Rembrandt I am not. Nevertheless, I’m residing in a room named for the Dutch artist. The well-appointed space — outfitted with a queen bed and private balcony— is one of eight bedrooms named after creative masters (Dalí, Vermeer) at the Shenandoah Art Destination, a few miles from Lexington, Va. I’ve come to unwind, work on my oil-painting technique and, as it turns out, paint a manure spreader.
Husband-and-wife owners Jan-Willem and Nancy Boer opened the bed-and-breakfast in fall 2012. The next spring, they launched the business component for which they had intended the 10-acre, two-home property: an artistic getaway where guests arrive toting paintbrushes, sketch pads and imaginative aspirations. It’s a retreat where visitors experience “a relaxed, productive feeling,” Nancy says. “Like they’ve accomplished something with their art, but at the same time they’ve been pampered.”
While the location operates as a B&B year-round, from spring through fall, visitors can opt for weekend or four-, seven- or 10-day art getaways.
Pulling into the gravel driveway, I’m transported. Situated on a slope set back from a sparsely traversed road, a renovated 19th-century, straw-hued manor house harks to a time when lemonade was sipped slowly on balmy evenings. (There’s also an adjacent two-story guesthouse.) Meals are included, freeing visitors to focus on their craft. Although there are scheduled mealtimes and group discussions, what you work on is entirely up to you. A commercial illustrator and fine artist, Jan-Willem gives personalized instruction in an array of artistic media, including printmaking and watercolor.
During my weekend stay, which cost me $500, I’m joined by three women whose pursuits are as varied as their Zip codes. Elise Cralli, a 56-year-old legal secretary from Oak Park, Ill., wants to incorporate more contrast in the fluorescently haired “fantasy people” she creates in her sketchbook. Leanne May, 50, a software engineer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wants to learn caricature. Ingrid H. Holmes, a 66-year-old retired home economist from Salisbury, Md., is seeking to refine her still-life skills. None sell their work professionally, yet a cursory glance reveals talent honed over years of daily dedication.
Seeing this, I’m unexpectedly cowed. I’ve taken one oil-painting class, and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve held a paintbrush. Unlike my well-practiced companions, I’d come with the less-specific aim of reinstating oil painting as a routine hobby.
Following dinner the first evening, we four gather around a table with Jan-Willem. The 59-year-old, mustached Dutchman doles out a few sketch exercises he has devised as warm-ups for the weekend. While there’s chatter between assignments, when another starts, only the whoosh of pencil strokes stays. The sound lulls me into a relaxed frame of mind, enjoying the focus of each task.
The next morning, after another workshop with Jan-Willem, we spend the day pursuing our own artistic whims. Tromping up a hill, I enter a bucolic scene: a grassy knoll bearing weathered barn structures seemingly staged for being painted years later. But I pass them by, setting up a workstation facing a rusted vehicle that had piqued my interest the day before. Of course, I had also been told earlier by the Boers that what I’d romantically imagined as a decayed early automobile is actually an old piece of farming equipment: a manure spreader. Even so, it’s not something I often see, and I want to paint it regardless of its pungent past.
When Jan-Willem stops by to check on my progress, I think I’m just starting to depict the right amount of detail in a large back wheel. He, on the other hand, is baffled by my piecemeal approach, advising me to sketch the entire painting first.
For someone who has never illustrated a realistic depiction of a vehicle, I’m intimidated. What decent pieces I’ve made in the past worked because rather than focusing on a daunting overall image, I zeroed in on specific shapes and colors that — voila! — created a successful summation.
Jan-Willem is pushing me out of my comfort zone. Which, I suppose, is part of what I’m paying for.
Packing my car to leave on Sunday afternoon, I pause to take in the nearly complete painting I’ve placed in my trunk: I did this?
It’s no masterpiece, but thanks to Jan-Willem’s persistent guidance, I’ve rendered something that resembles my subject.
While at times he could be downright blunt — in response to my wanting to paint a winding road in the background, Jan-Willem called the notion “stupid” — I’ve never made progress so quickly. If left to my own devices, I’d likely be toting home an extremely detailed rendering of two back wheels.
I resolve to try this approach again. To not be afraid of the big picture and avoid getting caught up in the details too early.
First things first, though: Before leaving, my forearms need a good scrubbing. I’ve soaked up this artistic experience quite fully.
You can find out more about the Shenandoah Art Destination by calling 612-221-1140 or visiting www.shenandoahartdestination. Courses are available through Nov. 14.
■ The National Park Service offers trip-planning advice as well as historical information on the Natchez Trace Parkway at www.nps.gov/natr.
■Randy Fought, who runs the Natchez Trace Bed and Breakfast Reservation Service, can help arrange itineraries and book accommodations along the 444-mile route. Info: 800-377-2770, www.natcheztracetravel.com.
Kris Coronado is a freelance writer in Midlothian, Va. You can read her work at www.kriscoronado. com. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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