Bald Head Island, NC – On a warm afternoon last week, large, brightly painted canvases lean against the wooden posts that mark public beach access #36 on Bald Head Island. The paintings belong to some of the two-dozen artists who've taken over the surrounding cabins. Out here on the dunes, between the scrub forest and the sea, hides the annual No Boundaries art colony.
When she helped found the colony in 1996, Wilmington painter Pam Toll modeled it on a similar gathering she originally visited in Macedonia. No Boundaries' real strength, according to Toll, is that it gives artists the freedom just to be artists, without worrying about making dinner, or worrying about paying bills, or whatever they usually have to do in the course of a day.
In some ways, the colony looks a bit like a summer camp - with lists of chores and piles of luggage among the beach house d cor. But the sea air here is laced with mineral spirits, and many rooms have been redecorated with drop clothes and paint splatters.
The artists come from around North Carolina, and eight foreign countries. Every other year, No Boundaries lives up to its name by going international.
For co-founder Dick Roberts, the cultural exchange is an important social, and artistic, aspect of the experience. Taking a break from creating cartoon-y sketches of hungry fish and leering humans, Fort Fisher Aquarium's exhibits curator, says he's always surprised by the similar styles used by far-flung artists. No Boundaries, he says, uncovers a universality you normally wouldn't be aware of.
Outside the arts supply shed, Michael Mosca of Pittsboro, NC, contemplates his most recent works in the bright morning sunshine. This week, Mosca says, has entirely changed his style. Working around more figurative artists encouraged him to branch out from the spare monochromes he'd been producing, to create richly layered figure studies that weren't so much painted, he says, as scraped away. Mosca says he's excited to get back to his home studio, to discover where this change takes him.
Standing next to him, Irish painter Rosie Newman compares her time at the colony to fertilizer. The seeds are planted, she laughs. You just have to wait for them to come up, and woo!
A few porches down, Wilmington ceramicist Hiroshi Sueyoshi is not just trying new techniques, but a whole new medium. He hasn't worked on canvas since art school.
Unsurprisingly, the potter isn't limiting himself to brushes. Over his bright, abstracted landscapes, Sueyoshi applies a crackling layer of sand, pouring it on and patting it down, as if he can't bear not to get tactile with his art.
The work is quick and spontaneous, and Sueyoshi isn't sure yet whether he'll even like it in the long run. But playing with the sand and paint has made him feel like a kid again, he says.
Ask the artists what they've enjoyed at No Boundaries and many of them talk about how much it feels like a return to the intense days of art school. It's stimulating, if more than a little exhausting, they say, to leave the privacy of their studios and work surrounded by others.
But while this is a time of renewed communication for most of the colony, it's been a week of profound solitude for one of them. Chinese artist Wei Ru speaks no English. No one else at No Boundaries speaks any Mandarin. That hasn't stopped him from creating several monumental canvases, or from spending long periods silently studying some of his fellow-painters as they work.
When the owner of a local Chinese restaurant calls to translate, Ru explains that, now he's past the jetlag and adjusted to the western cuisine, he's learning a lot.
According to Ru, oil painting is a relatively new technique in China. Many of his fellow artists are waiting eagerly to learn the techniques he'll bring back. But while Ru seems content to absorb techniques through silent observation, some of his fellow artists are finding the language barrier infuriating.
Wilmington painter Wayne McDowell flips through photos of Ru's works - livid portraits of fish and mottled, earth-toned still-lifes, painted with a palette and approach similar to McDowell's own. McDowell explains that he tries to weave Taoist philosophy into his painting style. What he can't know is whether Ru also thinks of his work as religiously influenced, or is just following the unconscious impulses of his culture.
Everything that I think, McDowell says, tapping the stack of photos, Everything that I read, that I work for, it's there, he's doing it. I was just blown away at it.
Mystified but inspired, McDowell and Ru both return to their own paintings.
As the sun sinks slowly toward a milky-blue Atlantic, several friends of the colony arrive to cook dinner - another luxury freeing the artists to work, or, for some of them, to gather in the living room and watch the TV show CSI. It's a noisy, homey interruption to the ethereal concerns of creation.
By the time a sea-drenched darkness has fallen, the crowd is gathered in the communal kitchen, pulled away from the separate demands of the their muses, to join each other in fellowship. And in one last cultural lesson for the foreign visitors: how to peel and eat fresh Southport shrimp.