Art tour winds way through San Benito County

Silva Rios talks about her process of making pottery with a couple interested people Saturday afternoon at her open studio in San Juan Bautista. Photo by Nick Lovejoy

The white horse arched its neck, revealing a whimsical pattern of painted, black, giraffe-like spots.
The patterned mustang was just one example of creative work on display at the annual Open Studios Art Tour hosted by the San Benito County Arts Council last weekend. During the two-day event, artists in San Juan Bautista, Hollister and Aromas opened their homes to sell art, demonstrate techniques and muse over all things beautiful.
“You’re a ham today,” artist Andrea McCann told her horse as he pushed his muzzle into a bowl of black paint made from activated charcoal and egg yolks.
McCann, a member of the Aromas Hills Artisans group, lightly brushed his fur with the pigment as she talked to art appreciators lining up along the fence line.
“It’s interesting how many artists and how many creative people there are in this small, little area,” said Christine Tarnai-Hammer, as she walked through a second home open to the public just a few houses away.
The studio Tarnai-Hammer visited was the workplace of potter and ceramic artist Sylvia Rios, who had lined the shelves of her garage with vibrantly colored blue and green vases, teapots and cups.
“When you make art, it’s like you go into a slightly different place,” Rios said. “It’s very engaging and it gives you permission just to be yourself. And everybody needs that.”
For McCann, art provided a chance not so much to find herself, but to connect with her horse. While grooming her mustang, McCann discovered she could trace her finger across his white coat to spell words and play tic-tac-toe. Soon, she was drawing designs in mud, then clay and––this year––activated charcoal mixed with egg yolk.
“The art project rules are, it doesn’t hurt him. He’s an active participant. And it rubs off,” she said.
McCann was one of five artists displaying work at a home on Cole Road, where creative people sold paintings, woolen jackets and jewelry.
The house’s owner, Susan Shirley, moved to Aromas in July and––about nine months later––opened her home to the public to display local artwork and to share her own woolen clothing line.
Art isn’t a full-time gig for Shirley, 40, who teaches sixth grade at Tom Matsumoto Elementary School in San Jose. That said, from her new home in San Benito County, the artist can look out the window and see her own wooly sheep producing the fiber that will soon be part of her work.
Shirley practices “felting”—a process that tangles fibers of wool and cloth using soap, water and friction to create shawls, skirts and jackets.
“I’ve always been creative and I’ve always loved texture and I think a love of texture is how this started,” said Shirley, with a hat worn coyly to the side, pale green capris and a long, dark-brown sweater with fringe.
“Felting is very free form,” she said. “What I love about it is, I never quite know what I’m going to make.”
In each piece, Shirley uses cloth from a thrift shop or remnants so that her work repurposes something that would otherwise have been thrown away.
“I just don’t want anything to get wasted,” she said. “And it’s just a great way to make sure something gets a new life.”

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