There are paintings and there are masterpieces. Likewise, there are basic artist studios and there are those of a much greater scope and grander appeal. Above Elite Studios is more than just an artists’ studio; it is a community of artists who share, teach and promote their work in Westerly. Painter, writer and graphic designer Millie Donovan is one of the artists who is at the heart of the project. She showcases her innovative and unique works in Above Elite’s gallery space, alongside several other local artists, including residents Laura Gaffke and Charles Estabrooks. “Above Elite Studios has been so welcoming to me,” says Donovan. “The space, which has been an active artist studio for over 10 years, has provided a refuge for my work and I have been able to meet many diligent artists through all of the events we host.”
Events include their bi-annual Open Studio art shows and a selection of “groovy” art classes, both open to the public. What exactly does a groovy art class entail? One that stands out is Gaffke’s “Altered Bookmaking” class, in which participants use collage, paint and altered imagery to explore a medley of techniques in a fun way. Using an aged book as a starting point, Gaffke helps students to change it from its original form, altering its appearance and often its meaning. Donovan also enjoys atypical creation, and is known for mixing many elements into one piece: typography, photography, found objects and traditional media such as paint. She explains that in bringing an idea to life, she uses all the “visual vocabulary” she has available to her. “It’s similar to conversational interactions where you use words, body language and tonal inflections to get your point across,” Donovan explains. “Visually, I can use words, differing media (like photography and painting) and any other ephemera that might make a connection.”
Found objects that artists incorporate into their pieces can range from coins to teeth; Donovan has used everything from broken mirrors to ticket stubs. The most unusual found object she’s integrated? “I have used locks of hair and little pieces of thread from my children’s clothes,” she admits. “Some of it ends up hidden under layers and layers of paint, but [in life] we always end in a different place from where we started, right?”
Donovan says she and her studio mate, Gaffke, have tried to make the space “warm, bright and inviting” by way of design and interior decoration. They’ve also turned what could have been just another bland building into “a perfect place for inspiration” as they’ve filled it with their favorite people. The artists also draw inspiration from the local landscape. Undoubtedly a perfect place for any artist, Westerly (and South County in general) is ripe with a landscape seemingly crafted to be painted and photographed, its natural beauty often breathtaking. “The coast line is magnificent and the skyscapes are very grand,” says Donovan.
Perhaps you may stumble upon Donovan’s works in a local coffee shop; a loyal coffee drinker, she enjoys showing her work “to all art enthusiasts without asking them to step into a gallery.” She goes on to say, “Art should be a part of daily life. Daily life is what I am inspired by, so it makes sense to show my work in a place that is part of someone’s daily routine.” Their next Open Studio is scheduled for the spring and is aptly titled “Spring Fling.”
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