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Almost a year after devastating flood, artists flock to Ellicott City to paint outdoors

Mike Kotarba stepped back from his easel and squinted, then dipped his brush in vibrant watercolors and painted the scene in front of him.

He saw young families peering into the yellow storefront of a toy shop advertising a big sale as they strolled along Main Street in Ellicott City on Sunday.

Behind Kotarba, a building with "Coming Soon" signs plastered across shrouded windows stood as a reminder of the devastation the city faced almost a year ago.

Nearly 12 months after a flash flood ravaged historic Ellicott City, destroying businesses and killing two people, dozens of artists set up along Main Street to paint the town. The Howard County Arts Council holds the three-day Paint It! Ellicott City, a "plein air" outdoor painting event, annually.

This year, some artists said, felt special.

"It's remarkable to see the recovery," said Kotarba, 64, of Baltimore. "There's the same energy here."

The building behind Kotarba formerly housed the Sweet Elizabeth Jane clothing boutique — but the flood sent a gigantic tree trunk through the front window, knocked out walls and washed away almost everything inside. A women's gym, Miss Fit, will move in soon.

Other reminders of the flood could be seen throughout the city. Bob Jones, 87, set up on the sidewalk outside Howard County Welcome Center. Half of his easel sat on a historic brick sidewalk, while the other half rested on regular asphalt — the red bricks having washed away.

But many participants said that overall, Ellicott City felt like the same town they remember painting in before the flood. Live music played and tourists weaved in and out of the shops. Artists and their easels were peppered throughout the city's historic district.

"It's nice to see Ellicott City coming back," said artist Lissa Abrams. "It's really amazing, the work they've done in such a short time."

Last year, Paint It! took place just weeks before the July 30 flood. Some of the artwork created during the event was sold to raise money for affected artists, generating more than $10,000 for the Re-CREATE Ellicott City Artist Relief Fund.

The fund, which raised more than $40,000, was created to help artists and nonprofits affected by the flood.

This year, more artists participated than before in Paint It!'s seven-year history. Thirty artists took part in the juried competition, and at least 39 people came just to paint for fun, said the arts council's gallery and programs assistant Katie Wofford.

The juried artwork will be displayed in the Howard County Center for the Arts through Aug. 11. A reception will be held Monday night, and about $3,500 in prize money will be handed out.

More than 60 artists participated in the "quick draw competition," in which they had two hours to create a piece. The contest drew the largest crowd since the Mat About You gallery began running it three years ago.

Gallery owner Charles Gruss said he isn't surprised the town was able to host such a large Paint It! event just a year after the flood.

"I know this community, and it's a very, very strong community," he said. "It's been touching to see how they've responded to what happened — the arts community, included."

Cora Pahucki traveled four and a half hours from New York to come to the plein air event with her mother, Chrissy. The pair came two years ago, and 12-year-old Cora said she loved it.

This year, Cora decided to paint the building that once held Johnny's Bistro on Main. She ate there the last time she visited Ellicott City and thought it was delicious.

Johnny's was one of the businesses that decided not to return to Ellicott City after the flood.

Cora is "kinda sad" about that, she said, but even so, the city "looks pretty good. They did a really good job fixing it."

trichman@baltsun.com

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