”Yellow Beauties,” Adriana Scassellati
Taking pleasure in translating the wildness
It is only toward the end of Adriana Scassellati’s story that her origins emerge, like wildflowers after a spring rain. After all the business of living, working, doing what had to be done, and having fun, what suddenly reappears is Holland—the country she had left behind at age 15 to settle in the Chicago suburbs with her family. Thereafter, Adriana was pure Americana.
She raised kids, worked hard, lost her husband to a motorcycle accident when she was 32, and worked even harder to support two young children alone. It was 25 years before she found the time to marry again. Now, in retirement, Scassellati is painting pastel landscapes that practically fly off the walls into the hands of admirers. At the last Placitas Open Studio Tour, she sold so many that it made her head spin—and left the walls of her house bare.
“When I sold my first painting, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Then I had to do the tax thing,” she rolls her eyes. Indeed, she sells so much now that the hobby has become a side business, joining a long list of preoccupations—golf, skiing, tennis, dance, hiking—of which painting is only one.
Yet something about the paintings seems to speak to people immediately: a sense of both serenity and movement, peacefulness, and order that harkens uncannily to the golden age of Flemish landscape painting. Adriana’s lively, casual demeanor belies her age and hints not at all of the Old World. But it’s there in the paintings.
Always active, Adriana initially turned to sports as an emotional outlet after her husband died. She was the state racquetball champion in her division at age 35 after only a few years on the team. “That took all the frustrations out of me,” she confesses.
During the days, she would “work my fanny off” as a hairstylist, setting up business at home so she could watch the kids, six and nine years old when they lost their father. “I was busy!” she recalls. Between housework, her business, and sports, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the timing was finally right to marry again. Rudy Scassellati’s kids were also grown, and hers had moved to Colorado by then.
Adriana and Rudy came to New Mexico for a convention of woodworkers, since he was president of the trade group. They were playing tennis, she remembers, and still wearing their tennis whites when they decided to let a real estate agent show them around. Not only did that agent become a friend and eventually sell them land at the Sundance Mesa development, she was also the catalyst to Adriana’s newest passion.
“Through the real estate gal, I met another gal, and we went to an art show together. Deborah Secor had a booth and was doing pastels. My friend said, ‘We should do that,’ and I said, ‘Are you crazy? I can’t even draw!’”
But the two friends took a class with Secor, who has a contingent of master students, like Scassellati, who have been with her a decade or more. Scassellati learned techniques she often uses in her work, such as painting first with watercolor covered with clear gesso under pastels. A professed workshop junkie, Scassellati has also studied with Sue Buck, Doug Dawson, Frank Federico, and Susan Ogilvie.
“I like pastels because it’s forgiving,” she notes. “If you make a mistake, you can rub it out. And it’s working with shapes”—familiar ground from her decades as a hairstylist. In fact, she sometimes paints with her reference photo upside down.
But the main reason that painting has had lasting appeal for Scassellati is that she, like many a transplant from the East, became enchanted by her surroundings. She took up hiking when her son and daughter moved to Colorado, and at home, she hikes with the Happy Hoofers. She always brings along a camera to record special moments, such as the immense shifting skies of the West that translate uncannily in her paintings to their moody counterparts in Dutch oil painting.
Popular as it has proved, painting is not going to take over Scassellati’s life. She doesn’t want to let go of yoga, gardening, golf—all the things that make her a modern American retiree with the energy of a woman ten years younger. Painting does, however, seem to help connect current passions to the past.
When her family emigrated to Illinois from Amsterdam, Adriana spoke no English and struggled at school, while her family lived in a trailer for several years until her parents’ bakery was established, she told Los Jardineros de Placitas for their Web page. Back in Holland, they didn’t even have a television, but as a suburban mother in the Midwest, she was glued to Dallas every Friday night along with the rest of the nation.
Now that she lives in a large, custom-built house with a wide circle of friends and hardly the trace of a European accent, Scassellati—who used to be known as Adé—takes pleasure in translating the wildness of the American West to dreamy worlds self-contained within their frames: a tradition centuries old, illuminated by the experience of everything new.