The Alaprima Painters: Enough Beauty to Lift All Our Ships

In December 2018, Magazine by Nicolette ToussaintLeave a Comment

By Nicolette Toussaint

Chinook helicopter responding to Lake Christine fire. Watercolor by Joan Engler.

“There is little more soulful than a gaggle of gals reflecting, creating and laughing together,” says Libby DeStefano.

At the moment, there’s no giggling, no ribald stories about Aspen-back-in-the-day, no planning for an upcoming art show. Outside, the falling snow makes more noise than the group’s collective vibration, the honeyed hum of creativity and hive mind at work.

The Alaprima artists sweeten my week by returning me to my “right mind.” The right side of the human brain is the artistic side. It’s the seat of kinetic orientation, where athletes experience peak flow. It’s where musicians go to get into the groove and where artists get lost in color, line and form.

The left brain handles words, timekeeping and judgment. Since I’m a writer as well as a painter, my left brain tends to be bossy. It’s bitchily critical and busy as gerbils running on a wheel.

When I retired, I wanted to become known as an artist and quiet the gerbils. Last year, during a CMC class on launching a professional art career, the prof, painter Andrew Roberts-Gray, stressed the importance of developing artistic community. Luckily, I had already been invited to join one—the Alaprima Painters.

I had been surprised to get an email from Alaprima co-founder Joan Engler. Membership is by invitation only.

Hansen’s Lake, watercolor by Elizabeth (Libby) De Stefano

Many members are both established artists and retired Roaring Fork Valley art teachers, so it’s a rather daunting ensemble:

I quickly discovered the value of Roberts-Gray’s advice. Where else could I ask: How do you cope with gloppy frisket? What should I do with this background? Can this painting be saved? Or, that show rejected me; should I throw in the towel?

Every artist feels that way at times. Georgia O’Keefe destroyed many of her own works plus those of her former husband, photographer Alfred Stieglits—at his request. Claude Monet trashed at least 15 of his famous water lily canvasses. At 72, Michaelangelo attacked his Florentine Pietà sculpture, and centuries later, Christ is missing a left leg.

The Alaprima group not only gives me legs to stand on—from 12 to 24 each Thursday—it also empowers its members to travel farther than they could on their own. Carla Reed, a formally-trained artist with more than 30 years of professional experience under her belt, says, “I feel that the group energy has enabled me to show work more than I might on my own. The benefits of their support, constructive criticism and friendship are incredibly valuable and keep me ‘showing up’.”

Today, this article’s author has placed a painting onto the easel the group uses for critiques. It’s a painting of Carbondale’s historic Thompson House. I’m excited about it, but something’s slightly off…

Carbondale’s Thompson House, painting by Nicolette Toussaint

“What do you want people to notice?” asks Barbara Smith.

“The mules.”

“Well, close your eyes. Then open them and tell me what you see first,” she says.

I try it. “That big white gable on the house,” I say.

“I think you need to tone that down. Just a microhelen.”

What’s a microhelen? A “helen” is fanciful measurement, derived from Helen of Troy. One helen holds enough beauty to launch a boat, but a microhelen? That’s a unique Barbara Smith measurement, one often accompanied the phrase, “Have you considered…” Whenever any of us needs encouragement or a new technique, the group offers much to consider, many helens of support. As Smith puts it, the group’s non-competitive spirit “pervades the air of the room from our hearts and is like some sort of engulfing garment of care.”

That’s by design. Alaprima started after Joan Engler and Judy Milne had taken a week-long seminar (one of several) from Sarah Peterson, a watercolorist who grew up in Aspen. On the heels of yet-another “wonderful, wonderful week of camaraderie” with Peterson, Milne asked Engler, “Why can’t we do this once a week?” Soon, the two made it happen.

The Alaprima Painters group ( is now in its fifth year and has held local shows at DJ’s on Main, the Village Smithy, the Launchpad, River Valley Ranch, the Riverside Galley, the Snowmass Chapel and the juried-and-judged Rockies West National Watercolor Exhibition in Grand Junction. Multiple Alaprima members (including me) have won recognition at that prestigious venue.

“It’s quite a high quality of art,” says Engler. A professional watercolorist for 31 years and one who had the distinction of being selected as Wilderness Workshop’s first artist-in-residence, she would know.

Mitzi Kadrmas, who is far newer to painting adds, “Alaprima gives me the chance to express my creativity on many levels. By persevering and by connecting, deeply, emotionally with each individual and to the whole. Alaprima is part of my life now.”