Painter Lillian Rippa, 81, remembers long ago when the Smyrna Opera House Art Show wasn't even held at the historic theater, but at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Smyrna.

Painter Lillian Rippa, 81, remembers long ago when the Smyrna Opera House Art Show wasn't even held at the historic theater, but at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Smyrna.
That was 10 years ago, back when St. Peter's was generous enough to house the annual event from 1997-2002.
So with one foot in the past, and the other in the present, Rippa's eyes are fixed on this Friday, which will mark the 17th annual Smyrna Opera House Art Show, the 10th consecutive art show held at the theater. Featuring a variety of beautiful pieces from local and regional artists, Rippa, who paints with a Chinese freestyle technique, is as pumped for the art show as any other exhibiting artist.
"I'm excited to be here each year," beamed Rippa, of Smyrna, who's also a member of the Smyrna Opera House's art committee. "It's wonderful."
'Mr. Squirrel is Having a Staring Match'
Rippa's work is based in the realm of non-fiction, with most of her subject matter inspired by furry animals and plants.
Sure to be a crowd pleaser at the art show is her charming painting of a squirrel titled "Mr. Squirrel is Having a Staring Match". The piece features a dubious squirrel staring back at the spectator (us) while clenched to a tree.
Now squirrel illustrations aren't common in traditional Chinese artwork, which typically includes themes of bamboo and flowers. But Rippa likes to inject her own themes into her pieces, she said.
Another subject in her visuals is the lotus flower — a staple in Asian artwork.
"The lotus is a beautiful, beautiful plant. It's revered because it comes from the muddy waters," said Rippa, adding the lotus is similar to the optimistic symbolism of the phoenix rising from the ashes.
While art gives painters license to design a world inhabited by unicorns and other majestic creatures, Rippa discussed why chooses to stray from constructing such whimsical visuals.
"As a person with reading novels, I'll read them occasionally, but I'm drawn to non-fiction and I like to learn about real people and what they do with their lives," she explained. "I'm reading the history behind them and I find that really interesting. That might be why [I don't paint enchanting pieces]."
American gal, Asian influence
Back in the early 1980s while living in Virginia, Rippa ditched her Western way of painting for a Chinese style she adopted from her late friend and mentor I-Hsuing Ju, a teacher at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
A "master" at Chinese freestyle painting, Rippa says Ju taught her to become more meticulous with her craft, which included mixing her colors beforehand and developing a clear and concise idea of how she would construct a piece.
With Chinese freestyle painting utilizing Chinese ink blocks (blocks of ink that creates noticeably smoother textures when mixed with water and applied to paper or canvas than Western ink) it's imperative artists know what they're going to paint before the brush hits the paper, or canvas, because the ink can't be erased or corrected with layered brushstrokes, since the piece will become muddled.
Another staple of freestyle is applying firm brushstrokes. At about 4-foot-10-inches, the mighty Rippa proudly admitted she paints with great fervor like her mentor advised.
"He always told me if you don't have the conviction or the strength behind your stroke, it's going to look weak. And it's true. It looks wiggly," she said.
Ju admired the way Rippa painted with such passion.
"Professor Ju wrote some inscription on one of my scrolls and he said, 'She paints like a man,' because I'm strong," she quipped.
Deeper than art
Rippa feels at home when at the Smyrna Opera House, which she attributes to her late husband, Len, who helped to raise millions to restore the theater for its grand opening in 2003.
"He helped raised $3.6 million to have this place restored and to have an annex built. He was instrumental in that," said David Keller, executive director of the Smyrna Opera House.
Keller said Len operated as a key player in a fundraising committee for the Smyrna Opera House that was under the auspices of the Smyrna Clayton Heritage Association.
"He worked tirelessly on getting grants and money," Rippa recalled. "It was marvelous."
Without hesitation, Keller explained, "If it wasn't for Len, the opera house wouldn't be what it is today."
WHAT 17th annual Smyrna Opera House Art Show's opening reception
WHEN 6-8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9; the exhibit runs through Dec. 16. Gallery hours are: 10-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday
WHERE Smyrna Opera House, 7 W. South St., Smyrna
INFO or 653-4236