Donna Elias has built an art career around water, because that’s where lighthouses always are.
She figures she has painted pictures of more than 300 lighthouses from Maine to California and Florida to the Great Lakes, and all over her native New Jersey. And she has found a market for her watercolors among legions of lighthouse lovers who want pictures of their favorites in their homes, in all sorts of sizes and formats.
The home of Donna Elias Studios is a warehouse on Carson Avenue in Atlantic City, just across a bit of bay from Historic Gardner’s Basin. And that location is usually perfect for her, right down to a nice view of her hometown Absecon Lighthouse, the first one she ever painted.
But that base turned out to be an awful place for art on Oct. 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy flooded big parts of Atlantic City and much more of New Jersey’s coastline. The water hit 5 feet high at spots on Carson Avenue, and Elias’ warehouse, although it’s up a few steps off the street, got more than 2 feet of water in it.
“I painted outside all the time around the water, in all kinds of weather,” Elias says now. “But I never thought the weather would come inside my studios.”
Les Kammerman Jr., her husband and business partner, says the flood ruined at least 25,000 fine-art prints of Elias’ paintings, box after box of the kind that sell in gift shops around the country. But it also reached and soaked more than 400 of her original watercolors stored in drawers and files in the building.
Elias was sure they were ruined, but she dried them and stored them out of the way because she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. But Kammerman, who knew fans often ask to buy her not-for-sale originals, came up with an idea for finding good homes for all those worse-for-water paintings.
The result is “Salt Watercolors,” a show the artist will host this weekend at Donna Elias Bayside Gallery, a Gardner’s Basin shack where she also sells her stuff. She’s not trying to hide the fact that her lighthouses went underwater in South Jersey’s worst storm in at least 50 years; she highlights that hurricane heritage in a show of about 100 paintings.
And the play in that name on Atlantic City’s saltwater taffy legend is very intentional. In that story, a Boardwalk candy store was flooded by the ocean, and the owner was horrified at first — until he tasted the saltwater-bathed candy and liked it. So did customers, and the stuff has been a shore staple ever since.
Elias has miserable memories of Sandy and what it did to her world, but she actually finds some of what the water did to her art intriguing. She may even try to reproduce bits of the effect in her work.
The damage is much more obvious in some paintings than others, and Elias says at least 150 paintings were destroyed beyond recovery, because the heavy watercolor paper basically fell apart.
But the soaked survivors are “framed and unframed, and some of the paintings, people will come into the gallery and see that they’re washed-out-looking, wavy. They’re very distinctive because of the storm,” Elias says.
And she knows there’s a market, because she gave a little preview show last weekend down the street at Absecon Lighthouse, for the annual New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge. A few customers snapped them up before she could take them home.
“Some people were fascinated” by how the hurricane altered the art, Elias says. “It seems like it would have been part of the style.”