That’s Amore! ‘Postcards from Italy’ take over Breckenridge gallery |

That’s Amore! ‘Postcards from Italy’ take over Breckenridge gallery

Retired eductor and artist Mary Lou Johns poses next to a collection of her oil and watercolor paintings titled “Postcards from Italy” on March 1 at Arts Alive in Breckenridge. Johns is the gallery's featured artist for March, and there will be a free reception on Saturday.
Eli Pace / |

If you go

What: Second Saturday reception at Arts Alive

When: 4-7 p.m. Saturday, March 11

Where: Arts Alive, 500 Main St., Breckenridge

Info: This free event will feature Italian-themed appetizers and wine with Italian love songs and opera as the gallery holds a reception for its featured artist for March, Mary Lou Johns, and her collection of watercolor and oil paintings titled “Postcards from Italy.”

Painter Mary Lou Johns didn’t know how she was going to fill her newfound free time as she prepared to retire from her long-standing career as an educator.

A former teacher, curriculum developer and middle school principal living in a suburb of Chicago with a ski house in Breckenridge, Johns couldn’t imagine what life was going to be like now that she didn’t have to go to school anymore — the first time that had happened to her in more than 40 years.

“I started school when I was 4 years old, and every September I went to school,” she said of her annual routine. “Now, what was I going to do?”

As it turns out, finding ways to fill her time wasn’t all that hard, and a hobby she picked up while working as an educator has blossomed since then, landing her a spot as this month’s featured artist at the Arts Alive gallery in Breckenridge.

A mother and grandmother of five, Johns lives with her husband of 22 years, John Rynes — she joked he didn’t want to be called John Johns.

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They stay in Breckenridge during the summer and winter months and shift to their home in Evanston, Illinois, for the spring and fall.

“We are the poster-retirees for the expression ‘Come for the winter, stay for the summer,’” she said as she and fellow artist Tracy Powell hung a collection of Johns’ watercolor and oil paintings March 1 at the gallery.

At the gallery, Johns also made time to answer a few questions about her art, the ups and downs of being a painter and what she has tried to capture with her collection now on display, based on a recent trip to the country that looks like a boot and appropriately titled “Postcards from Italy.”

Summit Daily News: Describe for our readers exactly what’s in the exhibit.

Mary Lou Johns: The exhibit is a combination of paintings that I did in Italy and when I came home from Italy in the studio. The oils were done at home and the watercolors were done on location. So we were in Tuscany and Umbria, and we went to all these medieval hill towns that are so charming and we just set up our easel and painted and had a great time. So the exhibit is really postcards — if they were postcards — what I would have liked to send home to friends to show what a beautiful place we were at.

SDN: The ones based on photographs, did you take the pictures?

MLJ: I took the photographs at the place — like Orvieto, Assisi, Vernazza — some of these places are well-known Italian tourist places.

SDN: It sounds like Italy holds a special place in your heart. Would you say that’s true?

MLJ: Yes, that’s so true. This is a necklace; it’s an old Lira coin before Italy went on the Euro, and I like wearing it as a memento. I’ve been to Italy about four times, and each time I am more fascinated and more in love than before.

SDN: What’s it like seeing your work from Italy up on the wall in its own featured exhibit in a studio?

MJL: It’s actually thrilling. The way Tracy (Powell) is hanging it makes it look so wonderful. And there’s something about, you paint on this little canvas or piece of paper, but then when you put a frame on it, it just comes to life, it looks even better than you thought it looked.

SDN: Which did you get into first, oil or watercolor, and is one more difficult than the other?

MLJ: I started with watercolor. I’ve actually only been doing oils about three years. I wanted to try oils, and so I started taking lessons and paint in oils.

I’ve found that the oils are easier than watercolor in some ways because you can paint over something, and your mistake is gone. You can’t do that too easily in watercolor.

But on the other hand, watercolor has properties that are almost magical. Sometimes you put two paints together on wet paper, two colors, and they blend in a way you never would have imagined, they granulate or they make blossoms. They paint themselves so that’s very joyous.

So one informs the other. The skills I learned about composition, color and value apply in either medium.

SDN: What do you get out of art?

MLJ: When I’m painting, I get lost in it. It’s like a zone. It’s like a runner’s high. I can look up from a painting and three hours have gone by. That’s a lovely feeling. That’s very Zen.

SDN: When you set out painting, take me through the process. What are you thinking? What are you trying to do? How does a blank canvas or paper become a finished piece?

MLJ: That’s a great question. Actually, I’ll back it up a little bit.

The first step is choosing what to paint. So you look at a scene, for instance this one in Sienna is called “del Campo.” In medieval times, they had these horse races racing around this plaza … You look at it, and I’m thinking about that history. Flags must have been flying, and the banners, the very colorful costumes and the knights on their horses. Then I look at all the people who are just sitting in the sun and enjoying it, the restaurants, and the weather, buildings in the background, and I think, “Well, what am I going to paint here?”

So the first step is really to edit it. What is it really that grabs my attention? And what I really liked was this man sitting with a girl between his legs reading to her and the people talking and petting their dogs. So I named this painting “Sweetness of Doing Nothing,” only it’s in Italian. All the paintings have Italian titles.

SDN: With most things in life, there are pieces of it you love and parts you don’t. What do you think are the highs and lows of painting?

MLJ: Well, not every painting is a masterpiece. You start out and you try to paint what you’re imagining, how you think it should look — after you’ve edited the scene in your head or done a quick sketch — and then as it evolves you have to come to the decision point of is it worth finishing, should I tear this up or should I do it again?

There are all these questions, and often what I’ll do when I come to that point is put it aside and come back to it a day or a week or a year later. Then I have fresh eyes and I look at it, “Why didn’t I see that? It needs more darks over here,” or “Gee, if I crop this bad part off, I’ll have more painting over here.” So those fresh ways of looking at it are part of the process for me.

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