By Chris Easterly,

When she was eight years old, Virginia M. Watts-Layson spent the winter stripping tobacco to earn cash. After a day’s work alongside grown men, she’d stop by a small country store in Peaks Mill to buy art supplies. “The guys were making six dollars an hour and I’m making three, but I’m happy as a clam because I’m going to go buy my chalks,” she said. 

Watts-Layson was born in Korea after her American father met her Korean mother when he was stationed with the Army in Seoul. When Watts-Layson was four, they moved to Kentucky. Growing up without much money, she had to work for what she wanted. “I learned very early that hard work equals new shoes or a paint brush,” she said. “I worked really hard so I could buy my own.”

Her mother would occasionally reprimand her for using scissors to cut up books or insurance bills to make snowflakes or paper dresses. At age 11, she started a mentorship with local painter Charlene Randle. During her senior year at Franklin County High School, she secured several scholarships to art colleges. At the time, however, she felt compelled to take a more practical route. She studied paralegal science and became a homicide investigator for the Department of Public Advocacy.

For a decade, Watts-Layson worked for defense lawyers trying to keep their clients from being executed. “How do you face yourself in the mirror?” some people would wonder about her work. “I felt like I was saving the tax payers of Kentucky,” she said, noting that it costs significantly more to execute a defendant than to keep them alive.

“I loved everything about it,” she said. “I’d eat lunch over homicide photos. It was the best job I ever had in my life other than the art.” 

Watts-Layson’s life took an unexpected turn when a bulldozer rolled over her father, incapacitating him. She took a leave of absence from work to care for him. The combination of being a fulltime caregiver with the high stress of homicide investigation forced her to reevaluate her career path. That’s when she decided to finally become a fulltime artist. Leaving behind criminal law, however, was not easy. 

“It’s like a person who loves to climb mountains that doesn’t climb mountains anymore,” she said. “You remember the thrill. Even though you’re working with the darkest elements of people and life, you’re also seeing the light. Whereas if you don’t have the dark, you don’t see the light.”

To earn money, Watts-Layson started teaching water colors and drawing at Thorn Hill Learning Center. The job enabled her to create a studio space in her home. “After leaving the darkness of homicide, I made a conscious decision that everything from that point on was going to be beautiful,” she said. “I try to live my whole life making everything beautiful, and that’s on purpose.” 

Watts-Layson strives to practice this philosophy in every aspect of life, whether it’s painting, cooking, hostessing or gardening. “When I’m painting, I lose myself in the color, in the actual doing of it, and that’s why I started painting in the first place. It’s always been an escape, it’s always been my friend, it’s always been a comfort, and I can control every aspect of it. I can make a beautiful world.”

Watts-Layson works in various mediums, including acrylics, oils, pastels, sculpting and jewelry-making. “Each of my paintings represents either the most painful or the happiest times of my life,” she said. A painting of a duck beaded with water droplets represents the happiness she felt when she met her husband Andy. Another water color of two fish was created when her mother was battling cancer. Watts-Layson needed to lose herself in the intricacies of the fishes’ scales and colors.

The time it takes for her to complete a painting varies depending on the subject matter. A portrait may take three to six weeks. She bases many of her paintings on photographs she takes, such as a heron against a sunset or an elk shrouded in mist. “That photo might sit in a drawer for 15 years before you bring it out, but it’s there ready for the painting,” she said.

When the time comes, Watts-Layson sketches every detail, every shadow and piece of light, before she ever touches paint to canvas. “It has to already be completely done in your mind because you can’t erase or cover it up.”

At her home along Elkhorn Creek in Switzer, Watts-Layson is always creating in the studio. “I’ve got more paintings in me than I probably have life left,” she said. “Doing it heals me.” 

One way she extends healing and beauty into the world is through her work with The Kindness Rocks Project, a nationwide movement that reached Kentucky several years ago. “People paint rocks and you just drop them randomly around town, and it basically tells people there’s hope and love out there, and kind people who want to share beautiful things with you.”

Watts-Layson started leaving hand-painted stones around Frankfort, during trips to the hospital, post office or library. Each rock has a message encouraging its finder to post their discovery on the Frankfort KY Rocks Facebook page. She has developed a following of thousands based on her colorful and intricate designs on these stones. 

Her rocks have traveled all over the world, including France, Africa, Australia, Korea, Japan and Croatia. “I find that usually people who need the rocks the most find them, people going through something,” she said. One Easter, she painted a rock with the character Snoopy. A woman who had recently lost her mother, with whom she shared an affinity for Snoopy, found the rock.

Moved by such seemingly coincidental connections with random people, Watts-Layson now carries a painted rock in her purse wherever she goes. She hides them so they’ll be easy enough to find by a child. Sometimes, she’ll just hand them out personally. “If I see a kid that doesn’t look as happy as they could be, they always get a rock because it makes somebody’s day,” she said. 

Gifting the world with beautifully decorated stones is simply another way Watts-Layson practices the decision she made years ago when she left criminal law. “Even though they’re not ever going to be my magnum opus, for my soul it really helps me bring to life the philosophy I want to live, which is bring beauty and kindness and joy and laughter.”

To learn more about Watts-Layson and her work, visit Elkhorn Creek Studios on Facebook.