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Charlotte Hamity: History in Watercolor

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local Artists – February 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Charlotte Hamity paints what she sees — and what she’d like to see.

The result is finely executed, delicately shaded watercolors depicting familiar scenes of Leadville and other Colorado mining towns.

Hamity puts a unique stamp on her illustrations of century-old mine headframes, Victorian false-fronted cottages and imposing commercial buildings. It might come in the form of another spray of fireweed or an asymmetrical pine tree. It could be an extra snow-covered background peak or a refinement in the way storm clouds boil over into a summer sky.

“Sometimes in real life, the composition of a scene just isn’t good,” the artist explains, sitting before an easel in her combined kitchen/studio. “It won’t make an interesting painting. So you paint a tree; you don’t paint the tree. You don’t try to make the tree in your work look exactly like the tree in your back yard. You paint what you think it should look like.”

But Hamity employs such a deft touch when adding a bit here or subtracting a bit there that to look at her watercolors of Leadville’s Robert Emmett and Fanny Rawlings mine ruins, the Western Hardware Store, old St. Vincent’s hospital or the “wedding cake” house, you’d swear you were standing in front of them.

Art has long been a passion for this 68-year-old Michigan native and grandmother of four. Hamity studied art history at Duke University and received a degree in commercial art from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. She worked as a commercial artist, and designed chandeliers and custom store display fixtures for a business co-owned with her husband Chuck.

The Hamitys met while pursuing another passion — skiing. Regular Colorado ski vacations with their three children convinced the couple that Colorado was where they wanted to retire.

“We thought, ‘How great to live in a place where we can ski or play golf all the time,'” Hamity says.

Before deciding on Leadville, the Hamitys skied every day-ski area in the state and investigated the amenities offered by each area’s “host” town, particularly its golf courses and libraries.

Once they sold their Chicago-area home and settled in Leadville in August, 1992, “I don’t think a day went by when Chuck didn’t look out the window and say, ‘Aren’t we lucky?'” Hamity recalls.

But five months after their move, her husband died suddenly. “And I buried myself in painting and grief,” Hamity says. “Painting was what saved me.”

She began by painting the view from her kitchen window. “At first it felt like I’d forgotten everything, but I kept practicing and bit by bit, it came back.”

Next she took photographs of intriguing scenes and worked from the photos.

Now Hamity often sketches on site, and even hauls paints, paper, brushes, spray bottles of water and a chair into the back country to work.

Outdoor excursions are limited, however, by Leadville’s bitter winters and arid air, which dries out watercolor paints too quickly to complete large paintings.

“One of my instructors suggested driving to a site in the winter, sitting in the car and painting from inside the car. I have a feeling he never tried that himself, though,” she says, smiling.

Although Hamity also paints flowers and the occasional portrait, and plans to do more animal subjects, nature scenes and structures remain her specialties.

She’s particularly captivated by Leadville’s old mining district — and equally dismayed by its inexorable loss through arson, neglect or just plain age. “I’m trying to preserve parts of Leadville, especially the mines, through my paintings,” Hamity says. “Every year, it seems there’s one less mine. I’d like to paint a lot of these before they disappear forever.”

Although Hamity is also an accomplished oil painter, her first love will always be watercolors. “If you make a mistake with watercolors, you can’t paint over it like oils. You can’t go back and fix it. You’ve ruined it. So watercolor is more of a challenge. It’s like golf. If you don’t hit the ball right, you’re in the woods.”

There’s another, more practical reason for concentrating on watercolors. “I work in my kitchen, and oil paints smell. Plus, I’m getting older and watercolors are easier to clean up,” Hamity confesses.

When not pursuing her other interests, Hamity is a serious gardener. She’s even painted cheery orange poppies on the exterior of her home to recall her summer blooms while the snow falls.

And she’s an avid hiker who went camping for the first time last summer — and loved it. “At 68, I finally have my own sleeping bag,” she grins.

Hamity’s paintings are displayed locally at the Old Glory Cafe and The National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum. She works on commission, and she also sells her paintings, plus notecards featuring reprints of various paintings, from her home and at festivals in Leadville and Gunnison.

“I don’t show in other places because basically I’m lazy,” she jokes.