Michelle James Published

Childhood Love Turns Into Adult Lifestyle For W.Va. Artist

Close up view of a young hand drawing on a white sheet. Kid hold

It probably started with her first set of crayons.

“Anytime she got a coloring book she would color the blank inside pages before she ever colored a picture,” Cande Ratliff said of her daughter Carli.

Cande remembers teachers reveling in her daughter’s artwork as far back as kindergarten.

“Hers (art) was just different,” she said. “Her people had eyelashes and plaid shirts. Her animals had whiskers. You had to ask other students what they drew but you could always tell what her picture was without asking.”

The 35-year-old Oak Hill native laughs as her mother recalls those early years, but says she remembers them well.

She also remembers how her love for animals — and creating them on a blank canvas — was born.

“I grew up with a lot of different animals,” she said. “I had a pony, raccoon, chicken, guineas (pigs), turkey, rabbits, cats and dogs.”

And when her grandfather, who owned his own art gallery in Michigan, began sending her home from visits with catalogs featuring the work of well-known wildlife painters Carl Brenders and Robert Bateman, Carli decided to give it a go herself.

“I would look at those catalogs and I would practice drawing,” she said, explaining she spent hours trying to sketch her own versions of the animals she saw on the pages. “I decided I wanted to be like one of those famous artists.”

Carli’s love for art grew through the years, but by the time the 2004 Oak Hill High School graduate entered Concord University, her career path changed.

“I planned to teach,” she said, explaining her goals for her music and studio art majors.

It was the advice of Professor Fernando Porras coupled with the recurrence of epilepsy, a condition she lived with throughout her childhood but hadn’t dealt with for six and a half years, that prompted her to forgo that plan.

“My art teacher told me if I was a teacher I wouldn’t have time for my own art,” she said. “(He said) I would never get any better.

“He definitely encouraged me to pursue my own career.”

At Concord, encouraged by Porras, Carli made the shift from pencil sketches to paint.

“When I was younger I was afraid to make mistakes, but he (Porras) made me less afraid, which helped me get better,” she said.

Carli’s process involves more than just deciding to paint a bird or a dog.

Instead, it begins with a hike in the woods or a road trip throughout West Virginia.

“I take a whole lot of photos,” she said. “I go to places like Three Rivers Avian Center, the West Virginia Wildlife Center and photography centers,” she said. “I take hundreds and hundreds of photos and then I make a sketch and paint.”

The Oak Hill home Carli shares with her mother is full of her wildlife creations.

Though she said she enjoys everything she paints, she said her favorite subjects right now are owls.

“Their eyes are just so big,” she said.

She said she often works on as many as three paintings at a time, but a painting of two barred owls — one perched in a tree, staring over his shoulder as the other approaches in the distance — is her current focus.

The painting, when complete, is one Carli plans to submit to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources for consideration for its 2023 wildlife calendar.

Carli was first selected for the calendar in 2013 for her winter scene titled “Bunny Love,” and then again in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021.

Those who purchased this year’s calendar will again find her work with December’s “Snow Bunnies.”

In addition to the DNR calendar contest, which attracted more than 300 entries from across the country, Carli has won several other competitions.

In 2011, her “Squirrel in Paulownia Tree” won first place in the Division of Culture and History’s “West Virginia Wildlife” juried exhibition. Then, in 2016, her “Climbing to the Top,” featuring a raccoon in a tree, won the Diversifying Perspectives Art Contest and Exhibition.

That contest, she said, was special to her as it was used to promote National Disability and Awareness Month.

As part of the recognition, both a portrait of Carli and the painting were featured on a poster designed to help raise awareness about disabilities.

“I was proud of that because I felt like it was very important,” she said.


Though she earned her driver’s license in high school, Carli has been unable to drive since her seizures returned in college.

On Cande’s days off work, she and Carli often drive to places where they can view wildlife for future inspiration. And, in the coming year, they said they hope to explore galleries where Carli might show, and potentially sell, her work.

“My epilepsy makes it hard to get around,” she said. “But my mom is a big source of encouragement, for sure.”

With galleries — as well as future contests — in mind, Carli, who teaches piano lessons from home and also paints commissioned pet portraits, continues to create.

“… I call my paintings my mom’s grandpaintings,” she said with a laugh. “They’re my babies.”