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Local celebs discover their inner artist

Sit in the Kenmore studio of watercolor artist Rita Argen Auerbach for an hour or so and you are sure to be swept away by the energy and enthusiasm for whatever she's cooking up at the moment.

Perhaps the series of local Wright-designed structures that she's painting. Or her plans for watercolor workshops. Or her excitement that her Buffalo architecture paintings have been chosen to hang in the American Embassy in Cape Verde.

Right now, she's hot on a celebrity painter project she began several years ago. It starts when she invites (or inveigles) a well-known local person to take a mini painting lesson with her and then donate the finished painting as an auction item.

This year's guest is Louis Ciminelli, whose company is the contractor for the much-discussed Burchfield-Penney Art Center. At their first lesson, Ciminelli was clearly uneasy: "I'm not a painter or a celebrity. I just have friends who are artists."

Auerbach ignored the protest and drew his attention to the exterior of the building: "Just look at that beautiful shadow action."

The idea of getting celebrities to paint started when Auerbach was asked to donate one of her trademark watercolors to Chautauqua Institution's Visual Arts and School. She decided there would be more cachet, and more cash, if she got a celebrity involved.

"I wanted them to to be from people you'd never expect," said Auerbach, a retired Clarence High School art teacher. "This year Ciminelli just seemed the right person to invite. He's a very shy man, very nonvisible. His name is out there, but he eludes publicity."

Ciminelli's painting will be auctioned at a Nov. 7 gala in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall. All previous paintings have been purchased by Penney.

The celebrity artist project started with former Chautauqua president, Dan Bratton, and came to include the artistic directors Jay Lesenger, opera, and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, ballet.

Later, Auerbach brought the concept to Western New York, with the Burchfield as the beneficiary. Each year for the past dozen, she's gotten a local resident to sit with her to do a watercolor. No one comes willingly to her easel.

"They all start by whining and wincing," said Auerbach. "But I assure them that I won't let them fail."

So far, she's nabbed everyone that she's asked. They include: philanthropist Charles Rand Penney; Muriel Howard, Buffalo State College president; former Shea's president Patrick Fagan; attorney William Magavern; Larry Levite, Spree publisher; author Lauren Belfer; Douglas Schultz, former director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director JoAnn Falletta; James Brandys, past president of the Burchfield board of trustees; developer Howard Zemsky; Peter Fleischmann, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies; and Stanley Kardonsky, BSC vice president for finance and management.

Though Auerbach characteristically steers away from artists, she wanted Schultz the year that he retired from the Albright. "He was the toughest," said Auerbach, "because he can draw."

Falletta, for one, is so proud of her Kleinhans' painting that she had it made into note cards. She sent one to Auerbach with this message: "You made me into an artist for a day. Thank you. Thank you. I thought I might be your first failure. You have given me one of the best adventures of my life."


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