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They practice the art of activism

On the canvases are images of lemon- and tangerine-colored cottages under cobalt skies that were carefully crafted with determined brush strokes.

To the artists, the subjects are endangered species and the work is a last-ditch attempt to save the cottages of Indian Rocks Beach from being razed to build another condominium to add to Florida's great wall of concrete.

Violetta Shtumeyzen, 41, of Sarasota, Helen Tilston of Indian Rocks Beach, who is in her 50s, and Mary-Rose Holmes of Indian Rocks Beach, who would only say she is older than the other two, call themselves the Plein Air Cottage Artists.

They didn't intend to become political activists when they started painting landscapes together four years ago, but they quickly grew alarmed when their subjects started disappearing one by one.

Throughout Pinellas County, residents of beachfront cities are fighting developers and their local governments in an attempt to preserve the quaint, untouched quality of their neighborhoods.

In Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach, residents have restricted growth and protested tall buildings. Belleair residents have tried to do the same.

Indian Rocks Beach voters have repeatedly turned down measures that would allow for taller structures, Mayor Bill Ockunzzi said.

Right now, there are three condominium projects under construction in Indian Rocks Beach, and several more are on the table, he said. The Plein Air artists have helped fight that growth, he said.

"They put a face and a visualization on the cottages, which are a large part of the small-town atmosphere that we are trying to save in Indian Rocks Beach," he said.

The Plein Air artists cringe at the idea of buildings taller than five stories. Their worst fear is a Publix or Starbucks opening up in the area.

"It is not that we are against condos, but we think there are enough already," said Holmes, who has occasionally attended City Commission meetings to protest condominiums.

The Plein Air artists are impressionists. Most days, visitors can see them sitting side by side along the road or beach, painting three different images on their portable easels.

Their goal is to paint every cottage in town. So far, they have captured only a quarter of the homes.

The women met at a class at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art about seven years ago and quickly became friends. Shtumeyzen was the teacher and the only one with a background in professional art, but in 2002 the women started painting and selling their work together.

So far, the response has been favorable.

"People fall in love with it," Shtumeyzen said. "They just want to buy it off the easel."

In September, they spent two weeks in Tuscany and Venice on an art vacation.

This weekend, they opened an exhibit of their Italian art at the Villace Gallace Italian Restaurant, which will run until Jan. 31.

On Sunday, they participated in the Indian Rocks Beach Christmas parade dressed as 19th-century maidens in a float titled "Save Our Cottages."

The more they get their work out, the greater the chance they have at saving the cottages, they said.

"If you tear down a tree, you can replace it," Holmes said. "If you smash a cottage, it can never be replaced."

Cristina Silva can be reached at


Art of the city

What: The Plein Air Cottage Artists' exhibit.

Where: Villace Gallace Italian Restaurant, 109 Gulf Blvd.

When: Restaurant is open from 4 to 10 p.m. every day.