Caroline Kwas is enamored of rocks, and her small home in Spring Hill reflects that love. Glossy oil paintings of beach rocks and shells adorn each wall. The rocks lie nestled in sand, or seem to rise from the sea foam. Some carry fragments of seaweed. Their vibrancy and compelling arrangements lure the eye. "I come from a long line of rock collectors," said Kwas, a teacher-turned-artist who was raised on Long Island, N.Y., close to the water.
The rocks have taken on both a spiritual and artistic quality for Kwas, leading her to study them, collect them, photograph them and paint them.
"I see God in those millions of grains of sand," she said. "The rocks can help us stop and reflect on the wonder of the world."
Bringing to bear all she learned in art schools about style, color and technique, Kwas renders the sea-sculpted stones on wood. She paints daily on the patio of her home, where a small table holds the paints, brushes and a palette. Kwas sits on a stool before her easel, surrounded by what she calls her own oasis.
"I don't have the beach," she said, "but we put up bird feeders and plants, and I have the fresh air."
The rocks and shells spring to life in shiny oils, mainly on birch panels. Kwas said she likes the hardness of wood beneath her brush.
The idea of rocks came about accidentally several years ago.
Kwas, 39, said she had been influenced by favorite artists, notably 20th century American painter Edward Hopper and Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio and their use of strong color. As a result, the young artist admitted, she went overboard, using too many colors in her paintings and had to tone down her palette.
Painting rocks proved to be the answer. While looking through beach photos one day, Kwas noticed one photo of a pile of rocks, all in shades of gray and brown.
"I turned that photo into an exercise in color," she said, "and began working with the relationships of colors."
The exercise proved successful. Her rock paintings, using varying earth tones, and shell paintings, one of which is a study in purple, attracted dozens of visitors to her booths at two local festivals earlier this year — the Mainsail Arts Festival in April and the Cool Art Show in July, both in St. Petersburg.
Kwas and her fiance, Tom Berryman, moved to Spring Hill in December 2008, after the death of Berryman's mother, who lived here. Kwas brought along her tools and the determination to continue growing artistically.
"She is really driven," Berryman said. "She has dedicated so much time to becoming better at this."
Artistic growth is no small task.
"Keeping it fresh is my biggest challenge," said Kwas, who added that she must vary the depiction of rocks in each painting.
For now, though, Kwas will stick with the ocean-smoothed stones.
"An artist should have a cohesive body of work," she said, "with a common theme."
Berryman, who makes customized frames for Kwas' paintings, also critiques her work and supports her.
"Anything she sets her mind to she can do," he said.
Kwas said she hopes to continue mastering her craft. She has joined the Professional Association of Visual Artists in Dunedin and, with a new recreational vehicle, hopes to participate in more shows.
Still, Kwas said money is not her primary concern.
"Artists have a passion," she said. "They paint because they have to."