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March 14, 2011

Billy Price Carroll: 1920-2011

"Fresh Snow" by Billy Price Carroll

"Fresh Snow" by Billy Price Carroll

There were very few people in the world like Billy Price Carroll, if any. She was a remarkable woman, as unique and eccentric as she was passionate and talented. As an artist, she gained global notoriety with exhibits that even caught the attention and admiration high level Chinese officials. Her portraits grace the elite halls of schools, churches, and courthouses. I don’t know if she ever had a time when she didn’t have commission — but none of that mattered to me nearly as much as this: she was my Matie.

Billy Price Carroll

In the first couple years of my life, she was called by another name, “granmommy.” But no, I wouldn’t have that. She was far too special to have such a common endearment. She deserved something much more stylish; something much more her. Of course, in my toddler mindset, there wasn’t a whole lot of pondering going on. But I was decisive. I pointed to my mother. “That’s my mommy,” I said. and then pointed to my grandmother. “And THAT is my Matie! (pronounced mah-TEE).”

It stuck. And nothing would ever fit any human being like it ever again.

She saw the world through a lens that was most peculiar — it was a world to be painted. Beauty was far better captured through the eyes of an artist. It was her second breath. She lived to paint — to draw — to sculpt. It didn’t matter what medium it was, she would master it. Sometimes she’d use a paintbrush or a palette knife. No matter what her emotion was, she’d put it on canvas.

Oil paintings were all over her house and studio, each with a story to tell — both in the painting and behind the scenes. To her, watercolor was a way for life to flow. Pastel wasn’t a color scheme, it was a way to capture life — whether it’s a still life or a bouncing child. Sculpture wasn’t for mere statues; she had to capture the explosive and spontaneous power of life itself — be it dolphins leaping into the air or geese flying away.

To the world around me, Billy Price Carroll was one of the most brilliant artists of her time. Her exhibits were as much about stories and “adventure” than anything else. Her child like, wide-eyed wonder was more than a personality. To her, it was a perspective. A storm was never a thing to fear — it was something to be painted!

For all of my nearly forty years, I’ll always remember those special times. One Christmas, she and my grandfather were visiting us over the Christmas holidays. I was eight that year in 1979. My father had just become the newest general sessions judge in Montgomery County, and the country was under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter.

I asked for a few special things for Christmas that year. Of course, the top of the list was Legos. I didn’t care what kind of set it was; but there had to be a lot of them. My favorite TV show was a little anime series called Star Blazers (which still has a special place on my DVD shelf), so I wanted a model of the space ship from that series, the Argo. More than anything else, though, I wanted a bicycle.

By the time the Christmas season had come along, I was delighted that Matie would visit. She always managed to brighten the room no matter where it was, and she would share her adventures. She’d run with us, enjoy those impromptu races (of course, she’d “let” us win), and would always share that smile, that spark of life.

One night, probably Christmas Eve, Dad told me to go downstairs to get some firewood and put it in the stove. Of course, chores were part of life in the Shelton household, and one of those chores was to stuff the fireplace. After all, it was how we heated our home (and believe me — that thing worked!). I hummed a little ridiculous tune to myself as I trotted down the stairs.

I didn’t notice that the whole family very quietly followed me, snickering the entire time.

The firewood was stored in our garage, so I went inside and walked to the wood stack. I took notice of something that wasn’t there earlier in the day. It was a gray bicycle, polished, new, and had “star force” written on it. It was beautiful. I just carefully graced my hands over it, as one might with a new car. Who could this be for? Instantly, I ran through a number of possibilities in my mind. Maybe it’s for my best friend Jimmy. After all, our mutual parents would commonly hide presents for the others’ children since we were so gosh-darn good at finding them. Maybe it was for…

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” It was a collective shout. My mom, dad, brother, little sister, and Matie. All of them were there — snuck in behind me and darn near scared me out of my shoes. I heard all of their voices, but the one that I remember that had the most joy, the most delight, and the most resonance, was Matie’s. She probably didn’t have a clue what Star Blazers was, and certainly didn’t know about the Star Force (the name of the intrepid Argo crew).

But she did know that I was totally gobsmacked, and she smiled even broader once she saw the comprehension on my face. That gorgeous bike — was mine! It was for me! Santa didn’t even have to bring it; Mom and Dad bought it! And she was in on it, all so that I could have a special gift that year. As it turned out, I didn’t need to get that firewood after all.

In her last few years of life, she probably lived more than most of us do in a lifetime. Her visit to Italy was a trip to paint those striking little mountaintop villas. Her home on the lake was the fulfillment of a life-long dream, and she saw every day as a day to paint, to celebrate, to live. And live, she did.

Matie left us this weekend, knowing well that “this painting was almost finished.” She was 90. I would offer some kind of sentiment that rest in peace, but really I know better. She’s probably painting the angels themselves with a newfound speed and brilliance. “Stop! Hold that pose! That’s PERFECT!”

She was preceded in death by her beloved husband, David, the only maternal grandfather I ever really knew. She is survived by her only daughter (my mother), her sister — Aunt Nadia, three great-grandchildren, and by three grandchildren — my brother and sister, and by me.

Editor’s note: Mrs. Carroll’s available works can be viewed at

About the Author

David W. Shelton



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