A familiar sight along Gulf Boulevard at any time during the year is the sight of three women with their canvas and easels; painting whatever is in their sight. The three are old friends and they paint together constantly. They are the Plein Aire Cottage artists and are as much a part of Indian Rocks Beach as the beach itself.
Plein Aire is a genre of painting, which loosely means outside or in front of you or on location. And that is why the women are so often seen. There is no indoor studio work or painting from a photograph for them.
Two of the women, Mary Rose Holmes and Helen Tilston, live in Indian Rocks Beach. The third, Violetta Chandler, lives in Sarasota. Trips to IRB are frequent for her because the women paint almost exclusively in the community.
“It is the historic quality of Indian Rocks Beach that attracts us,” said Holmes. “There are not many old style seaside towns left in Florida. IRB is real inclusive. We have 22 beach entrances, and everybody is invited to the beach. I think we’ve painted every one of the beach accesses.”
That is where the name “cottage” comes from for this group. Near every beach access are cottages, which struck the eyes of the three women.
“We started painting together just around the time those cottages were being demolished,” said Tilston. “We started painting them because people didn’t want to lose them; they wanted to save the cottages. We didn’t want to lose history.”
Holmes, who was born in Sanford, recalls when the three of them began painting the cottages.
“Soon after we met we began painting in IRB,” she said. “It was right around the time all the cottages were disappearing. I remember the Scruggs cottage. It was empty, ready to be demolished. The furniture was already sold and we began painting it to save it for prosperity and to show the beauty of the cottages.”
It turns out they did more than just save the cottages for prosperity. They had a hand in actually saving them for real.
“Someone said to us you can’t save the cottage by painting it, but people began to buy our paintings and go to Commission meetings,” said Holmes. “The mayor actually wrote us a letter saying we turned a light on in IRB. Eventually the recession came and the developers ran out of money and many of the cottages were saved.”
The three women met 15 years ago at what was then the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo.
“I was teaching at the museum, teaching oil painting and Mary Rose and Helen were my students,” said Chandler, 48, the youngest of the three.
Tilston said she’s “60ish,” and Holmes, who said, “I’m the oldest but not the wisest,” remember hitting it off right away.
“I took classes at the Museum of Art and when I first saw Violetta I thought she was our model for the night, but it turned out she was the teacher,” said Tilston. “Mary Rose was taking classes, too. There were 20 in the class but we seemed to click from the beginning and Violetta liked us too.”
Both Chandler and Holmes started painting at a young age. Chandler, who was born in the town of Tirseol in the former Soviet Union, was the youngest to begin.
“I have been painting since I was 4 years old,” she said. “My father taught me. I’m a fifth generation artist; my grandfather was a mural painter.”
Holmes has a similar story.
“I was taking art classes at 6 years old,” she said. “My grandmother painted beach scenes on the East Coast. I can remember painting my father fishing.”
Tilston has a different story, which did not begin with painting but with color.
“I grew up in Ireland and when I was 19 I left home and travelled around a lot,” she said. “I got a job in knitwear. I always worked with color. As a child I designed hats that I learned from my grandmother. I worked with color and did interior design at school.”
Then about 30 years ago Tilston said she began to take an interest in art.
“I saw a painting that I liked and I bought it over time. When I made the last installment the artist came to meet me and convinced me to take up painting, which I did and I’ve painted ever since.”
Since the three women got together they have established a niche for which they have become somewhat famous in the art community. They paint “triptychs,” a style whereby they see a scene they like, then each takes a third of that scene and paints it separately from the others. Then the three panels are put together to form one scene.
“We’re the only ones who do it this way,” said Tilston. “We recently did eight triptychs for an art show. We understand that we’re the only artists that do this, sometimes husbands and wives do it, but no one else like us.”
“We started doing them in 2009 and were the only group of artists that did them together in the world. They got us on the map,” said Holmes. “Monet is our hero, we love impressionism, and we blend beautifully.”
The women all said they have a similar style to their work but said they are different, too.
“We’re impressionistic painters,” said Tilston. “Painting is like handwriting; each is a little different. People who know us can tell which of us did what painting.”
In IRB the Cottage artists are known for more than their art. Their love of their community is evident in their work.
“We’ve lived here for over 20 years now,” said Tilston. “We fell in love with the place when we first came here, it has a heart, we’ve always felt that. No one else has the same community, people here seem to care and give back.”
The Plein Aire Cottage artists are among those who give back. Holmes said that is important.
“We try to do that as much as we can,” she said. “We support the library and the museum with the calendar that we produce every year. We support Action 2000 by giving them a painting to auction off every year and we give some money to charities, always in IRB.”
None of that would have been possible if three painters hadn’t met and struck it off 15 years ago. They have remained friends, close friends, ever since.
“We are friends, very much so,” said Chandler. “We have traveled internationally, we’ve gone to Europe together and we get along very well.”
“I enjoy those women,” said Tilston. “We’ve become very good friends, just the energy and the friendship. We travel well together and can’t ask for anything more.”
“We’re really good friends, we have good chemistry, we’re not competitive, we buy each other’s paintings,” said Holmes. “It happened from the very first, we laugh together, we travel together we have the best times. What an artist needs is praise, praise and more praise and we do that for each other.”