Art takes its place in the sun

WESTERLY — Under a brilliant blue sky and abundant sunshine, crowds of art lovers flocked to the 20th annual Virtu Art Festival in Wilcox Park Saturday.

With 152 artists showing wares from fine art paintings to shell art to musical instruments to handmade clothing, the festival's attendance is estimated at 20,000 per year, said Ocean Community Chamber Executive Director Lisa Konicki.

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"We know we're competing with yardwork and beach-going," she said. "So, it's great that we have this weather so that Watch Hill, Misquamicut, and downtown can all benefit — the bigger goal is it brings people from all around the Connecticut, Rhode Island area to our community."

At the fair with their daughters, Sofie, 9, and Tilly, 7, Sarah and Mike Oster said they had just moved from Westerly to North Stonington and were considering a large painting of sunflowers by artist Mike Bryce of Providence.

"We're just trying to find where it would fit," she said. "We just moved — so we want to put some art on the walls," she said.

After looking for another minute, Oster made her decision about the sunflowers.

"We're going to pull the trigger — we're going to get it," she said.

One of their daughters was interested in one of the tiny paintings Bryce had for sale.

"There's a pretty one that's not too yellow over there — she actually has red hair," said Tilly, who had red hair.

Minutes later, the family carried the large painting away and Bryce placed a different one in its spot.

Describing his work as "contemporary impressionism," Bryce said some of his paintings are closer to realism and some are more abstract, and that he sells many of them at the festival every year.

"I've been doing this for years and years — as long as it's been going," he said. "This show is always amazing — it's consistent, I have a great client base and consistent sales — people come back every year."

Michael Wolski, a painter from the Berkshires, who described his art as "naive," said that some customers need time to contemplate an artwork before they're ready to buy.

"The thing is with art it takes a while for people to think about what they want, and because it's a two-day fair they'll come back the second day," he said. "I've had people come back even a year later — art has to grow in you."

Janice Smith of Stonington said she wanted to find some art by local painters, especially of her husband's boat in Stonington.

"My husband is a lobsterman so I was trying to find some local art of the Stonington dock," she said. "I'm trying to come out and find the art by those people I see at the docks painting pictures."

Some art lovers, like Lisa and Sean LeBlanc, of Wakefield, find an artist they love and come back for new pieces each year.

"We come every year and we're back to buy another piece of art — it'll be our fourth piece," LeBlanc said of pop artist Horacio Lertora, of Westport, Mass.

The LeBlancs were decorating T-shirts in the "Creation Station," with their daughters Morgan, 8, and Zoe, 14. Nearby were children and parents embellishing buckets, T-shirts, hats, and wood crafts, all provided by the Chamber.

Kristen Ruede and her daughter, Maddie, 2, of Hartford, were on their way to the face-painting station.

"It's so great that they provide this area for the kids," said Ruede, whose family runs a seashell crafts booth. "It's great — and the show is so busy, too."

At the Splendid Loon booth, Barbara Briggs and her son, Josiah, of Wakefield, were enjoying the first-time lookers and the return customers. Splendid Loon studio specializes in ceramic beads with a lustered finish and silver embellished pendants.

"This is always a good show with interesting people who are experienced in the arts," she said. "We have many return customers, some come up to Wakefield, and it gets bigger every year."

One of their longtime customers, Jill Diehl of Westerly, stopped by the booth wearing a Splendid Loon booth pendant.

"It's my favorite, I love it," she said. "I get compliments all the time and I have a bigger blue one — wherever I go people always ask me about it, and I always tell them Splendid Loon."

"See, that's why we're still in business — people like you," Briggs said.

Meanwhile, as they headed home with their sunflowers painting, the Osters had something else to celebrate.

"We got married here 11 years ago on that hill the weekend of the Virtu," she said. "It was beautiful the year we got married — it was perfect, it was just like this."

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