Whenever Shell Beach artist Colleen Gnos could muster up the energy between chemotherapy treatments, she’d slip into her San Luis Obispo studio to paint.
“I couldn’t believe how much joy it brought me,” recalled Gnos, who was undergoing treatment for a rare form of blood cancer at the time. “It was my freedom and my release. It was therapeutic. …
“I felt a very big heaviness was weighing on me, and when I would go and paint, within minutes I was light, elated.”
Gnos, who’s now in remission, explores a newfound sense of freedom in her solo show “Musicians and Mermaids,” which opened Friday and runs through June 26 at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. A reception will be held 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. The exhibition is divided into two distinct bodies of work: paintings of beach goers, mermaids and deep sea divers rendered in true-to-life hues and passionate portraits of jazz musicians punctuated by brilliant splashes of background color.
For Gnos, 41, the paintings represent different aspects of her artistic journey.
Her ocean-themed works are inspired in part by her maritime heritage — she’s descended from a line of sea captains and abalone divers — and the summers the Sacramento area native spent in Avila Beach as a child. Her realistic rendering of the human form reflects years studying art at UC Santa Cruz and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy.
And the expert depictions of musical instruments? They might have something to do with the fact that Gnos plays standup bass in the soul-flavored folk and blues band Foxx & Rice. (Her husband, Che Miller, is the lead singer and guitarist of bluegrass group The Mother Corn Shuckers.)
Gnos’s most recent revelation came in the wake of a significant health scare.
In 2013, after suffering through 10 months of excruciating leg pain that made it impossible for her to sleep through the night, she consulted a doctor and was diagnosed with primary bone lymphoma.
For Gnos, who initially feared she had soft tissue-ravaging sarcoma, the news came as somewhat of a relief. She knew her cancer could be successfully treated with chemotherapy rather than surgery.
Gnos underwent six cycles of chemo and 23 radiation treatments over about four months.
“No matter how badly I wanted to hide in my bedroom, in my cave, because I was feeling so bad, I forced myself to go out into the front room and act like everything was okay” for the sake of her sons, Bodhi, now 9, and Luke, now 12, she said, pausing to grab a paint rag to use as a makeshift tissue.
Inspired by Wayne W. Dyer’s book “Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting,” she meditated every day about being well. “I was on crutches for six months, so I imagined myself running on the beach and surfing again,” she said.
She also painted, recapturing a sense of enjoyment that she hadn’t experienced since childhood.
“As time went on, it (art) became about other things — improving oneself and getting better and learning the proper technique,” she said. “These things muck up the original reason why you chose to be an artist. I had lost touch with that completely.”
Gnos originally struggled to “go abstract,” she said, but “one day it just clicked. I was just throwing color and dipping things in color and stamping [them]. I didn’t care what it looked like in the end.”
“If you can derive some joy or some healing from the process,” she realized, “it doesn’t matter what the end product looks like.”
“I just said to myself, ‘I think I’m going to paint what this sounds like,’” recalled Gnos, who started to create a vibrant background that practically pulsed with the rhythm of the music. “I could almost hear a melody in my head.”
I felt a very big heaviness was weighing on me, and when I would go and paint, within minutes I was light, elated.
Colleen Gnos, Shell Beach artist
She then added portraits of musicians, allowing bright patches of color to peak through.
“I sold the painting before I finished it. I couldn’t believe it,” Gnos said. “It was a really nice affirmation and encouragement in that direction.”
In addition to “Musicians and Mermaids,” Gnos has found other outlets for her work.
Although she originally submitted images of squirrels playing musical instruments, organizers told her, “‘You know, Colleen, … we really like the way you paint people,’” she recalled with a laugh.
On the suggestion of Live Oak mercantile coordinator Kelli Reynolds, Gnos came up with an “Alice in Wonderland”-themed design that features Live Oak master of ceremonies Joe Craven as the Mad Hatter.
Next, Gnos is tackling another high-profile project. After winning the Downtown Avila Beach Public Art Competition sponsored by the Avila Beach Community Foundation in partnership with Arts Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, she’s designing murals that will grace the two lifeguard towers on either side of the Avila Beach Pier.
Gnos isn’t sure at this point what her murals, slated to be finished in November, will depict. She plans to interview “people who represent old Avila and new Avila” to determine her approach to the project, she said.
Gnos, who’s also painting a wine barrel for the Central Coast Wine Classic in August, said her experiences in recent years have left her reenvigorated — and eager to share her revelations with others.
“You can put love into what you create, and it shows,” she said. “People connect to that.”
‘Mermaids and Musicians’
6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday reception; 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, through June 26
Steynberg Gallery, 1531 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
805-547-0278 or www.steynberggallery.com