FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Coconino Community College art student Kathy Willis is the oil painter behind the tantalizing avocados and vine-ripened tomatoes of the 2009 Palette to Palate signature piece, Guacamole Palette. This painting and other works of art from regional artists will be up for bid in a live and silent auction at CCC's largest fundraising gala event at 5:30 p.m., Friday, April 24.
For Willis, it was a big walk and a little guacamole that transformed her from a Flagstaff business woman to an award-winning artist. Her journey has taken her across coastal woodlands and high desert plains, into ornate cathedrals and through decaying cities.
Willis worked as the business manager of her family business Steves Built Homes for some 20 years. She took a year off in the '90s to explore Europe. Among other treasures, she found an interest in drawing and the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile route that has been traveled, mostly by foot, for centuries.
For her 50th birthday, Willis set off for Spain in August 2000 for a month-long hike along the Camino. During the journey, she averaged 15 miles a day, practiced her rough Spanish and stayed mostly in refugios where she could get a cot for a dollar or two a night.
"It was the most transforming experience of my life. Most of the time I walked by myself. You really get a sense of your place in the world and how you are just a part of the ongoing history."
Willis returned home to Flagstaff with her sleeping bag, raincoat, journal of writings and drawings, and photographs of images along the Camino. Her pictures of sprawling landscapes, mountainside shepherds' huts and old Spanish villages helped her retain what she calls "the Camino spirit." They also became the subjects of her first paintings.
Willis has been enrolled in drawing and painting classes at CCC since fall 2007. The 58-year-old entered an oil painting in the contest that would determine the signature piece for the college's largest annual fundraising event, Palette to Palate.
Willis offers advice for anyone who has found a passion after age 50. "You just need to go ahead and do it. Start taking classes and just keep doing it."
Palette to Palate is an evening of art, entertainment and hors d'oeuvres at the CCC Lone Tree Campus. Local chefs from restaurants such as Josephine's, Brix and The Cottage Place compete for best hors d'oeuvre, dessert and presentation. Beverages will be provided by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Flagstaff and Fred Nackard Wholesale Beverage Company.
Admission is $35; $20 for CCC and Northern Arizona University students. Tickets may be purchased at the Lone Tree Campus prior to and at the event, or online at www.coconino.edu. Proceeds benefit CCC Fine Arts students.