Artist and Designer Donna Elias
Donna Elias was born in the early 1960's in Newark, New Jersey. The name Elias properly pronounced "ah-lee-is" is Spanish on her father's side, (her mother's heritage is Sicilian). While Donna was still in grade school, her family moved 100 miles south to the famed shore resort of Atlantic City. This move from the inner city to the beach was to shape Donna¿s life in a way her parents couldn not have imagined.
As a child, Donna enjoyed sketching and drawing things she saw in magazines and books. By age twelve, she had already made up her mind to be an artist. Donna attended Atlantic City High School and took art as an elective. Like many of her friends, she worked summer jobs on the city's famous boardwalk. One of the most unique spots on the boardwalk was Louis Artist Village, run by the village¿s eccentric namesake, Louis Levine. The Artist Village was the most well known Caricature and Portrait Studio in Atlantic City. Though she had never really drawn a caricature or portrait before, Donna wandered in one day and asked for a job. Levine, who always had an eye for talent, gave her a job. She was sixteen. Caricature drawing was fun and seemed to come naturally to Donna. She soon excelled at the tourist driven art form. The Village was alive and buzzed with excitement. Hundreds of tourists wondered in daily and Donna often worked twelve-hour days. She loved it. Her fellow artists were an eclectic mix of talented people, who encouraged Donna to further her skills and explore her abilities.
Donna left the artist village a year after graduating high school. She was considering a career as a fashion illustrator and even dreamed of becoming a Disney cartoonist. But without the financing for formal art schooling, these career choices were just out of reach. Undeterred, the young aspiring artist began schooling herself in pen and inks and later watercolors. She enjoyed drawing a variety of subjects, including dragons, wizards, fashion and architecture. Donna managed to make a little money doing odd projects and painting signs, but all the while she had to work in the real world to earn a living. Making it with her "talent" just wasn¿t happening. She took a job with a chain of jewelry stores working as a store clerk. She worked her way up to manager and eventually made district manager. Over the next few years she learned some very valuable management and business skills. Her hard work and dedication were paying off, but she still wasn¿t doing the kind of work she wanted to.
In 1988, in a bid to return to her true passion, she quite her job and once again dove into the art world. That spring Donna and opened up a small gallery in Cape May, New Jersey. Cape May is one of the most beautiful towns in New Jersey, if not America. The shore resort is at the southern most point in New Jersey, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. The town is filled with so many classically restored Victorian homes that the entire city was designated a National Historic Landmark. A true gem of a location for any aspiring or established artist. Donna opened her gallery that spring with only a hand full of assorted paintings and pen & inks to hang on the wall. She quickly got busy painting the beautiful landmarks of Cape May, along with sketches of everything from mythical dragons to teddy bears. Cape May is also where Donna discovered and painted her very first lighthouse. Until this point, she really had never given lighthouses a second thought. But the lighthouse at Cape May intrigued her. It was spectacular! Tall and majestic, beautiful and proud. Quintessentially maritime. An historic loan sentinel quietly starring out over the Atlantic. Donna did several quick pencil sketches of the light and hung them in her gallery. To her surprise and utter delight, they sold immediately. She added more renditions of the light and they too were well received. Soon her customers began requesting other beacons from all points far and wide. So Donna hit the road and visited some of New Jersey¿s other lights - first visiting Barnegat light on Long Beach Island. Having recently visited Key West, Florida, she painted this light next from photographs her husband had taken. Her lighthouse prints were a hit, but Donna quickly tired of running a retail store and closed the gallery that fall after only six months in business.
"...her lighthouses sparkle and shine like few others; her work is a tribute to the romantic symbols of our maritime heritage." Wayne Wheeler President, US Lighthouse Society
Donna and her husband put together a plan to form a business where they could combine their talents. He was a traveling salesman and frequented resort towns nationwide. She, of course, was an artist. Their plan was to travel together to resort areas where Donna would paint the local scenery; he would then peddle the work to the local merchants. Well, as it turned out, there were lighthouses in almost every coastal town they visited.
One day while driving down 95 South to Florida, Donna came up with the idea of painting lighthouses with navigational sea charts as the background. That very same day, she stopped at a boating store and picked up a bunch of navigational charts. She would use each lighthouse¿s actual regional chart for reference and as part of the design. That evening at the kitchen table, Donna painted her very first Sea Chart Light. The Sea Chart Lights were the most unique and innovative work she had done to date. Enthused, she now set her sights on creating a comprehensive series of work celebrating all of America's lighthouses and The Great American Lighthouses Collection ® was born.
"In 1988 Donna Elias painted a lighthouse... Today she is a one woman industry" United Press International.
To accomplish her work Donna had to visit dozens of lighthouses across the country. The work was fun and interesting; visiting well-known resort towns like Key West (a favorite of the artist) and remote places like Paradise, Michigan home to the Whitefish Point Lighthouse. With every lighthouse she painted, a request would come in for another one, many she hadn¿t even heard of! At the time, she had no idea there were over six hundred lighthouses in America. The more she visited them, the more she learned about them, the more she painted them...the more she grew to love lighthouses.
Donna and her company began contributing to projects involved in lighthouse preservation. She joined the US Lighthouse Society and began working with local lighthouse preservation groups wherever she could. Handing out brochures, encouraging support and contributing financially as much as she could. One day she received a letter from the US Lighthouse Society, the prestigious education and preservation group, officially endorsing her work. The Great American Lighthouse collection was a big hit and their business grew quickly. Soon stores across the country began carrying Donna¿s prints. Eventually manufacturers began approaching the artist about licensing her designs for other products such as gifts and home accents.
"Painting lighthouses is her forte...the artist is known across the country" Courier Post
In 1994, Donna was asked to do a signing at Walt Disney World in Florida. This marked a turning point in her career and a personal high water mark. Donna has always loved everything Disney and once even dreamed of being an animator there. To be connected with them in any way, was an absolute joy. Sea World of Florida began carrying Donna¿s work around that time also and asked her down to do a signing as well. She even painted a Key West Light for a new theme section of their park. Donna fell in love with Sea World and has since returned several times to the adventure Park. Donna¿s theme park work was again highlighted when Universal Studios asked her to create the official grand opening poster for their new Island of Adventure theme park in Orlando. The park icon was an ancient looking lighthouse, modeled somewhat after the first lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt. Donna attended the parks private grand opening ceremonies with the likes of Eddie Murphy and Steven Spielberg. It was a blast.
Donnas' lighthouse work continues and today she has completed an astonishing 250 paintings. While she visits many of the lights she paints, the artist also works from an extensive library, the Internet and from photographs friends and fans have sent her from around the world. To accompany her lighthouse collection, she created Heroes of the American Coast, a series of paintings celebrating the US Lifesaving Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard, and the sister service of the lighthouse service. Only a hundred or so of these historic structures survive today. The stories of the heroic lifesavers that worked these stations are fascinating. Donna hopes someday the public will become as interested in US Life-Saving Service, as they are in lighthouses. "Summer has always been my favorite time of the year.
I love taking walks along the ocean or sitting on the beach with my toes in the sand, smelling the salt air and listening to the sound of the surf before me. These are the relaxing moments I cherish most by the seaside." Donna Elias
While Donna is best known for painting lighthouses, she also delights in painting other coastal scenes. Her love and life at the seashore have inspired numerous other paintings and series of work such as her By the Seaside and Surfboats by the Seashore. More diverse then most realize, Donna's studio is filled with hundreds of sketches, prototypes and painting of everything from tropical birds to marine mammals. Some have been published, many more have not.
Donna Elias is still very much a Jersey Girl and is proud to call the Jersey Shore her home. Donna¿s private studio is located on Clam Creek in the marina district of Atlantic City. Her workshop is in a 100-year-old bay front warehouse, and her home is on the Great Egg Harbor River. No wonder she only paints in watercolors.
LCK - September 2010
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