DISCOVERY BAY – Sit and talk with artist Sandra Offutt in her second-floor studio overlooking the bay and mountains, and you’ll discover that her life story has elements of a Maeve Binchy novel.
There is the childhood spent in the woods and around the water. There is the girl in parochial school who conforms to her family’s wishes but follows a path that leads to her destiny.
There are the characters she meets along the way, including an art teacher who lives in an old section of the city. There are rain, stars, romance, language lessons and travel.
There is even a small village on a Greek island, a village on a hillside so steep that residents park their cars above it and walk down cement and stone steps to reach their houses.
“They’re donkey steps,” Offutt said, explaining the steps are wide and shallow so that donkeys can go up and down them.
Donkeys are the transportation of necessity on Amorgos, an island in the Aegean where the Offutt and spouse Brad Offutt return every year.
There, she spends as many hours as she can down at the local harbor, painting pictures of the wooden boats.
When she’s back at home in the Northwest, Offutt can also be found in the elements, either at the Port Townsend Boat Haven or on a rural road in the Dungeness Valley.
But it’s not the miles she puts on the road, enjoying the beauty of the countryside, that is the goal.
“It’s the miles on the brush that count,” she said, quoting an artist’s saying.
Offutt, 66, is a plein-air landscape painter, preferring to set up her easel outdoors and work directly from nature. It’s a vocation she has turned into a full-time career by pursuing it with passion, despite the distractions.
“The tide comes in and gets your feet wet,” she said. “Sometimes there are a lot of spiders in the fields. Dogs come up. In Greece, it’s always the children.”
Offutt and her husband met in graduate school in Chicago, where he was studying classical languages and she was studying religion.
After living in Europe on a fellowship, they applied for jobs with the State Department and were assigned to Athens in 1974.
For the next 12 years, Offutt worked, raised their daughter and continued to do art in her spare time.
“I did pen and ink pictures,” Offutt said. “I’d go out in my car on weekends and drive around. I liked old houses.”
She also took lessons from a painter in Athens who lived in a part of town she normally wouldn’t have visited. Another art teacher suggested using colored ink in her drawings, which she did, then made the shift to watercolors, a medium she used for 20 years.
It was after moving to Port Townsend permanently in 2005 that she returned to oil painting, which she did in high school, taking lessons from local artist Diane Ainsworth.
“She taught me so much, not only about painting but about being a painter,” Offutt said. “Before, I approached painting as something I did once a week. In her, I saw an example of a person who works hard all week.”
Offutt was already painting with the “Weather or Not” plein-air art group, which goes out twice a week except in the winter, and taking lessons from Ainsworth once a week, so was close to making art a full-time occupation.
She added another day of painting, some of which she does in her studio, working from color sketches she made at the scene.
But she prefers to be outside.
“Everything you need to know is right in front of you,” she said. “How dark is that shadow? What color is that? How is that structured? It’s especially important when you’re painting boats to get it right.”
The distractions are both bad and good, she said, because meeting people adds to the experience.
She was doing a painting of the Molly Sparks, in the Port Townsend Boat Haven when a man came up and said, “That boat was named for my mother.”
The man said he had fixed the boat up. His sister also came by.
“I loved being there and finding that out,” Offutt said. “You don’t have that happening when you take a photo and go to your studio and paint it.”
The Northwest weather does makes plein-air painting challenging at times, she said, and you have to move fast to catch the light. Then there are the times it’s cold, hot or too sunny. Working in the wind is difficult, she said, and if it starts raining hard enough to make the paint on her palette watery, she has to stop.
But she’s used to Northwest weather.
The only child of a career Army father, she was born in Texas and lived in Phoenix and San Francisco before her father was transferred to Fort Lewis in the 1950s. He took her along on hunting and fishing excursions, and she also explored on her own.
“I was an age when I could really enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “I could bicycle to American Lake after school and get in a rowboat and row around the lake, looking for tadpoles.”
When her father was transferred to Dugway Army Base in Utah, Offutt was sent to an Episcopal boarding school for girls in Salt Lake City.
There, she was the only student in her class of 20 who took art, so had a private teacher. She would have liked to go to art school after graduation, but her parents preferred college.
She spent her first year at Canal Zone Junior College in Panama, where her father was stationed, and the next three at Lake Erie College for Women, earning a degree in religion and philosophy. Following her destiny as an artist turned out to be a matter of both faith and work.
“If you work at it, you will get better,” she said. “I took this as an article of faith. For me, it’s a key thing.”
Offutt also makes biannual pilgrimages to a holy place, the monastery on Amorgos. The monastery holds two religious festivals, one in the spring and one in the fall.
Everyone on the island attends, most making the two-hour walk up to the monastery on foot, while the old women ride donkeys.“I’ve thought about getting a donkey when I’m walking up the hill,” Offutt said, “but I’m not at that point yet.”