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December 11, 2012

Artist of the Month discovers hidden talents post-retirement

By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer

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Carol Blake, Sterling Heights’ December Artist of the Month, was searching for something to occupy her sudden influx of free time when she began painting post-retirement. She said she was shocked to discover that painting came fairly easily to her from the beginning.

Ever since Carol Blake took up painting, her 87-year-old mother has harbored a dream.

“She swims with this group of ladies that she’s swam with for 35 years, and she wanted me to be the Sterling Heights Artist of the Month before she died,” Blake quipped as she accepted the honor at City Hall Dec. 4. “She’s ecstatic to take the newspaper to the swimming pool and show all of her swimming buddies, ‘This is my daughter, the Artist of the Month.’ So here I am.”

Being selected is a surreal feeling for Blake, who admits she’s often kept her art under wraps since she began painting in 2009.

“I don’t take my painting out to the public very often because I really started painting just for me,” she said. “As a new artist, you really don’t think you’re very good. I kind of tend to hide my paintings.”

But to the contrary, Blake’s paintings have the aura of a seasoned artist’s work, and she’s now fielding an increasing number of requests for commission pieces.

Her passion for painting — and her skill at it — is a recent discovery. When she retired after 35 years in a demanding, fast-paced health care industry position, she found herself with a glut of free time and began pondering ways to occupy it. She decided to check something off of her “bucket list” by trying her hand at painting.

“I had no expectation of talent, so there wasn’t any chance for me to be disappointed. … I just got the paint and went for it,” she said.

Much to her surprise, her initial finished product emerged looking like the subject on which she’d based it. It was particularly shocking, she said, because she’s not skilled at drawing.

“I don’t draw it in pencil; I just sit down and start painting it,” she said. “For some reason, if you give me a pencil and say, ‘Draw this vase,’ it doesn’t work. But give me a paintbrush and paint, and I can paint it for you.”

To hone her skills, Blake began painting weekly with fellow residents at the Sterling Heights Senior Center, under the guidance of artist Carl Angevine. She watched videos online, checked out library books and took courses at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center.

She’s since produced works in oils and acrylics, and even dabbled in Chinese water art. Soon, she plans to begin experimenting with pastels.

Her pieces on display at City Hall include still lifes of vases and blooms, serene images of barns and bays, and even a scene of downtown Birmingham.

Blake admitted with a laugh that she took artistic license in making the storefront awning in the latter image a deep royal blue because there wasn’t enough color in the real setting for her tastes. Capturing vivid hues, she said, is one of her signature qualities.

“I use a very minimal palette; I use four colors,” she said. “That way, I’m forced to mix the color that’s actually there, not the color that comes out of the tube.”

Color is one of the reasons she loves “plain air” painting — i.e., painting outdoors on the scene of a subject, versus using a photo for reference.

“Your colors are mixed very fast, but you’re really catching the color of nature,” she said. “You’re catching the actual color. Photographs really distort the color.”

She also loves the challenge of working outside. “You have to paint fast … because you have to catch the light,” she said. “So as you get the light and your shadows, you have about 15 minutes to get that down on the canvas.”

Her favorite spots for plain air painting include Miller’s Orchards in Romeo, barn-studded farmland in northern Macomb County and quaint downtown areas.

Blake said she doesn’t paint every day; she waits until she has larger blocks of time available. Once she’s in the zone, she becomes immersed and often doesn’t come up for air until the piece is complete.

“You plan on painting for an hour or two, and then you’re painting for six, seven hours,” she said. “And then you don’t want to be disturbed, so my husband will say, ‘Don’t you think you need to go to bed?’ or, ‘Are we going to eat today?’”

The Sterling Heights Cultural Commission continues to seek applicants for the Artist of the Month program. Applicants can hail from anywhere in the state. For more information, visit www.sterling-heights.net or call (586) 446-2489.

Blake’s pieces will be on display throughout December in the lower level of Sterling Heights City Hall, 40555 Utica Road; and at the Used But Sterling Bookstore, inside the Sterling Heights Public Library, 40255 Dodge Park Road.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Cortney Casey at ccasey@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1046.