'The Artist Colony' celebrates the mysterious Carmel women who painted outside the lines
Local Author Joanna Fitzpatrick has always written about courageous women who live life on their own terms. When she discovered that her great-aunt belonged to a community of female artists who lived and painted in Carmel in the 1920s, she found the perfect inspiration for her next novel, a murder mystery set in Carmel called The Artist Colony.
Fitzpatrick knew she wanted the novel to be a juicy whodunit. But the project became more personal when she decided to use the life of her aunt, Ada Belle Champlin, as inspiration.
“I couldn’t just write a mystery,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was too deep.”
A landscape painting by Champlin first drew Fitzpatrick to the Central Coast. It featured a small country road in Carmel lined with eucalyptus trees. The piece was hanging in Fitzpatrick’s home on the East Coast for years before it inspired her to move to Carmel Valley. That’s when she began to investigate the life of her great-aunt, which led her to a cottage in Carmel known as the Sketch Box — the same cottage where Champlin lived and painted a century ago.
The Sketch Box is where much of the action takes place in The Artist Colony. Belinda Vidor, another female artist, now lives in the space.
“She let me into her home and we became immediate friends,” Fitzpatrick said of Vidor. “I think Ada Belle’s spirit was there with us.”
The Artist Colony begins with its lead character, Sarah, traveling to Carmel after receiving the news that her sister’s body was found washed up on the beach. Was it a suicide as the authorities said? Or had she been murdered? That’s what Sarah intends to find out from the remaining group of women artists, including Rosie McCann, the warm and comforting innkeeper, and Sirena, a feisty young painter with a secretive past.
A community of women artists painting together was uncommon in the 1920s. Through the lens of Central Coast history, The Artist Colony examines the roles of women a century ago, and how the creative women of Carmel’s artist colony defied those roles.
All of Fitzpatrick’s books are about women who face difficult circumstances but manage to persevere and achieve great things. Her first novel was based on the life of modernist author Katharine Mansfield, part of the English writing scene known as ‘the Bloomsbury Group,’ which also included Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. Mansfield struggled in the 1920s, when very few women got published in a male-dominated industry.
Her next book, The Drummer’s Widow, was written as a way for Fitzpatrick to deal with her own grief and worry as her musician husband battled cancer. Fortunately, he survived his illness.
Fitzpatrick will host a book signing event at the Pacific Grove Art Center on March 13. The event will feature live 1920s-style jazz and a presentation called “Giving Voice to Monterey Artists.”
Also appearing at the event will be the painting of the Carmel Valley eucalyptus trees by Champlin — the inspiration for Fitzgerald to move to the Central Coast and write The Artist Colony.
More information about Fitzpatrick and her books can be found at https://www.joannafitzpatrick.com/.