Since her first foray into painting using a kid's watercolor set, Alice Webb has come a long way.
Growing up in Annapolis in the 1950s and 1960s, she did needlework and crafted get-well cards for hospital patients at her mother's bidding. But she was never exposed to the fine arts, which weren't a focus of the nuns at St. Mary's Parish, where she attended Catholic school.
It wasn't until she had two sons of her own that the Ellicott City resident of 37 years stumbled upon a life-changing aptitude for art when a teacher asked whether she could draw well enough to create a poster for a school fundraiser. Before that random request, Webb had no idea she had an artist's eye, she said.
That was more than 40 years, and many exhibits, ago.
But it was another chance encounter later in life that helped cement Webb's staying power as an artist: She was commissioned by The Sun to paint scenes from five Baltimore-area counties for the covers of a series of hometown guides, which turned out to be highly collectible, she said.
These two-dozen watercolor paintings, created between 2002 and 2007, make up a new exhibit called "Around the Beltway with The Baltimore Sun," which opened Thursday at Howard Community College in Columbia.
"It was an adventure getting to know the different counties as three-fourths of the paintings were done of places I'd never seen before," said the artist, now 66.
She drew stares as she traipsed around her hometown of Annapolis to snap photographs of the State House or the Thomas Point Lighthouse. Toting her Canon single-lens reflex camera to do the same thing in her adopted home of Howard County at the Columbia lakefront and Clark's Elioak Farm, among other locales, was also gratifying due to her sentimental feelings for the settings, she said.
"People would often stop me and ask what I was doing, and I'd tell them, 'I work for The Sun,'" she said with a chuckle. "It was a lot of fun."
After agreeing on a photo with Dave Rosenthal, The Sun's regional editor in charge of county bureaus at the time, she would paint the cover from the selected shot, taking two to three days for each one.
The publications were meant to be comprehensive guides to community life, including arts, recreation, culture and events in each locality, explained Rosenthal, who now serves as a Sun metro editor.
"Alice was a perfect choice for handling the cover art," he said. "She has a great eye, as you can see by the scenes she chose. Each one provided a lively, colorful cover that made readers want to pick up the guides — and keep them around the house."
The exhibit, mounted in the Art Department Gallery down the hall from the main lobby of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, comprises the 11-by-12.5-inch original watercolor paintings and the accompanying newspaper guides reproduced in miniature.
Rebecca Bafford, director of HCC galleries, said she's known Webb for 20 years and has seen her work "evolve and get stronger."
"What's so cool about this exhibit is the partnership Alice cultivated with The Sun, and the way her art brought communities together," Bafford said. "I thought it was a perfect idea for the gallery."
The artwork, which Webb describes as realistic Impressionism, serves as a tour of many famous landmarks in the Baltimore suburbs in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.
In Howard, she also painted historic Main Street; the Belmont Mansion, located in Elkridge; and Doughoregan Manor, the home of founding father Charles Carroll, located in Ellicott City.
Other regional landmarks include Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, the Towson courthouse and Main Street in Westminster.
The artist had been a pre-med student at theUniversity of Maryland, College Park, from 1963 to 1965 but quit school to marry a fellow student, Glen Webb.
After surprising herself with the quality of that school poster, which was used for a decade, Webb knew immediately what her next step would be.
"It just struck me that I ought to develop my talent, so I went back to college," she said. Webb graduated from UMBC in 1981 with a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design. She was 35 at the time.
After graduating, Webb worked at a design firm and later taught art to seniors at nursing homes. But by the early 1990s, she had decided to give private lessons in watercolor painting from her home. She has 37 students ages 40 to 80, some of whom have been with her for 10 to 15 years.
She has won 11 major exhibition awards and taken part in dozens of group shows and juried exhibitions. She belongs to the Howard County Arts Council and five watercolor societies.
Liz Bobo, a state delegate representing Columbia, gave a Webb watercolor as a wedding gift to her husband of 19 years, Lloyd Knowles. He had given Bobo other paintings by Webb before they married.
"One of my very favorite pieces is a 26-by-36-inch painting of a stack of four galvanized wash tubs," Bobo said. "I can feel the texture of those tubs in my fingertips when I look at the painting, and it's just magnificent.
"Lloyd and I have work from 45 Howard County artists in our home, so we've decided we must agree before adding more pieces, and we always agree on buying Alice's work."
Jean Aziz, a Columbia resident who has taken lessons from Webb for 15 years and owns some of her instructor's paintings, calls the classroom atmosphere "wonderfully supportive" and "like a family."
It's so enjoyable, Aziz said, that she even drops by to sip tea and chat with her fellow students on days when she doesn't feeling like painting.
"Sometimes you need to go there to talk and listen," she said. "Alice has this wonderful ability to help everyone find and define their artistic talent. Her own work is full of wonderful light and soul."
Aside from giving lessons, Webb keeps busy these days by helping to operate her husband's farm stand in front of their Centennial Lane home and making original etchings on a press in her basement studio.
"I tell Glen I'm never retiring and never moving away from here," she said, smiling but dead-serious. And luckily, he's not interested in retiring, either, she said.
"One of my sons said, 'Mom, you're famous!' when I told him about the exhibit. But my goal has never been fame; I just love what I do."
"Around the Beltway with The Baltimore Sun" is on display through Sept. 23 at the Art Department Gallery of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College in Columbia.