Capturing Bethany

The history of Bethany Beach’s topographical transformation — from sand erosion to housing explosions — may have yet to be written; however, it already has been rendered. Local artist Laura Hickman has been transposing the metamorphosis onto paper for decades.
Coastal Point • JOSH MILLER: Laura Hickman with one of her paintings that exemplifies her ability to capture the region in art.Coastal Point • JOSH MILLER:
Laura Hickman with one of her paintings that exemplifies her ability to capture the region in art.

“Since I’ve been working in Bethany Beach, I have been documenting the town and how it changes around me,” Hickman said. “If you look at some of the artwork I’m doing now, it’s not like the work I did 10 years ago. The streets of Bethany are a lot different.”

When the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce hosts the 27th annual Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival on Saturday, Sept. 10 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Hickman’s variegated townscapes will again be a leading attraction.

“Our local artists are really the backbone of the community,” said Amy Tingle, the events coordinator for the chamber. “They donate a lot of their time and artwork.”

In a town where almost nothing endures but change, the pastelist’s participation in the festival has been as regular as clockwork. Having grown up on Fifth Street in Bethany Beach, Hickman offered her oeuvres to the first arts fair in 1979.

“My mother was always involved with the chamber and was its president back then,” Hickman said. “That was about the time that the chamber was starting to branch out with public events and fundraisers.”

The chamber has since aggrandized its festival, according to Hickman, adding to the applicant pool and to the aesthetic quality — vendors now face juror scrutiny, unlike in the nascent days, and come from as far away as Vermont and Florida.

Corresponding with the showcase’s maturation, Hickman’s scope also has evolved significantly.

“Ever since I have been going to the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts show, I’ve grown to know the people that have the houses here and that rent here. It’s the one chance each year to touch base with everyone,” Hickman said. “And year after year people come back and say it’s nice to see how the artists grow or change with time.”

Hickman particularly enjoys regaling admirers of her art with stories of her latest overseas odysseys. Aside from her hometown surroundings, the painter’s annual sojourns abroad have inspired a large portion of her output since she visited Rome as an undergraduate at Hood College in Frederick, Md. (Hickman subsequently earned a BFA and an MFA from the University of Delaware). In the past year, Hickman has traveled to Lake Como and the Italian Riviera in Italy and Provence in France.

“They’re very different, they’re not flat, they’re hilly,” she said, comparing the Mediterranean countries to Bethany Beach. “But my subject matter is still the light and my experience.”

Due to the large scale of her images, Hickman prefers to work from photographs in a studio rather than setting up shop on-site.

“I’ll take a lot of cameras, a lot of film and try to take as many pictures as I can,” she said.

After developing the snapshots, Hickman then recreates the scenes by slowly building harlequin coats on black paper.

“The more layers I put on with my pastels, the more details I put in,” she said. “I think they turn out a little romanticized but not too far from the original.”

While Europe’s architecture is timeless, Hickman said, Bethany Beach’s landscape of yesteryear is evanescing. Her collection of paintings and photographs has therefore become a virtual scrapbook of the region — with side views of its alleyways, backyards, beaches and “disappearing farms.”

“You start to notice every little change that happens and feel nostalgic for your childhood,” she said. “I know I have to accept change and we all have to accept change, but I feel sad when something suddenly disappears.”

Lori Grasing, manager of administration for the Rehoboth Arts League, the oldest association of its kind in Sussex County, noticed Hickman’s subtle annalistic tendencies in a seascape — depicting a surfeit of kayaks — which the artist displayed during the organization’s outdoor show in August.

“Fifteen years ago you would not have seen a bunch of kayaks. It reflects the changing area,” Grasing said. “I would think that anyone who does the type of core work that [Hickman] does, does end up documenting.”

With little turnaround time between the Rehoboth and Bethany Beach shows, Hickman is working sedulously to generate some new pieces. Hickman likes to present her complete portfolio at the Boardwalk Arts Festival, she said, because she can sell her samples unframed and pass the savings to purchasers. The reduced prices — prints for $75, limited-edition prints for $290 and originals for $1,200 to $2,200 — generally elicit warm responses from patrons, she said.

“If you have a successful show it makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you are doing what you should be doing,” she said. “And the chamber has done a lot for me. They promote the artists who are in there.”

To give back to the festival’s sponsoring organization, Hickman painted a pro bono mural — of the state park north of the Indian River inlet — then scanned and printed it on a five-by-six-foot patch of ceramic tiles in the chamber’s new conference room. The original, meanwhile, was auctioned off as part of the chamber’s Capital Campaign, and the money went to fund building expansion.

“I’ve been a member of the chamber for years and I don’t really have the cash money to give them, but I do always try to give back to the community,” Hickman said. “It’s an honor for me to have my image up there on the wall.”

And perhaps no honor is so suitable as the memorialization of an opus for a woman dedicated to eternalizing the scenery of Delaware’s shores.