Mother and daughter Dori and Annabelle DeCamillis find their artistic paths are intertwined.

By Brett Levine


Every Saturday this past April, Dori DeCamillis and Annabelle DeCamillis, mother and daughter respectively, taught a “Painting in the Park” workshop at a series of public parks in Homewood. Dori is the cofounder and owner of Red Dot Gallery in Homewood; Annabelle is a student studying fine art at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To the two of them, the fact that they have each pursued the profession of painting, and at such a high level of skill, is not necessarily surprising. But to some, the story of a 19-year-old painter and her professional artist mother is an unexpected story indeed.“I never aspired to anything else,” Annabelle says softly as the three of us sit in the painting studio at Red Dot Gallery. “My parents were both very positive about my skills and were actively engaged with my arts practice. I started having formal training at about 7 or 8, and it continued from there.” In fact, both her mother and her father, Joe DeCamillis, are artists, so the artist’s life was never far away. “Annabelle started showing signs of being artistic really early,” Dori says. “She would make sculptures with tape, twist ties, or Sculpy [a material similar to Play-Doh].” Over the years, a lot of this experimentation took place at the art shows where her parents were selling their work. When Dori opened Red Dot Gallery, a more formal classroom experience emerged, and Annabelle was one of her regular students. There, Annabelle was immersed in the fundamentals of painting and drawing, skills that Dori feels are imperative for anyone working in two dimensions.

Dori is a realist. Perhaps calling her an allegorical realist would be more accurate, because she takes the fundamental skills of painting and uses them to create fantastical works of incredible visual and psychological depth. “I’ve always regarded the capacity to render as very important,” she says. “I think that for me, and for many people, abstraction doesn’t come naturally. So at times it can be frustrating.” Annabelle shares this perception. “I’m more of a scientific realist,” Annabelle says. “I’m disconnected from abstraction. I focus more on physics and science. That doesn’t mean that my paintings have to be totally scientific. It just means that I like to begin from a position of understanding a lot about how all the elements in my paintings might work—how the mechanics of the body move, how a fabric drapes, all the physical aspects of how something functions so I can make it seem more real when I put it on canvas.”

This attention to detail is something that mother and daughter share. Dori is a master of painting patterns, and some of her series are renowned for the level of detail and pattern that appear within them. “I usually have books and books of patterns here in the studio,” she explains. “I am always interested in historical patterns and geometry.” Annabelle shares this fascination but admits her skill level is still developing. “While I love pattern and repetition, there is something as simple as pulling a straight line for this type of image that I just don’t do as well as my mom,” she says. This type of admission highlights a mutual respect that mother and daughter have developed over the years, and it is something that goes back a long way, even when Dori felt Annabelle should perhaps do something different.

Take Annabelle’s love of Japanese animaeand manga, which developed into a passion for costume play (cosplay). “For a long time I was really into anime and cosplay,” Annabelle says, “but then I realized that the characters that were being depicted weren’t necessarily always ones that represented people and ideas in the best possible light.”

“That’s true,” Dori says. “She had sketchbooks full of these characters. I kept trying to explain that there were ways to draw that were more interesting than simply drawing other people’s ideas, but at the same time, I certainly wasn’t going to tell her not to draw. I wanted to encourage whatever her creative outlet was.” This encouragement led to Dori taking Annabelle to cosplay conventions around the Southeast, having an enjoyable time herself. “I took what seemed to many of the cosplayers to be a reasonably professional camera, so they would stop, get into character, strike a pose, and give me a remarkable photograph,” Dori says. For Annabelle, the experience was something else entirely. “For me, cosplay represents an opportunity to take something from two dimensions and bring it alive in three,” she explains. “As a painter I am constantly working in two dimensions, and taking something and making it real helps me to understand how things are stitched, how fabrics move and catch light, how things lay across the body. Then when I go back to paint, I can take the skills I’ve used to make a costume and apply them to the painting. How did that piece drape? Just how did that shadow fall? How heavy was that fabric? It seems like an unusual approach, but I realized that there is always something to learn in one creative practice that I can apply to another.”

Despite mutual love and respect, and a shared interest in representational art and portraiture, the two artists have yet to collaborate. But their shared love of similar influences is evident. Mother and daughter shared a visit to the Brandywine Museum in Pennsylvania to see the works of father and son N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, painters whose works they both love. “I was scared when I first showed their works to Annabelle,” Dori admits. “I loved them so much, and I thought maybe she wouldn’t.” But the idea of working together is something they can’t imagine just yet. “We try to avoid it,” Annabelle says. “I want her to find her own voice,” Dori explains. “I want her to struggle as an artist at least a little bit!”

For now, Annabelle continues to study and to develop her techniques, refining the skills she has and learning the ones she does not. “I think life drawing has its own unique challenges, and I’ve recently been working on a self-portrait using a mirror, so the process is even more interesting,” Annabelle says. “And although I can use programs like Photoshop, I don’t use any digital media in my art. I am also continuously learning techniques—I have been taught basic techniques, and I had the benefit of studying at the Alabama School of Fine Arts—but I know I have a long way to go technically. It seems like it is only now that I am learning to look closely.”

Dori understands learning along the way, and she admits that she’s surprised about where her own path led her: “When I first started working as an artist, I never imagined I would end up teaching community art classes at my own studio in Birmingham, Ala. Now, with the wonderful community we live in and the amazing people I encounter every single day as a part of Red Dot Gallery, I can’t even imagine doing anything else.” For Annabelle, the path remains equally open. Having just begun as a scholarship student at UAB, her future path is not yet defined. “I’m just happy to have found a school that focuses so much on painting and drawing,” Annabelle says. “I have great professors and great opportunities to focus on what I love for now.” She plans to use this time to build on the successes that led to her inclusion in the YoungArts Week exhibition at the Miami Museum of Art and in ART.WRITE.NOW DC at the U.S. Department of Education.

Dori, on the other hand, continues to focus on Red Dot Gallery as the studio gears up for its 10th anniversary exhibition, which is opening in September 2014. “We are so excited about this exhibition,” she says. “It will feature works by myself, Scott [Bennett], Annabelle, and many of the alumni of the studio programs we’ve conducted over the years.” In the interim, Annabelle herself may make one of the many appearances she does as a substitute teacher in the studio painting classes at the gallery. “One of the most interesting experiences is watching adults shift their perceptions of someone so young being their instructor. I’m sure many of them are skeptical at first,” Dori says. “But after one session, they know that Annabelle knows enough to teach painting courses here at the studio.”

Lastly is the question of how mother and daughter really approach each other’s work. Apart from the natural love and support that a mother has for a daughter, Dori truly does respect her daughter’s painting, and the feeling is mutual. “She is the only person I let critique my work,” Dori remarks about her daughter. “We are definitely growing together in how we relate as teacher and student, but also as mother and daughter.”

It is rare to find two people as talented as Dori DeCamillis and Annabelle DeCamillis who follow the same path and come from the same family. Instead of competitiveness, they find mutual support, respect, intellectual engagement, and yes, love, as each works to become a better artist. What’s that old cliché? Ah, yes: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

One Response to “Composed”

  1. Elise Hinton says:

    Absultely incredible!!!

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