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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND THE BIZARRE | PALETTE
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An Art League of Their Own

March 29, 1998|Ed Leibowitz

Having polished off her customary half-a-BBQ-beef-sandwich lunch, artist Bette Wahl directs her attention to the subject of today's Chinese watercolor workshop: a radiant bunch of deep pink camellias. First she must move an empty Coca-Cola can far away from the bouquet. "I'm not Andy Warhol," the 77-year-old painter laughs beneath her orderly white bouffant.

A member of the nonprofit Beverly Hills Art League for more than two decades, Wahl recalls when the group was headquartered in Beverly Hills, before it opened this rustic second-story gallery at the Farmers Market. The quaint haven where artists gather on Fridays seems conducive for a fine-arts consortium free of the pretensions that often characterize the art world. A cheery red-lettered sign at the foot of the stairs beckons to patrons looking for a comfortable place to enjoy their Gumbo Pot blackened snapper or cup of coffee from Bob's: "The Beverly Hills Art League Welcomes You to Their Exhibit. FREE. Bring Your Lunch Upstairs. Air Conditioned."

The membership roll is not restricted to Beverly Hills. More than 800 artists, many of them retirees, have joined from throughout Southern California, and a few from surrounding states. (Wahl and her radiant camellias hail from Hancock Park.) Members can display as many as three artworks for $9 a month. Wahl's current oeuvre includes "Peek-A-Boo," a watercolor of a dog peering from behind a filigree of grape leaves. "Oh, I like anything," she says of her subject matter, "but I like animals and people best."

Many paintings are nostalgic and fairly straightforward: an autumnal mill, a proud Native American chief, a bevy of bewildered kittens and confident cats, a squinty boat captain with a goatee and tight mouth reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin's and renderings of the Farmers Market itself. Others capture the dislocation of the avant-garde: a crumpled yellow fedora, a portrait of a past president of the league as a shadowy figure melting into a field of electric green. Even the most ambitious canvases rarely carry an asking price above $300.

Under the guidance of instructor Linda Demapelis, Wahl conjures up the camellia petals in her mind, imagining the pink strokes seeping into the rice paper. "Sometimes I can almost see it on the paper," she says, "and I just put it where it belongs--if I'm lucky. And then you put it down, because once it's down, that's it. It's like proposing to somebody." She giggles above the blank canvas. "You're stuck."

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