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Two Orange County artists let their works guide them

Artist Dona Croughen pulls up to within a couple inches of a canvas, surveys the details she has added and continues to paint using the composition in her mind's eye. Croughen is a naturalist who creates organic paintings that often sing lyrically, even if the song is a primal yelp. Her paintings range from pure abstract expressionism, as seen in "Cosmic Copper," to the colorful landscape expressionism seen in "Jellyfish Mushrooms," to the graphic art in works like "Doggie," a retro pooch icon. The startled look of excitement on Doggie's face is funny, and derived from a steady hand and Croughen's super-close inspection of the canvas.

Even though the latest neo-expressionist movement came and went in the1980s, Croughen's persistence has yielded an edgy style of her own. Her artistic voice is best realized in theme-based expressionism. There is magic in the way the colors move in "Jellyfish Mushrooms." Croughen creates depth not with perspective, but in the way our eyes pick up different colors. The orange "rain" on the right side of the painting is a bold fling made late in the process, adding staccato and turning a moody landscape into a powerful statement of color.

An artist has to have faith to loosely throw orange on a green and blue landscape, but for Croughen, who is legally blind, instinct is a large part of her work. "I have no idea if I would paint differently if I could see better," she says. "I've been painting 12 years, and I'm still fascinated by the way nature springs forth. Whether it's clouds or mushrooms, I absorb it, and out the art comes."

An artist in the recent Orange County Artists Guild Studio Tour, Croughen has a long and memorable history with the event. "I have been on the Open Studio Tour since I was 25," Croughen says. "I was the youngest artist juried into the tour at the time, and it has been a great nine years so far."

Like many artists, Croughen struggles with the difficulties of making art and marketing art. And though she is not able to drive, she is a resourceful marketer, using pamphlets, a Web site and Ebay to get her work "out there."

"My art, as for any artist, is so intensely personal that I find it difficult at times to be the person responsible for marketing it," she says. "I am much happier in my studio engrossed in some new obsession that results in a series of paintings." And when painting gets tedious, Croughen has her Ebay fan base to create for. "Since Ebay folks like low prices, I started to make boutique items from my more graphic paintings," she says.

Other than T-shirts with her Doggie character on them, Croughen's best boutique items are her ornamental concrete table sculptures. These works use spring-curled copper tubing that holds crafted concrete, studded with found objects. The results are lidded, beehive-shaped urns inspired by popular alien icons.

"The concrete dries really fast, so I have to cram things in quickly. I get all the components lined up, and work fast," she says.

Fellow Studio Tour artist Warren Anthony Hicks is also a hot ticket in the Triangle art scene. Hicks' widening fan base bought all but one of his works during the OCAG Studio Tour. "I was stunned really," Hicks says. "I'm not over it yet."

Perhaps Hicks' shock came from the fact that he's only been in the area a little over two years, or that he's only been painting for two years. Or maybe it has something to do with what pushed Hicks to paint in the first place.

"In late 2001, I had a panic attack and did not know what I was going to do with my life," he says. "So I bought a watercolor set. Once I started painting, life made sense. When I didn't get accepted into a painting class at UNC-Chapel Hill, I taught myself. I sold my drum set and gave away the rest of my music equipment so I wouldn't have any distractions."

The 38-year-old self-taught painter has proven to be adaptable in many ways. After studying architectural design, Hicks worked in the music industry for 12 years, then taught himself computer graphics. A former record store clerk, he worked his way up in the industry, later becoming the founder of a company that published music biographies, with over 1,200 distribution titles. "I got a great CD collection out of those years, but [I] still wasn't satisfied," he says.

In July 2004, Hicks' work went public when he was commissioned to design the poster for the Cary Lazy Daze Arts & Crafts Festival. The poster and original art were big sellers, and Hicks landed exhibits in local gallery spaces, including Helios, Port City Java and the Red Hat headquarters. His work was also included in the Implements and Silhouettes exhibit at Carrboro's Bleecker Street Gallery.

Hicks likes to call his style of art, which uses textured graphics and warm palletes, "surreal geometric abstraction." "I use an undercoat of four or five layers of acrylic that are made up of 15 to 20 colors brushed on with a brush that I cut up to make the layers more random," he says. "I place my design over this and scrape off the top layer of oil to bring the multicolored undercoat back up."

Hicks is determined to make art in his way, but he is also stimulated by critiques. When he applied to exhibit at a 2003 show at Glance Gallery, he was told by Jason Craighed that a painting lacked depth. "He was right," Hicks says. "The painting he was looking at really was flat." This compelled Hicks to start to "float" his triangles and spheres in a three-dimensional way, and think about lighting and shading as well.

Both new approaches show up in "Spectator Tots Catch Up," where well-lit spheres bounce at different heights above slabs of differing depths. There is more depth in "Aurora Borealis in Wonderland" too, where the broken edges of the inverted pyramid add enough 3-D to keep your eyes moving across the canvas.

"I'm happy people like my art," Hicks says, smiling. "I don't know whether I am breaking any rules, because I never learned the rules."

To view the works of Dona Croughen and Warren Hicks from the November OCAG Studio Tour, visit . The artists' works can also be viewed by appointment, or on their Web sites. E-mail Hicks at , call 967-3921 or visit . Contact Croughen at e-mail , phone 933-4477 or visit

  • Two Orange County artists let their works guide them

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