Local china painters look to revive dying art

With a colorful palette of lead-based paints in front of her, Betty Peters works on a small piece during a recent meeting of the Quincy China Painters at Bible Baptist Church in Quincy. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Dec. 26, 2012 9:28 am Updated: Jan. 9, 2013 11:15 am
Samples of various types of painting are on display during a recent meeting of the Quincy China Painters. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Oletha Briggs had pieces in her kiln when she died at age 102 in 2010.

The avid china painter had taken the kiln with her when she moved to the Good Samaritan Home. Like most china painters, Briggs enjoyed the detailed brush strokes, the time she invested in each piece and the hand-painted finished products.

Also like many china painters, she aged and died.

China painting thrived in society in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ladies gathered in groups and painted portraits, flowers and landscapes on mugs, plates and tiles. The trend slowed during the World War II as women filled Red Cross stations and supplies from Europe became difficult to obtain. When soldiers returned home, china painters returned to their art.

Doris Sanders of the Quincy China Painters learned the hobby from her elder cousin. But now that her cousin has passed, Sanders, 62, fears the art might eventually die, too.

"The number of painters that started in the '50s and '60s are dying off," Sanders said.

For years, Sanders was the young painter in the small group, which meets on the third Tuesday of each month. Sanders paints with fellow members Ethel Vandiver, 89, Ruth Milam, 69, and Sharon Geise, 69.

The club hopes to coach a new generation of painters. Club President Michele Briggs, 42, is the youngest of the dozen club members. Her artwork strikes a youthful tone with an age-old art. The vibrant colors, trendy designs, and use of gold and luster paints stick out in the club's collection.

Briggs said she wilts at painting flowers but embraces other natural elements. She opted for jungle prints and vines on a recent mug. On another, she used dynamic portions of gold to highlight flowers already on the china.

"Everything that I do is an experiment," Briggs said.

Even when the painters use patterns, the results vary. During a club meeting, two women sat side by side, each working with the same design. The barn scene featured a windmill and grass. One woman free-painted trees into the scene, but the other kept slightly more true to the pattern.

"You've got eight ladies here on a regular basis," Briggs said. "But if you give them all the same pattern, they'll all interpret differently, and they're all stunning."

And true. A third mug with the finished design showed a black barn's outline draped in a striking sunset. Sanders explained that the art invokes an appreciation for nature for each painter.

"You can see how the snow falls, and you can see how the branches lay," Sanders said. "You see shadows."

While club members have passed the technique on to their children and grandchildren, the club still seeks new members. Belonging to the Quincy China Painters allows the members access to worldwide expertise and techniques. The women hope to offer evening painting classes to accommodate younger artists who might still have full-time jobs. The current club members, with the exception of Briggs, are all retired.

The club eagerly shared the craft and resources with Briggs as she slowly embraced the hobby. Sanders said most can try it with minimal investment. Even though Sanders paint collection varies just as much as the art she produces, she explained exquisite work requires just a few colors. Still, her pallet sports an array of unique colors that she eagerly shares among the club.

"I have enough paint until I die," Sanders said.

As Briggs stroked her brush over a piece of china, she mused about the pleasure in giving a hand-painted fine gift. She said many don't realize the time and creativity invested in the array of items these women adorn. Some have painted portraits on china. Others paint boxes, jewelry and dinnerware. Sanders said if it can be thought of, it could be painted.

"There's a certain satisfaction that comes with creating an heirloom," Briggs said.

With a short laugh, Milam agreed. As she held a new piece in her hand, a pair of china painted earrings hung near her neck. While sometimes sold, these hand-painted gifts are often given to loved ones.

"And, that doesn't come from China," Milam said.


Ethel Vandiver looks over a small mug while working on it during a recent meeting of the Quincy China Painters. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)


Various shades of red paints used in the china painting process are shown during a recent meeting of the Quincy China Painters. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)


Yvonne Smith keeps a second brush handy while working on a coffee mug during a recent meeting of the Quincy China Painters at Bible Baptist Church. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)


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