The Color-Drenched World of Colleen Gnos

         Shell Beach artist, Colleen Gnos, is best known on the Central Coast of California for her gold-scaled mermaids painted on surfboards or her idyllic scenes of surfers and breaking waves. Stories of her Portuguese grandfather running a tugboat out of Avila Beach, CA, diving for abalone, and training navy divers in the 1930’s contributed deeply to Colleen’s fascination with the sea. In the last few decades, Colleen has illustrated surfboards for renowned surfers and board shapers, and has shown her paintings across the USA and Italy. She has completed over 100 original painting commissions for private collectors.

Colleen’s vocation as a fine artist, muralist and sculptor took seed as a preteen experimenting with acrylic and oils. In her twenties, she studied painting and drawing at UC Santa Cruz before moving to Florence, Italy for a year. There, she studied figure drawing, painting, etching, and sculpture at L‘Accademia di Belle Arti, an art school founded by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Since her student days, Colleen has painted large-scale theatrical backdrops for plays, concerts and conventions. One of her most memorable was a Tiepolo sky backdrop and classical sculpture for the play Tartuffe at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, CA starring Jim Parsons. She has accepted mural commissions for businesses and private homes around the nation for over 20 years. These include a 20x20’ free-standing cut-out mural of a farmer and his dog in an almond orchard in Dixon, CA; eight interchangeable murals on 2 lifeguard towers in Avila Beach, CA; a 3,000 square foot mural of three-dimensional marble columns and filigreed altars inside St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Dixon, CA; and a 40’x 60’ mural on the side of a fertilizer plant in Woodland, CA. The latter served as an especially poignant tribute to agriculture and depicts her father, a tomato farmer, lifting up a handful of soil to the morning sun.

Since 1999, Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards near Avila Beach, CA has commissioned Colleen to design over 100 wine labels. The winery’s main signage shows Colleen’s depiction of an old Ford driving out of the family apple orchard with resident peacocks preening in the foreground. The winery’s tasting room displays much of her ocean-themed work.

After battling a rare form of bone lymphoma in 2013 and earning a clean bill of health a year later, Colleen felt awash with gratitude and possibility. She picked up her life again and it was soon brimming with a steady flow of art commissions, shows, and graphic design work; the activities of two young sons and a husband who leads his own band; teaching art to school children; supporting local cancer survivors; and surfing every week. Despite this full life, she wanted to include more music, so began playing upright bass that same year.

In 2014, a week-long creative retreat in Big Sur spurred Colleen to break with the artistic conventions of classical human forms, realistic backgrounds and a limited palette of carefully mixed hues. She felt moved to play with abstract expression and primary colors used straight from the tube. She incorporated design elements she’d never before considered – broken instrument parts, quilted canvas, and lighting elements. Upon return to her studio, she felt inspired to express her growing passion for music with these new techniques. The result is a series of sound-inspired paintings, featuring musicians that pulse with color you can almost hear.

This year, Colleen installed a free-standing 20x20’ giant highway mural along Interstate 80. She was also voted San Luis Obispo County’s “Best Visual Artist of 2018 & 2016. Her self portrait was featured on the March 2018 cover of Bass World Magazine. In 2017 she installed series of 8 murals on 2 lifeguard towers in Avila Beach, which were voted “Best Public Art Project” in San Luis Obispo County. In July 2017 she was invited to exhibit at the Huntington Beach Art Center for a monumental show titled, “Women of Surfing, Art & History.” Colleen was also named one of nine ”Women Making Waves 2017,” alongside 8 female scientists, activists, and educators and was selected as the poster artist for the 2016 Live Oak Music Festival.

photo by joe johnston

photo by joe johnston