Exhibition celebrates work of acclaimed longtime artist and art educator

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 9, 2024

 Artist Carol LaChiusa stands next to “Purple Iris,” one of her unframed artworks.

Artist Carol LaChiusa stands next to “Purple Iris,” one of her unframed artworks.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 Carol LaChiusa paints outside during an art trip to France in 2019.

Carol LaChiusa paints outside during an art trip to France in 2019.

Photo provided by Jackie Rybinski


GROSSE POINTE FARMS — At 93, artist and retired art educator Carol LaChiusa could easily rest on her laurels, having already amassed an impressive body of work and a slew of awards.

Instead, she not only continues to paint, but also continues to paint astoundingly beautiful pieces, some of which will be featured in her new solo exhibition.

“LaChiusa Lollapalooza: Carol LaChiusa Works in Watercolor,” in the art gallery in Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, will open with a public reception with the artist from noon to 2 p.m. Jan. 14. The show runs through March 3; from noon to 2 p.m. March 3, unframed works will be sold for half-off.

“She is an outstanding artist,” said fellow artist Lori Zurvalec, of Grosse Pointe City, chair of the Grosse Pointe Congregational Church Arts Ministry. “Her watercolors are exquisite. They’re quintessential watercolors.”

This isn’t a retrospective — unlike LaChiusa’s 2018 exhibition at the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens. It is, however, a chance for local residents and LaChiusa’s former students to see a good sampling of some of her more recent pieces, alongside some older ones.

“This is a celebration of her and her being a very giving member of the Grosse Pointe community,” Zurvalec said.

The exhibition comes on the heels of LaChiusa’s latest honor. In June 2023, the Michigan Water Color Society gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award; she’s only the second artist the group has chosen to honor this way.

“I was very amazed and very thrilled. I thought they’d made a mistake,” LaChiusa said with a laugh.

Rocco Pisto, president emeritus of the Michigan Water Color Society, said the award is well-deserved.

“She does very nice work,” Pisto said. “Her work is very representational, with this feeling of mystical imagery.”

Growing up in the Cleveland area, LaChiusa was drawn to art as a child. When she was 9, her beloved Aunt Pauline enrolled her in an art program at the Cleveland Museum of Art. She would go on to attend the Cleveland School of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she majored in sculpture and met her first husband, Sy LaChiusa, an abstract artist. The couple moved to Detroit in 1959.

Her aunt wasn’t an artist, “but she understood dreams,” LaChiusa said.

When she got to high school — Lima South in Lima, Ohio — LaChiusa said her school didn’t have an art program, but the drama teacher there — Frances Boyer — wanted her to have a place to work and invited LaChiusa to use the school’s supply of art materials, which were sitting untouched.

“She acquisitioned a back room for me,” LaChiusa said. “The principal didn’t know. He wouldn’t allow me to take any (art) classes.”

Her parents were opposed to her desire to become an artist. Her mother wanted her to be a doctor and her father — who LaChiusa said was “very much for women’s rights” — wanted her to go into business.

At the library, LaChiusa found information about a scholarship program at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and with help from Boyer, she secretly assembled a portfolio and applied for it — and received it.

“When I brought the letter to my parents, they were furious,” LaChiusa said.

They initially wouldn’t even sign the letter that would enable LaChiusa to accept the scholarship and go to art school, but they eventually relented.

“Once I got to art school, it was incredible,” LaChiusa said.

LaChiusa continued to create while her four children — sons Drew, Dean and Dane, and daughter Syd, her second oldest — were young, but her art career began to soar in the 1980s as she started to show her work, landing her first solo show in 1983 at the Carriage House Club in Detroit.

Interestingly, for someone so known for her watercolors, LaChiusa essentially taught herself. Her college watercolor class consisted of a professor who was largely absent and had the students paint on their own, without the benefit of instruction. Zurvalec said LaChiusa’s technique — using a wet brush on wet paper — creates images that are “so soft.”

She has been sharing her knowledge with others for decades. LaChiusa has taught classes at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial — now The War Memorial — as well as the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center in Birmingham, Anton Art Center and elsewhere.

Many residents of the Pointes got introduced to LaChiusa through her long-running program on the now-defunct Grosse Pointe cable station — housed at The War Memorial — where she filmed a watercolor workshop demonstration program from 1987 until 2001.

“I remember when we first moved to Grosse Pointe — I turn on the TV and there’s Carol, demonstrating how to paint,” Zurvalec said. “I suspect a lot of people in Grosse Pointe were inspired by her and learned to paint because of her.”

That was certainly the case for artist Jackie Rybinski, of Grosse Pointe Farms. Rybinski said she studied ceramics at Wayne State University, but it was LaChiusa who inspired her to try her hand at watercolor when she was in her 40s.

“That’s how I started painting — I saw her on TV,” Rybinski said. “I thought, ‘I’ll try that — she makes it look so easy.’ Little did I know,” she concluded with a laugh.

Rybinski would go on to study with LaChiusa. While LaChiusa is no longer officially leading classes, artists say they — and others — continue to learn from her. Rybinski and two other artists took a painting trip to France with LaChiusa in 2019. While they were in Paris, Rybinski said, every morning LaChiusa would be outside painting while she sipped coffee, and people would often stop to talk to her about what she was doing — including parents with children.

“She’s always teaching,” Rybinski said.

While she’s been blessed with undeniable artistic skill, LaChiusa’s life has been marked by profound loss. Her oldest child, Drew — who would have turned 70 last year — died on Christmas Eve in 1968 when he was only 15; he had been born with a congenital heart defect. Her daughter, Syd, a successful businesswoman, died of pancreatic cancer at age 59 in 2014. Drew, who was a fine artist, inspired LaChiusa to approach War Memorial officials about offering art classes in 1969.

“It was because of him I started teaching young people at the War Memorial, because I wasn’t a teacher (by training),” LaChiusa said.

LaChiusa has also lost both of her spouses. Sy LaChiusa died in 1992 and real estate company owner Paris DiSanto — who she said was “very supportive” of her art career — died in December 2016.

“Adversity and sadness probably created a joy of life in me, made me want to help others,” LaChiusa said.

Sons Dane and Dean followed in their mother’s creative footsteps; Dean is a filmmaker and artist, while Dane is a painter.

About half of the images that will be in this show are examples of LaChiusa’s plein-air work, which means they’re painted outdoors in the moment.

“I take paints and sketchbooks everywhere I go,” LaChiusa said.

Some works start as plein-air pieces and are completed later in her home studio.

“I don’t take photographs,” LaChiusa said. “I (paint) these from memories and sketches.”

This exhibition, which is expected to include about 25 framed works along with additional unframed pieces, will showcase some of LaChiusa’s favorite paintings. She has painted all over the world. A Christian, LaChiusa said her faith plays a key part in her painting.

“I do it because I need to do it,” LaChiusa said of painting. “When I paint, I feel (God’s) spirit. If I don’t feel it, I don’t paint.”

Artists and former students are excited to see LaChiusa’s new show — and what she might create next.

“She’s done a lot,” Rybinski said. “She’s a hero to a lot of us.”

Grosse Pointe Congregational Church is located at 240 Chalfonte Ave. in Grosse Pointe Farms. Besides the opening and closing receptions, the gallery is open to the public on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., or by appointment. For an appointment or more information, call the church at (313) 884-3075.