In confirmation that taking chances often pays off in art, the plein air prize at the Women Artists of the West’s 44th Annual National Exhibition went to an experiment conducted by Michelle Usibelli. 

“This award is a testament to pursuing one’s artistic goals for continued growth and development and to strive for artistic excellence in all of your work,” Usibelli said about the Allen Award she won for her plein air piece “Afternoon Stroll.” “My greatest growth as an artist has always been when I put convention aside and follow my heart, focusing on the process of creating art, not the final product.”

Yvonne Bonacci paints from the model during WAoW’s event, held recently in San Diego

Usibelli explains, “There is a funny story behind this piece. I was participating in ‘Just Plein Fun,’ hosted by Debra Huse Gallery, last August. I typically paint in oil and acrylic, but I went out in the afternoon to experiment with a new medium for me — gouache. I loved the transparency and immediacy of the medium, but I tucked it away because I didn’t want to embarrass myself around Randy Sexton, Scott Prior, and the other amazing artists that I was painting with. After I got home and pinned it up in the studio I realized I really liked the feel of the piece — the composition, temperature variations, and looseness that I was able to achieve with gouache. I submitted it to the WAoW show, and you know the rest.”

WAoW gave out more than 35 awards. Best of Show went to Nancy Harkins, for her painting “Independence Day.” First Place was won by Jeanne Hyland, Second Place went to Cheryl Harley-Voiz, and Third Place was won by Nancee Busse. The President’s Award was won by Susan Smolensky, and the Fine Art Connoisseur Publisher’s Award was won by Patricia Ford. Nancy Peach, Jane Hunt, and Lori Pandy all fared well in the exhibition and won two awards each. The complete list of winners is on WAoW’s website.

WAoW was founded in 1971 by 35 women artists, and it has adhered to its Western theme. The nonprofit group now boasts more than 250 members. WAoW president Christine Drewyer shared some interesting information about the organization with us.

“A unique fact about this organization is that our artists have to first be juried into the group and then a second time to participate in the national annual shows,” says Drewyer. “This method encourages healthy competition among the members as well as ensuring that there will be the top quality of art featured at the exhibitions, which our patrons have come to expect. 

“Beach Baby,” by Heather Arenas, oil, 14 x 11 in.

“Besides the competitive element of the organization, there are many educational opportunities as well. There are workshops and demonstrations and plein air paint-outs during our national annual shows. On the opening weekend of this years’ show we organized a plein air event featuring a dozen models dressed in period costumes arranged by the Women’s Museum of California. 

Perhaps more importantly, there is an active communication element to this group, which encourages long-term great friendships, as well as the sharing of knowledge and skill of our shared passion and enthusiasm in creating art. The group provides active forums where new and master members can interact. This is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to grow and share our knowledge and expertise with each other.”


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