Canvassing Delaware's Coast

Three well-known female artists find inspiration for their creations at Sussex County beaches.


Our 26 miles of Atlantic coastline now boasts more than 30 art galleries and six art leagues. When the summer beach visitors go back home each year, many take with them artwork inspired by the beauty of the area. Much of that work is created by women. Three of them—Ellen Rice, Denise Dumont and Laura Hickman—speak about their work and inspiration.


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Ellen Rice has lived up and down the Delaware coast, and has been painting the beach area since 1962. she sold
her first painting to a fellow art student in 1963. She settled in Ocean View in 1993. //Photo by Leslie Barbaro 


Ellen Rice

Storms of Life

Less than a mile down the road from Gallery One, you’ll find the Ellen Rice Gallery at 111 Atlantic Ave., a white building with red trim and shutters, the corner door propped open in fair weather. The gallery represents more than 100 local and regional artisans, including Rice herself.

Rice has lived up and down the Delaware coast, and has been painting the beach area since 1962. She sold her first painting to a fellow art student in 1963. She settled in Ocean View in 1993.

Before moving to Ocean View, Rice was an award-winning journalist, photographer and illustrator who was coming to the end of a 28-year marriage. “I stayed all those years and finally got very ill,” she says. “I was dying my way out of the marriage.”

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So Rice decided to set her mind on something positive. All her life, she’d heard stories about shipwrecks along the Delaware coast, but was unable to find a map of those wrecks. So she made the map. She called it “Treasure Beaches of the Mid-Atlantic.” When Rice and her treasure map were profiled in The News Journal, the story was immediately sent out on the Gannett news wire. Almost overnight, it created a demand Rice couldn’t keep up with.

Sales from the map provided Rice with enough income to escape the marriage, but troubles continued to mount.

“I can’t fix this,” she prayed one night. “You’ve got to help me, God.”

During these “storms” in her life, a vision came to Rice in a dream: She was hanging from a cliff, and then she let go. When she awoke she saw a woman, standing resolute upon a rock looking out toward a stormy ocean. The idea stayed in her head for a year, until a visit to her sister’s church in California, when she shared the vision with a pastor. “You’ve got to paint that,” Rice recalls the pastor saying.

Painting her vision took four years and resulted in her immensely popular work, “Standing on the Rock,” which is the first in a series of paintings called “Strength of Women.” The painting depicts a woman, standing alone, her back to the viewer, looking out upon rough seas. The woman’s clothes are torn and tattered, her fists clenched. For Rice, “This is the most meaningful work I’ve done.”

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“What people see is usually a reflection of where they are in their life,” Rice says of “Standing on the Rock.” “The women really get it. Some are going through things and can’t look at it. More get strength from it. I had one woman handwrite a seven-page letter to me and said that painting helped her get through cancer, divorce, all manner of different, extremely difficult problems.”

Rice doesn’t think of herself as a beachy artist painting beachy scenes, though she is known for her luminescent seascapes. “I’ve never painted Dolles,” she says. “There’s a zillion paintings of Dolles out there.”

Rice doesn’t want to do what everyone else is doing, and that’s her advice to aspiring artists: Be yourself.

“I tell everyone who wants to be successful at their art to be true to yourself, paint what is in your own heart,” she says. “That’s what will resonate with people. And so what I do is I just stay true to myself.”

Living in Lewes, around coastline, marshland, forest and more, Denise Dumont has found no shortage of natural
landscapes to inspire her, such as the point at Cape Henlopen. //Photo by Leslie Barbaro


Denise Dumont

Poetry of Nature

For the first time in 25 years, Denise Dumont doesn’t have a gallery in Delaware to display her work, but that hardly seems to matter for this award-winning artist whose works of are on display in galleries across the region.

Dumont is primarily a landscape painter. She works outside in the plein air tradition, which means she carries her gear pretty much wherever she goes. When she finds a landscape that inspires her, she sets up her easel, readies her brushes and oils, and in a flurry of quick brush strokes the landscape comes into view on the canvas.

Dumont grew up on Long Island and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Parsons School of Design in New York City. She began her career as an illustrator before pursuing a career in finance.

“If you would have told me in art school that [finance] would be my career, I would not have believed you,” says Dumont. But even in the hustle and bustle of the New York City finance industry, Dumont still found time to be an artist. “I spent quite a while doing art on the side, or for myself, growing into the painter I had wanted to be.”

Then, in 2004, after 20 years in the private sector, a trip to Lewes Beach changed all that. Dumont stumbled into Preservation Forge, where blacksmith Jon Ellsworth has been working since 1984.

“A friend had mentioned that Jon had a spot above his blacksmith shop. So I wandered back to find him, and naively asked if there was a possibility of entering the spot upstairs, and he said sure thing,” she says. “Upstairs he had a little garret studio that was just perfect.

“I had just come from living in a really urban environment for many years, and the idea of coming down here and having my little shop in a town such as Lewes was so attractive,” she says.

Coming from the urban environment of New York City, living in Lewes, around coastline, marshland, forest and more, Dumont found no shortage of natural landscapes to inspire her. But, as Dumont says, the word “inspiration” can be misleading.

“It’s not something you necessarily think about consciously,” she says. “I think the first order of business for me is to embark on projects that I feel comfortable with and that I enjoy. So the landscapes that I paint are places I enjoy being in and that visually work for me.

“What I usually look for is shapes that are engaging. I’m looking to find a little poetry in a scene, shapes and colors that are engaging, for the image to speak to me and therefore the painting to speak to the viewer.”

One work that evokes this “poetry” is “Dune Grass,” which Dumont painted at Cape Henlopen State Park.

“The park continues to be a never-ending source of inspiration,” says Dumont. “In this piece I particularly enjoyed the shapes and patterns of the dunes and foliage and the shadows of the grasses in the foreground, which seem to dance in the wind and take on a life of their own.”

Laura Hickman is a native of Sussex County, and she’s been making and selling art in southern Delaware for more
than 30 years. //Photo by Leslie Barbaro


Laura Hickman

Chasing the Light

You can’t miss Gallery One at 32 Atlantic Ave. in Ocean View. About two miles inland from Bethany Beach, the red aluminum siding is clearly visible from the road. The gallery is a cooperative of 14 local artists, including award-winning artist Laura Hickman.

Hickman is a native of Sussex County, and she’s been making and selling art in southern Delaware for more than 30 years.

“I grew up living on the ocean,” she says. “Growing up with a room that faced the ocean, and seeing the sun come up every day and make its way across the sky from east to west, I just became used to the light and the way that the view of the sun was unhindered from any tall buildings or major forests and trees.”

Hickman earned a bachelor of fine arts from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, then a master of fine arts from the University of Delaware. For the next few years, Hickman taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. But Delaware called her back in the late 1980s. After a few more years of working odd jobs around the beaches, she’d had enough. She’s been a working artist ever since.

“I decided that the only thing I really wanted to do was just concentrate on my artwork, and so, one summer, I wanted to see what would happen if I just spent all my time working on artwork. I developed a few contacts with places where I could show my artwork and see if they would sell, and they started selling, and it just kept getting better. And I realized I could do this. I never had to stop and get a so-called real job to supplement this. I don’t think I’d rather do anything else.”

Despite growing up on the beach, Hickman is not what you would call a beachy artist.

“I don’t spend time drawing beach scenes,” she says. Rather, Hickman is inspired by light, specifically the way sunlight hits buildings, alleyways and other everyday scenes in neighborhoods and side streets up and down the coast.

“I’ll visit at different times of the day and different times of the year, because there are certain lighting conditions that change all the time,” says Hickman. “The lighting is always different.”

That light, Hickman says, brings out the bright colors of local architecture, which she captures using vivid pastels on dark-surface papers. “The dark paper contrasts with the light to make things appear as they are—brilliantly lit by the sun as it comes off the ocean, bounces off the water and off the sand, and is really intense.”

In “Coleman Avenue,” for example, Hickman depicts an early morning scene in Lewes. The sun is low, and long shadows crawl like vines up the side of a bright yellow beach cottage. For just a few minutes that morning, the light was perfect.

To capture these ephemeral moments, Hickman relies on a camera. “With these photographs, I’ll come back to my studio, look at them and decide which images might work well together. Then I’ll start drawing them out. I’ll start blocking them out in big shapes and then going over them layer after layer until I get the kind of lighting that I’m looking for.”


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