The friendship of three artists who enjoyed painting outdoors together was in danger of falling apart when two of the friends moved away.
"I felt like I was losing two of my friends at once," said Floy Zittin, of Cupertino, Calif.
But even though Elaine Frenett moved to Jacksonville and Jean Warren relocated to Bodega Bay, Calif., the three artists managed to keep their friendship alive by trading sketchbook pages — and eventually whole paintings — through the mail.
"It started as a way to keep in touch since we're all visual artists," Zittin said.
The collaborative results of their friendship are on display this month in the "Traveling Conversations" exhibit at Illahe Gallery and Studio, 215 Fourth St., Ashland.
Whenever the sketchbook arrived in the mail, the recipient would create a new painting on a blank page, then send it off again to the next person. Eventually they began working jointly on full-size paintings, sending those through the mail in an architect's drawing tube.
Two walls at Illahe Gallery feature sketchbook paintings with subjects that include orange California poppies, an owl flying over a starlit farm, abstract cubes, blossoms and country landscapes.
The women took on a range of subjects in their full-size paintings, such as seals frolicking in the ocean and people enjoying a roller coaster ride.
Melding their painting styles and interests was sometimes a challenge, since Warren enjoys abstract, colorful work, while Zittin favors realistic scenes with muted colors. Falling in-between, Frenett leans toward colorful realism.
In a painting of seals titled "Marine Merriment," Frenett painted sardines, but the other two women didn't notice the tiny fish and painted over them.
"I put in sardines, but when I got the painting back, the sardines were gone," Frenett said.
Zittin said she sometimes didn't agree with the choices her friends made in adding to a painting.
"Sometimes I would get it back and think, 'What was she thinking? She ruined it!'" she said.
But Zittin wasn't above throwing curve balls when it was her turn on a painting. In one landscape painting of a stream, she added a whimsical snorkeling bear, and in another nature scene, she planted a prominent pink flamingo lawn ornament.
Still, the women said it was always exciting to receive the sketchbook or take a turn on a joint painting. They are continuing their artistic partnership.
"When I get it in the mail, it's like Christmas. This has taught me to experiment in ways I might not do otherwise," Frenett said. "It's a teaching method."
Warren said in the beginning, the sketchbook trading was a way for her and Frenett to explore their new homes and the changes in their lives while keeping in touch with Zittin, who had remained.
"Now it's about exploring meaning in our lives and work," Warren said.
The joint paintings and prints of the sketchbook pages — which are complete works of art in themselves — are for sale at Illahe Gallery.
For the artistically inclined who want to join in the sketchbook adventure, the gallery is also selling sketchbooks for $26 each that feature small images from the women's sketchbook series printed on otherwise blank sheets of watercolor paper. The images can serve as painting exercise suggestions, or jumping off points into completely new territory.
For more information about the exhibit, call Illahe Gallery at 541-488-5072 or visit http://illahegallery.com/.