Out on her own: Alyssa Serpentini’s 1st solo art show opens in Denver
DENVER — For more than 20 years, Alyssa Serpentini has supported herself in the High Country with her artistic abilities. Whether upholstering a dining room table, crafting large bas-relief murals or painting textured images of cannabis plants, the Park County resident has continually picked up the tools in her artistic arsenal, even during hard times such as the Great Recession.
Now her hard work has paid off. After winning best in show at the Colorado Vibes Vol. 3 exhibition at Denver’s Spectra Art Space this past spring, Serpentini returns to the gallery Saturday, Nov. 16, for her first solo show. On display will be the cannabis creations she’s known for in addition to new landscapes not seen before.
The award was a surprise for the self-taught Serpentini. As she left the venue to grab dinner, she regretted not hanging up some of her non-cannabis pieces. When she returned, she was shocked that patrons liked her work the best among about 30 other artists.
“I didn’t think I had a chance,” Serpentini said. “I was like, ‘No way.’ But it was great. I probably would have been a nervous wreck anyway if I stayed and had to talk to everyone in there.”
Dyed in the wool
Serpentini was raised in the fashion world. She grew up in her mother’s dress store in Ohio, and her grandmother and millinery-owning great-aunts worked in New York City as beaders for the Valentino design company.
“I would work the pedal of my grandmother’s sewing machine, and I was always kind of around it,” Serpentini said.
It was then natural that she studied fashion merchandising and fashion design at Kent State University. Though Serpentini was skilled in drawing and dabbled with fine art in college, she chose fashion because she was taught that art was a dead end.
“It just seemed like that unattainable career, right?” Serpentini said. “Everyone is like, ‘Don’t be an artist. You’ll never make money; you’ll never be able to support yourself.’ So it wasn’t something I ever thought was viable.”
Inspired by a summer working in Yosemite National Park and yearning to be back out West, the passion for fashion brought her to Colorado with a college roommate in 1996.
Dreams into reality
Though the friend stayed in the industry and has worked for 686 and Under Armour, Serpentini fell into construction painting the following year. That gig eventually led to faux finishing — the art of making one material look like another — and upholstery.
“I instantly loved being hands on with the brushes,” Serpentini said. “It was totally different to me than all of the marker work or computer work with the fashion design stuff that I had done.”
Self-employed since 1999, her career has taken her into large commercial and residential spaces like hotels and condos in Frisco, Keystone, Copper, Breckenridge and even to Vail and Beaver Creek. Serpentini started traditionally working with elements like drywall and caulking to sculpt the three-dimensional relief walls but has recently experimented with other materials such as stone and gold leaf.
“I just now have endless possibilities,” Serpentini said. “There’s so many different textural things like glazes and other options now. In the past 15 years, I’ve watched it come from a few small lines of products to just this huge industry.”
Two of her inspirations are Joe and Bonnie Wakeman, a local couple known for their relief work of aspen trees and other natural environments. Though they work independently, the three have put their talents together for larger jobs.
“I’ll forever look to them as mentors and friends and family,” Serpentini said. “I love those people.”
Even if Serpentini is content to leave fashion behind, she doesn’t ignore it outright. According to her, the haute couture styles found on runways will often trickle down to luxury homes. Another trend she’s keeping an eye on is using the powdered forms of hemp and lime — that is then turned into a substance called hempcrete — to shape her handmade designs.
Literally adding the plant into her work, commercial or otherwise, is just another step in blending her two worlds. At first, due to the public perception of marijuana, Serpentini kept the businesses entirely separate, going so far as to have two websites. Now, as some of her faux finishing clients ask for her relief paintings and a dispensary that purchased a painting inquires about faux finishing, she’s not afraid to show every piece of her portfolio.
“I was very leery to have my faux finishing clients, or any of my designers, know what I was doing with the cannabis art even though I’ve always been pro cannabis, and I’ve been voting pro since we’ve had the chance to vote pro,” Serpentini said. “It just was a huge stigma at the time.”
By combining the two, she hopes to elevate cannabis and have people simply appreciate the inherent charm of the plant. Serpentini doesn’t actively market to the marijuana industry, and she avoids the sacred geometry and vibrant psychedelic themes commonly found there. Her paintings instead focus on the more muted and natural colors found occurring in the plant. She considers it a welcoming conversation starter and a win in her book if someone wants a painting without entirely realizing what it depicts.
“If you look at the flowers, they’re beautiful,” Serpentini said. “The varieties are amazing. I’ve always loved to paint and draw flowers. Always. If I look at my old notebooks, I’ve been drawing flowers since I was 19.”
Serpentini has begun to grow her work beyond cannabis with painted reliefs of landscapes, yet her art still has a slight political aspect. Most of the almost-impressionistic landscapes show her favorite areas around Fairplay and Alma that are being altered by development and mining. Though she understands it’s a symptom of population growth that can’t easily be mitigated, she hopes people pause and reflect on what is possibly going away for good.
“I’m so saddened by it, and I think about my daughter, and I’m like, ‘She’ll never know what it’s like to hike around here when there’s no one here on a Wednesday,’” Serpentini said. “That breaks my heart. … My whole point of doing them is so that someday we can look back and remember what it felt like to be in those magical places when they’re blowing up with flowers and glowing with beauty.”
Her love of Park County lends itself to another piece that will be on display. Up for auction in December — with details to be announced at the opening reception — is a painting of a horse barn. Proceeds from the auction will go to Park Count charity The Middle Way, an equine therapy group that helps people from all walks of life.
“I think I’m most excited about being able to bring my two worlds together,” Serpentini said about the upcoming exhibition. “That’s what winning this show has done for me, making me feel like the artwork I’m doing is legitimate and there is a place for it and I can have it go along with my faux finishing. These two worlds do not have to butt heads and can meld together perfectly.”
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