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Cherry blossom painter is another attraction for tourists at Tidal Basin

Landscape artist Michela Mansuino tries to paint the same cherry tree she has been painting each spring for four years as crowds gather at the Tidal Basin.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

It is noon on the Tidal Basin -- cherry blossom central. The walkway is jammed. There are people, strollers, bicycles, ducks. Children cry. Cellphones ring. A helicopter thunders overhead. A vendor hawks "ice-cold water!" And landscape artist Michela Mansuino is preparing to paint.

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Her easel is set up beside the same cherry tree she has been painting each spring for four years. Its branches spread toward the water, with the Washington Monument reflected on the shimmering surface. Wearing a green- and white-striped apron, Mansuino squeezes paint onto her palette and mixes the colors with a tiny palette knife.

All around her the curious swarm. How long has she been working on this picture? Four years? Wow. It's GOR-geous! When will it be finished? A man in a blue New York Giants shirt zooms in for a look. A woman appears with a camera and a little girl. She pushes the girl toward the artist for a photo. "Get closer," the woman says. "Go on. Ask her some questions. Don't you have any questions?"

Mansuino, 48, a Great Falls-based painter and teacher, looks serene amid the maelstrom as the smell of her oil paint drifts into the air and translucent petals fall from the blossoms.

She squints one eye and peers over the water. It's calm, not like the other day, when it was too choppy. She sits up straight, slides on a pair of sunglasses and extends a long green-handled brush toward her canvas. "Okay," she announces politely. "Now I'm going to paint so I won't be able to talk. You can try, but I won't answer."

Each year, tens of thousands of people descend on the Tidal Basin to see the famed blossoms -- although part of the bloom is ending as the annual festival concludes this weekend -- and with the crowds and the traffic, it can be a hectic experience.

But for those who seek the blossoms with palette and brush, it can be like painting during rush hour, on the Fourth of July or at a hot-dog stand at halftime.

Ethereal attraction

For the past several days, Mansuino has braved the crowds and returned to her favorite tree to try to capture on canvas its ethereal attraction.

"The blossoms are so white," Mansuino says. "They're actually lighter than the color of the sky. So when you look at the blossoms, it makes the sky look that much bluer, that much darker than the blossoms. That's why I paint it."

"I think I started this four years ago," she says. "I go to the same tree. The tree changes. The branches grow. But I'm always able to work my way back into the first impression."

Mansuino says she usually drives to the District, parks some distance from the basin and hikes in, hauling her canvas, paint, brushes, and combination chair and easel tied up with shoelaces and rubber bands. She weaves through the crowd and sets up close to the tree, "so people don't run into me," she says.

Drawing a crowd

Onlookers gather as she props up the painting, which depicts the blossoms, the basin, the monument and its reflection.

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