Tan Gillespie's paintings give new meaning to the term watercolor. Water and color; spirited sea bumping against bright creatures and boats. Water and color so well fused together that just looking at her images makes you want to jump right in.
Born and raised in the UK, Gillespie had only known the English style of watercolor with safe, muted tones, but all that changed when she went to the states and decided to give art school a try. "I studied under Irving Shapiro," she said. "I was excited by his work. Lots of big, juicy color. Totally different from anything I'd ever seen." Studying at the American Academy of Art in Chicago launched her on a successful journey through the world of art.
She has for several decades held a fascination with capturing boats on paper, but initially not because of owning or sailing one. For Gillespie, boats were inspiration, forms, objects she loved to paint. Only after years of placing them on paper, one careful stroke at a time, did she begin to understand and embrace sailing.
In 1986 she and her husband were living in Atlanta. "That was a good year for sales of my art," she said. "I had always told Pete that I would spend my money on a boat." So she did. They took it out a lot but for some reason, the artist and the boat didn't hit it off. "That first boat, I never learned to sail it." They parted ways with the vessel, moved to boat-less Arizona and she began teaching watercolor to adults.
A love of painting boats was amplified in 1991 with a trip to laid-back Jost Van Dyke. "I thought I'd go out of mind there but I didn't," she said, speaking of the place where doing nothing is the only thing to do. It was on that trip that they formed a tie with Tortola that continues to this day. "We decided it would be our vacation resort." For many of those annual visits they stayed ashore, Gillespie watching and sketching white sails from a distance.
Word of her talents got around. Frenchman's Cay Resort commissioned numerous pieces. Author Jill Shelley invited Gillespie to illustrate the book, The Blue Bottle, a little Caribbean adventure set in the BVI for young teenage girls. "It has about 50 illustrations in it. That was a fun project."
Eventually the lure of the sea pulled the couple into buying a charter boat that now is their Caribbean winter home. "The boat has given us a new freedom to explore more islands," she said. She sets up a studio, painting on the boat or goes ashore, roaming around with a sketch pad.
"I've learned to sail, by the way," she said, laughing. Like the effort and energy she pours into her art, she approached sailing seriously, joining the North Coast Women's Sailing Association in Cleveland, Ohio. "With this group I skipper a 29' Santana."
Sailing segued to racing, so when in the Caribbean, the couple crew for friends. It is snapshots of those events, the St. Croix Regatta and Sweethearts of the Caribbean Regatta that appear in her paintings; boats rounding marks, tacking duels, setting a chute.
Since Tan, Pete and their daughter Anna spend a lot of time under water, it was only natural that those memories, too, started to emerge from the watery depths of paper.
Last year a tragedy occurred when the family's Cleveland home burned and much of her work was lost. Helping hope rise from ashes, the decision was made to begin with a new home and for Tan, a different media. This new life includes a big blue farmhouse, canvas and oil paint.
Working full time, Gillespie treats painting as a business and gives very little away. She decided, though, to give her Dad a painting since he, too, has talent with a brush. "It seemed to go down quite well. Dad called weeks later and said he'd gone to the framer." Laughing she added, "But he had them frame the picture I'd done on the back!"
Pete is quite fond of her work which has led to a few humorous moments. One patron bought a painting that was apparently his favorite. "Pete said he swore I told him he could have it. Without me knowing about it, he bought it back from the lady." Then he took to placing small stars on framed paintings he liked and wanted. "He didn't know that I would take the painting out of the frame and put a new one in," she joked. "We laugh about it now."
Each summer Gillespie passes on her flair and gift to others at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, a liberal arts school. She shows her work regularly at galleries and exhibitions throughout the US.
Jan Hein and her husband, artist Bruce Smith, divide their time between the Caribbean the Pacific Northwest with a boat and a life at each end.