Paintings help preserve quaint cottages in Indian Rocks Beach

A trio of artists create canvases of the houses along Gulf Boulevard, reminding people why they want to live in the small homes instead of high-rise condos.

From left, Mary Rose Holmes, Violetta Chandler and Helen Tilston of Indian Rocks Beach hope to create a historical record through their work and inspire people to preserve IRB's beachfront cottages.  [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]
From left, Mary Rose Holmes, Violetta Chandler and Helen Tilston of Indian Rocks Beach hope to create a historical record through their work and inspire people to preserve IRB's beachfront cottages. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Mary-Rose Holmes and her husband Dwight had seasonal tourists in mind when they bought their place among the small cottages on the sand two decades ago.

But they’ve never once offered it for rent. Instead, they moved in, leaving behind their South Tampa home.

"Can you blame us?" Mary-Rose Holmes said with a laugh. "It's beautiful here."

Holmes gets credit, though, for more than just her appreciation of all the picturesque cottages dotting a 28-block beachfront strip of Indian Rocks Beach’s Gulf Blvd.

Along with fellow artists Violetta Chandler and Helen Tilston, Holmes has worked to preserve the beauty of the strip through their group the Plein Aire Cottage Painters.

For 18 years, the trio’s body of work has helped remind cottage owners of what makes their neighborhood special, city officials say. It provides incentive to say “No” when eager developers come calling.

Now, the three women are the subject of a new documentary, Save Our Cottages: Artists with a Cause, produced by the Emmy Award-winning team of Lynn Marvin Dingfelder and Larry Wiezycki.

It premieres Nov. 16, 2018, with screenings at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo. Tickets are available at saveourcottagesdoc.org.

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The Plein Aire Cottage Artists have been creating paintings of the houses for 18 years. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

The artists hope the film gets nationwide distribution so they can spread their message.

“Quit tearing down the old," Holmes said. "Save the old. It's beautiful. We're not against the new, but don't build it on the gulf."

Mansions, hotels and condos dominate the landscape in Pinellas County’s other beachfront communities. It's what the artists call the "Great Wall of Florida," hiding the Gulf of Mexico from public view and bringing gentrification to the beach.

"Tourists don't take pictures of condos," said artist Tilston, a snowbird from Ireland who winters in an Indian Rocks Beach rental cottage. "They take pictures of these beautiful little cottages."

Locals say that if not for the artists, and their work in the art form known as plein aire — French for “in the open air” — many of the cottages would be gone by now.

"They put a spotlight on the historical value of the cottages and uniqueness they lend to the community," said former Indian Rocks Beach mayor R.B. Johnson. "We are thankful."

Holmes estimates 22 cottages were torn down and replaced with condos or modern homes during her first few years as an Indian Rocks Beach resident.

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Artist Mary Rose Holmes displays paintings in the guest house of her cottage home on Indian Rocks Beach. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Then, Holmes, an artist since childhood, took a painting class at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. "You can always learn something new.”

Tilston, another lifelong artist, was also in the class. Their instructor was Chandler.

The three became friends and decided to paint together outside class.

"In Europe a lot of artists paint in the street," said Chandler, a native of Ukraine who has lived in Sarasota for 22 years. "I didn't see a lot of people doing that here. I wanted to."

Concerned that all the cottages would be bulldozed sooner rather than later, the trio decided to record the images on canvas. Passersby took notice as they trio stood in front of easels outside the cottages.

The artists recall one man stopping by to inquire about the precise subject of their painting so he could go have a closer look.

Open your eyes, they told him. It’s right in front of you.

"People took the beauty of the cottages for granted," filmmaker Dingfelder said. "They brought attention to that beauty."

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Artist Mary Rose Holmes touches up a painting of a blue, beachfront cottage known as “Scruggs Cottages” at Indian Rocks Beach. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

From the start, people wanted to buy the paintings right off the easel, the artists said. Local galleries started booking them for shows, They later went international with exhibits in Italy, France and Ireland.

Property owners now ask for paintings of their cottages, owner occupied and vacation rentals both. Some come back for a new version after making improvements to their cottage.

"It been a whirling dervish," said Terry Hamilton-Wollin, incoming president of the Indian Rocks Beach Historical Museum, who lives in a cottage she owns.

Residents hesitated if they were considering knocking their cottage down for a larger home or to sell a developer, Hamilton-Wollin said.

"The people understood the cottages had more value than a monolith."

Indian Rocks Beach mayor Joanne "Cookie" Kennedy said, “They have brought life, through their easels and paint, that the old cottages matter."

Still, the artists lament, a cottage from their paintings was recently bulldozed to make way for condos.

"We wish they'd all be saved," Holmes said. "But we can paint them all."

Ask the artists their ages and they’ll say it's none of your business, but ask how many cottages they’ve painted and they’re quick with an answer.

"There are at least 175 on the gulf and more in the neighborhoods just off the gulf," Holmes said. "I'd say we've painted over 200 of those cottages, each about five times."

The repetition has not dulled their enthusiasm.

"There is always a different sky, different light, different angle," Tilston said. "They are always beautiful."

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Nov. 15, 2018.

Paul Guzzo is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.