Kathleen O’Connell — pictured with her watercolor, “Convergence” — said art instructor Carol LaChiusa is the person who got her to experiment with watercolor, a medium she hadn’t used before.

Kathleen O’Connell — pictured with her watercolor, “Convergence” — said art instructor Carol LaChiusa is the person who got her to experiment with watercolor, a medium she hadn’t used before.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Longtime art instructor lets the ‘Light’ shine on her students

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 11, 2020

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — From veteran artists honing their craft to people with no prior artistic training, Grosse Pointe Farms artist Carol LaChiusa has taught them all.

After turning 89 last July, LaChiusa decided to retire from teaching, but she and her most recent group of students are sharing one last hurrah: “The Lovely Light: Recent Paintings by Students and Friends of Carol LaChiusa,” an exhibition of artwork on public view through March 1 in the art gallery of Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms.

“Some of them, 10 years ago, had never painted before,” LaChiusa said. “And they have just become the finest artists. As I’m retiring from teaching, I wanted the world to see what they could do. They are accomplished and wonderful, and we have become very dear friends.”

This is the first time LaChiusa, a graduate of the Cleveland School of Art, has had a show with this class of students, although many of the artists in “The Lovely Light” have been in other shows and won awards, including Jacqueline Rybinski, of Grosse Pointe Farms.

From LaChiusa, Rybinski said she’s learned “her sense of color and the fact that you can change things” from the way they are in real life.

“You have to think about the entire composition,” Rybinski continued. “You have to find what it is you’re going to focus on and design from there. It’s not just what you see.”

Most of the works in “The Lovely Light” were painted in plein air. LaChiusa believes artists need to leave the studio and experience nature — including cold, rain and snow — in order to depict it.

“The fun thing about this show is, many of these pieces were done when we were all together in certain locales, and yet the work is as different as the people who painted it,” said Janice Ducsay, a former longtime Grosse Pointe Park resident who now lives in Bellaire, Michigan.

LaChiusa has been teaching art since 1970, and she has been an instructor at what is now the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens, the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center in Birmingham and the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms. She had a long-running instructional TV show on a Grosse Pointe cable channel as well. In recent years, LaChiusa has been leading workshops out of her home studio and during trips to places like the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Higgins Lake.

Ducsay, who said she’s studied with LaChiusa on and off for about six years, said she learned that accuracy isn’t as important as a painting’s emotional content.

“Your painting should tell a story about how you felt when you were painting it,” she said.

Kathleen O’Connell, of Dearborn, who said she’s been studying with LaChiusa for roughly six years, said this experience got her to work in watercolor for the first time. Like fellow students, she has also worked with the color system LaChiusa devised.

“I just love her approach,” O’Connell said. “She is just so joyful. … (And) it’s not just the instruction — it’s what you learn from each other.”

Isabel Schillace said she’s been willing to make the trek from her Rochester Hills home to Grosse Pointe Farms for the last decade because working with LaChiusa has been so positive.

“I was cautious and somewhat rigid when I first started to work with her,” Schillace said. “I’d had other teachers tell me I need to loosen up, (but) she never told me that. (From her, I learned) just to let go and let it come out.”

LaChiusa said her final group of students spans a range of ages and levels of experience, but they’re all united by a desire to paint.

Donna Kraft, of Sterling Heights, who has been studying with LaChiusa for about two and a half years, said she hadn’t taken art classes since high school before she began her current studies. She said she’s learned “not to be intimidated by the paint.” Kraft is enjoying being in her first art show.

“She’s a very patient instructor,” Kraft said. “She’s very encouraging.”

Janet Thompson, of Grosse Pointe Farms, had no art experience before she started taking classes with LaChiusa 10 years ago. She remembered seeing LaChiusa on her cable show, but was startled one day when she noticed that the woman working in a backyard adjacent to hers was the artist she knew from TV — to Thompson’s surprise, they were neighbors. To this day, Thompson insists she can’t draw, but she can paint.

“It’s really good therapy for me,” Thompson said. “I don’t always like the results, but that’s not why I do it. … You learn so much from the other people. I attribute this to Carol. She really stresses people pointing out the positive (in their critiques). (LaChiusa) creates an atmosphere of support. It encourages you to try.”

The exhibit is in memory of, and includes work by, Amy Carels, a notable local artist who died at age 65 in 2018.

Other artists in the show are Arlene Bradford, of Grosse Pointe Farms; Carol Johns, of East China Township; Ruth Harvey, of Grosse Pointe Park; Janet Kondziela, of Dearborn Heights; and Kathleen McNamee, of Grosse Pointe Farms.

LaChiusa isn’t retiring from painting itself, and she’ll still be taking painting trips with her students and friends, but she said she decided to step down from teaching because “I haven’t felt the passion I should feel (in teaching), and they are so very accomplished, they don’t need me. … This group (of students) — I think they’re special.”

Grosse Pointe Congregational Church is located at 240 Chalfonte Ave. “The Lovely Light” is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and by appointment. For an appointment, call the church at (313) 884-3075. For more information, visit www.gpcong.org.