about the creative process.”
Now staying busy as a painter, Carino spends much of her time creating one-of-a-kind works of art and commissioned pieces that tell the stories of her patrons, as she said art will always be her top passion.
When asked if she has a favorite subject to paint, Carino said it depends on her client
“Every painting I do is personal and always whimsical. Included will be something about the person’s life, cherished family events or even comical occurrences,” Carino said. “I also do family history. After I have asked many questions of my clients, I can insert certain nuances within my work. Sometimes those nuances are recognized and sometimes they’re not until I point them out.”
Most of the time, Carino paints realistically and incorporates elements of visual illusion.
“I have a crazy brain; I just think of things that nobody thinks of. Things just come to me, and I can’t explain why, but they’re always silly and funny. My brain is really nutty,” Carino said. “I ask clients to just let me run with it, and thank goodness it has always worked out.”
Carino has painted family histories, murals, furniture and other types of decorative pieces. However, she has no idea how many pieces she has completed.
“After so many years of painting, it’s hard to keep count of all the pieces you have done,” Carino said. “Sometimes you forget one or two until you are fortunate enough to become reacquainted with them.”
Five years ago, Carino introduced readers of High Country Magazine to The Bear Family on the cover of the December issue, and she has continued the story of her dreamy winter wonderland each season since.
High Country Magazine’s tradition every December is to invite an artist to design a cover, and Carino’s opportunity came about when High Country Press’s Publisher and Editor Ken Ketchie visited her old shop and saw her artwork hanging up on the wall. Ketchie then asked Carino if she would like to do a cover, and she did.
The idea of the bears came to Carino rather quickly, as at the time, she had recently read that bears come out of hibernation, and she got really excited about the concept.
“I never knew that bears came out during hibernation, and so I had just read that they do come out now and again, but it’s usually at night and nobody sees them,” Carino said. “It made me think, ‘Gee, I wonder what they’re doing at night?’ And so, I pictured them ice skating on the pond at Tynecastle, and that was how it all came about.”
In December 2016, Carino created the first cover of the furry family ice skating, and then their story grew from there.
The backgrounds of the imaginative scenes are always inspired by local areas, just like the first cover where the bears are ice skating on the pond near Tynecastle.
Carino said that the area behind the shop she used to manage was her favorite place.
“There is a little arched stone bridge that can carry you back in time and offers the most amazing scenery year round,” Carino said. “From the moment I was asked to do the Christmas cover, this was the only place that it could be. I just saw bears frolicking and ice skating on this little pond.”
High Country Magazine enjoyed Carino’s painting so much that she was asked to make a return appearance in 2017 with a new painting, and Carino did not hesitate to say yes.
In the second cover of the bears being back, they are sitting by a fire gathered outside their dens awaiting Santa in the moonlit sky.
“I like to always include snow because it’s a Christmas thing,” Carino said. “I like to include the mountains, of course, because that’s what we’re all about, and I like including Grandfather Mountain because I have respect for the mountain; it’s something holy to me.”
In the third cover of The Bear Family in 2018, the bears were shown in a combined downtown area of the High Country. By this season of magazines, many devoted readers had become fans of the The Bear Family and wanted to know what they were up to.
“People were kind of recognizing the bears, and so I gave them their own parade,” Carino said. “Can you imagine bears on parade dressed in their Christmas outfits?”
Another important aspect of the December magazine covers Carino always tries to capture is the importance of family.
“When thinking of the ideas, I don’t think of them as bears, even though they are The Bear Family; I think of them as a family,” Carino said.
To continue the concept of family, Carino always repeats small details on each cover. For example, the momma bear wears the same scarf every season, and the girly bear wears the same skirt. One year, Carino even made the waist of the skirt start to come apart to show that the bears have been growing.
Other key characters in The Bear Family include wise old sage Pappy Bear and Son.
“The focus is always on the family, and Pappy being the leader of the family, and his inquisitive son always has a question about something, mostly Santa,” Carino said.
For example, in 2019, the son said, “Pappy, we moved! Are you really sure Santa Bear will find our new den?”
The son often represents how many young children act during the holidays, always asking about Santa.
In Carino’s fourth painting for High Country Magazine in 2019, the scene is of The Bear Family grown and having moved to a brand new and larger den on Grandfather Mountain.
Carino likes to do tributes to people in her artwork, as the December 2019 cover was a tribute to Grandfather Mountain and the people who take care of it.
Another tribute Carino has done is for Jimmy Puckett, a mechanic at the Banner Elk Exxon.
“He just found a special place in my heart, and he’s my mechanic, but he’s just a good man, and I do some small tribute to his children on each cover,” Carino said.
In past covers, Carino had camouflaged their initials in items; however, for the December 2020 cover, she painted three little heads with toboggans on right beside Santa Claus.
“This year, instead of doing their initials, I wanted to show how they had grown with the oldest with their arm around the next one and then the next one her arm around the little one,” Carino said.
Therefore, each cover Carino designs carries a theme and hidden messages or tributes through small details.
This year’s December magazine cover is of The Bear Family caroling during the holidays.
“This year was all about 2020, and if we’re all going to be alright, and if we’re going to get through this Covid thing and, of course, is Santa still going to be around?” Carino said. “That was the biggest thing.”
Carino further said she loves all of the paintings of The Bear Family she has done, as each of them are unique and special in their own way.
“I’m really proud, to be perfectly honest,” Carino said. “I didn’t expect it to go this far.”
Carino also said she tends to get the ideas for the magazine covers early on, and it doesn’t take her that long to paint them, as she continued to joke that she will finish number six in May.
“I can say that the cover for this year did come to me very, very early because 2020 has been a really hard year, so I don’t know if the 2021 cover will come as easy, but I hope that it does,” Carino said. “And I hope it can be about the same thing — family and hope and doing things together. And those bears — I hope they keep on coming out at night.”
Here are all of Peg Carino’s December Magazine covers over the years: