Formed by a Love of Painting

A group of abstract artists reunites in Wilmington

BY Christine R. Gonzalez

The artists gather for an official 2022 group shot in Santa Fe. Top row, left to right: Peggy Vineyard, Duane Couch, Cookie Ashton, Ashley Andrews, Nancy Hirsch Lassen, Kirby Kendrick and Dawn Harris Brown. Bottom row: Nell Tilton, Merry Calderoni and Robin Crutcher.
The artists gather for an official 2022 group shot in Santa Fe. Top row, left to right: Peggy Vineyard, Duane Couch, Cookie Ashton, Ashley Andrews, Nancy Hirsch Lassen, Kirby Kendrick and Dawn Harris Brown. Bottom row: Nell Tilton, Merry Calderoni and Robin Crutcher.

It started about six years ago in Mexico. A group of female abstract artists experimented with a week of communal painting at the Instituto de Allende in San Miguel de Allende. Artist and gallery owner Merry Calderoni hosted the group, which stayed at a bed and breakfast she owned with her husband, Ben.

It was the perfect setting for painting in tandem with like-minded contemporaries. The unforeseen result was the bond forged by these 12 artists. They continue to meet yearly to share ideas and encourage each other.

After three years meeting in San Miguel de Allende and two in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the group, which calls itself Las Artistas, will paint in Wilmington in May for the first time at Gallery Verrazzano inside the massive theArtWorks facility.

Some of the artists will be in a beach rental and others will stay in the home of their Wilmington host, Peggy Vineyard.

“It is a great, unusual group of women from all over,” says Vineyard, a Las Artistas charter member. “But we jell together, helping each other, talking art and laughing a lot at dinner.”

The artists all paint big. Their abstract works are meant to be focal points in homes or offices. Pieces can be several feet in length and height.

To paint in the same location, the artists each need a large space with partitions from 8 to 12 feet wide. They will paint on either side of sturdy backdrops that are typically on rollers or wheels that can be anchored.

“We are thrilled with this space we’ve rented from Jim and Betsy Knowles. The lighting is perfect, and it is the largest venue we’ve rented thus far,” Vineyard says. “With more room to paint, we can have more canvases on the board and do a series. We all do our own thing, but we comment and encourage each other.”

Las Artistas are all professional painters. Many trained abroad, own galleries, and have their works in private or public collections all over the world. Some came to painting after other exciting career paths.

“Our love of creating art is what holds us together,” artist Nell Tilton says. “Painting is our common focus, but our group also brings to the table varied professional backgrounds and experiences: real estate agent, gallery owners, TV personality and caterer, art teacher, horse owners and fox hunters, social workers, journalist, accountant and interior designer.”

Abstract art can be shapes, layered colors, meandering lines, mysterious objects that seem familiar but distorted, and images that are a reflection of one or more emotions.

Carolyn “Cookie” Ashton, a Las Artistas member from Houston, usually does not have an outcome in mind when she paints.

“The work just seems to evolve. Quite often I see human forms in my paintings and while unintentional, it pleases me,” she says.

One of Ashton’s styles is imperfect watery circles or distorted bubbles that seem to float together to make a variety of designs. Some are like stones or flower petals blowing in the wind, others resemble the otherworldly nebula seen in NASA photos, as interpreted in Utopia IV.

Dawn Harris Brown is another of the original 12 abstract art friends. Born in Texas, she now resides in Louisiana but studied art in Spain. Her paintings draw on her love of nature with rushing waters as in Blue Bayou. Many of her works express movement. Land seems to be breaking apart in MHB and objects flying in Feathers.

Calderoni describes her painting as “adventures into mazes or puzzles, with unknown content and without a plan.” Her touch seems to blur lines, forms and colors. In Lost and Found one can see possibly a human image, melting into the background.

She has a whiplash series that starts with fuzzy or less defined background colors that are slapped with harsh and frayed marks of paint applied to canvas via bullwhip. This unique way to apply paint to canvas is both bold and demur, depending on the stroke.

Vineyard’s art is full of color and activity, and it is large, as big as 53 by 59 inches. She admits that she is painting a little less large these days, because at age 85, the bigger canvases are getting too heavy to place.

“I think this workshop is going to be fun,” she says. “I would like to show Wilmington what large abstract paintings are. Since we live by the water, people want to see birds and fish.”

Abstract paintings might not show images that viewers can immediately identify, but a lot of inspiration is drawn from nature.

“The outside is very important to us — trees, flowers, the water, beach, it all comes into our painting at some time,” Vineyard says. “That appreciation is what comes from within us. That is how I rest myself, by looking out at my trees. It’s very important in our painting. It might not look like it, but it (our work) is whatever is inside. That’s what I always say, I create from within.”

Vineyard was not able to paint as often as she wanted during the pandemic, but she did create what she calls “the angriest looking painting,” perhaps a reflection of the times.

“It was so awful, red and black, it looked dangerous. My granddaughter and her fiancé love it. It’s hanging in their house. I called it Corona Angst,” she says.

Three of the original 12 Las Artistas, Ashley Chase Andrews, Robin Crutcher and Marcia Holmes, will not be able to attend the Wilmington reunion. Local artist Katherine Wolf Webb will be joining in the workshop as will Vickie Marsango of Jensen Beach, Florida, and Penny Beasley of Beaufort, South Carolina.

The original Artistas attending are Calderoni, Ashton, Vineyard, Brown, Tilton, Kirby Kendrick, Nancy Hirsch Lassen, Marthann Masterson and Duane Couch.

The self-directed workshop is private studio time, but the friends plan to appear at the public Fourth Friday Art Walk on May 26th at theArtWorks.

Vineyard hopes that this workshop will be the impetus for future instructor-led abstract workshops for the area.

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