By Kathleen V. Poe

Suzanne Engel always knew she was artistic; she just never knew she could paint.

The retired interior designer discovered her latent talent seven years ago when she took her first lesson. She’s painted nearly every day since, in an upstairs bonus room in her Sandy Springs home that she converted into a private studio.

The walls here display more than a dozen oil paintings, primarily landscapes in earthy greens accented by the occasional red barn or yellow flower, reinterpreted from Engel’s own digital photos. Leaning against various pieces of furniture are probably twenty canvases more, but they don’t all belong to her.

As founder of the Sandy Springs-based Brushstrokes Artists group, on this particular day Engel is the point person collecting paintings to be donated for a silent auction.

Brushstrokes began life in 2001 as a handful of amateur painters getting together to talk shop. It has since evolved into a tight-knit, exclusive group of 16 members who meet every five weeks to discuss and critique each other’s works with a goal of artistic growth, both individual and communal.

Many of Brushstrokes’ members, who range in age from 35 to 68, submit their art to juried shows, and some even headline local galleries. But not one of these artists is a painter by profession. In fact, like Engel, a lot of them only started painting within the last 10 years.

Cindi Rawlins, a practicing psychotherapist and recent addition to Engel’s circle of artists, started painting in 2000 after she fell from her attic and broke her back. No longer able to work in her garden, she needed a new outlet for her creativity. Although she had never held a brush before her first class, Rawlins says that painting got into her bones quickly. Her first effort, a copy of a 17th-century Old Master still life with apples, hangs in her den. “It’s actually gorgeous,” Rawlins says. “But I was copying somebody else’s gorgeous painting.” Eventually, she segued into creating her own pictures.

Kamal El Sheshai’s artistic experience goes back somewhat further, to his teenage years in Alexandria, Egypt. The former statistics and management science professor received his first commission as a junior in high school: Upon discovering El Sheshai was a talented painter, his English teacher gave the student a photo of a still life to recreate on a canvas. El Sheshai of Dunwoody continued painting as a hobby through college, but stopped once the real world started. He picked up his paintbrushes again after retiring from Georgia State University in 2001. Two years ago, he was invited to join Brushstrokes by some friends, group members who were enrolled in the same art class.

Courses like these, offered by organizations such as the Chastain and Abernathy arts centers, Binders and the High Museum, have been a starting point and constant resource for many Brushstrokes members. These classes and their instructors provide fodder for the discussion that kicks off each meeting, amid conversations about what brand of supplies is best and planning for upcoming exhibitions and events. Once this business is taken care of, the real fun begins: critiques.

Gary Bodner, an obstetrician, joins El Sheshai as one of just three men in the group. He has been a member for four years now, and had been painting for only five years prior to that. On Sept. 14, the full-time doctor opened a two-week-long show at Bennett Street’s Anne Irwin Gallery. Because of an exclusive contract with the gallery, Bodner, of Sandy Springs, can’t display his work with Brushstrokes when the group mounts an exhibition, but he says the greatest benefits of membership arise out of the lively critique sessions that take place every other meeting, anyway. For these, each member will bring a couple of works-in-progress for the rest of the group to weigh in on.

“It’s really hysterical. There are a lot of strong opinions, and there’s a lot of back and forth and disagreements, but it’s very energizing,” Bodner says. “If you’re artistic, you can always learn from other people.”

In the spirit of continuing education, Brushstrokes brings in artists and experts to its meetings for demonstrations and seminars. Atlanta painter Robert Meredith addressed the artists last month on the topic of marketing strategies for both the group and individuals, discussing details like where and how to put together a show, how to frame paintings and how to price them to sell.

Field trips are part of the program, too, as with any educational endeavor. In the past, the group has gone to observe local artists in their studios. Next week, in lieu of the regular Brushstrokes get-together, they have arranged a paint-out on the square in Marietta. This exercise in painting en plein air – the art world’s term for out-of-doors – presents a new challenge for those who prefer to paint from photos or imagination in the comfort of their studios. Previous paint-outs have taken place at Lake Rabun, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and in Gary Bodner’s backyard.

Although you might not have heard the Brushstrokes name before, odds are good that you will see its members’ works hanging around town, from the walls of Brooklyn Café or the Sandy Springs Library this December to the showrooms of Norwalk Furniture and the Scott Antique Market. Paintings in oil and acrylic, watercolors, pastels and even collage comprise the range of media in which these artists create.

“Because we are a Sandy Springs group, anytime something artistic comes up in Sandy Springs we say, ‘How can we be involved in that?’” Rawlins says, describing the group’s philosophy on its community. “It’s very much about the identity that we’re fleshing out: that when you think art in Sandy Springs, you think Brushstrokes.”

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