It began when Shahla Dorafshan stretched her arm to make the first stroke of the brush, thick and black on the pristine paper. She wasn’t looking at her mark on the 4-foot-by-4-foot craft paper taped onto a canvas. Instead, she was looking at the subject of the painting standing behind her: Sam Hodgson, the photographer who was there to take pictures of her.

As she stared at Hodgson, Richard Messenger slid in beside her, emphasizing her line with soft, dark pastel. Ellen Dieter drew a big circle in the middle of the portrait.

“It’s got a big camera lens in the middle,” Dieter said.

“I like that,” Messenger said.

Dorafshan protested: “You’re not doing his face.”

“No, I see a camera,” Dieter said.

The collaborative painting session would end when two of the three agreed the piece was done. Hodgson and I were there to document their process. But the story changed when they decided to focus on us as the subject of the paintings.

“The goal for the three of us is that one artist emerges in the piece,” Messenger said. “And I think it’s an incredible feat.”

The trio, called ERS Collaborations, started working together in 2008. Over the next year, the three of them painted 14 portraits of local arts leaders on watercolor paper, or brown craft paper similar to what they were painting Hodgson’s portrait on.

Their longest-running series has focused on painting San Diego County artists. Two of the collaborative paintings have been chosen by a juror to hang in shows at the Museum of the Living Artist.

They typically paint on Monday afternoons at Dieter’s home, where the concrete floors have the look of a Jackson Pollock splatter painting. They use donated paints, or pick up cheap paints from Home Depot that people order and then don’t want to keep.

Independently, each artist works in a different style, although each has a contemporary flair. The collaboration hasn’t made them paint like each other, but has changed who they are as artists.

“When we paint together, I feel total abandon at what I’m doing,” Dieter said. “That comes back into my work. I’ve learned to trust myself more.”

Dorafshan said painting with the group has made her faster and taught her to be more free with color. Dorafshan, who lives in University City, started painting 36 years ago in Iran, where she grew up. She has worked as a chemist but now focuses on her art. She has a quiet voice and soft manner but fearless brush strokes.

Dieter, of Bay Park, is the most animated member of the collaboration, with a quick smile and light, bright sense of humor. She has been painting since she was 5 but made it the focus of her life 10 years ago. She had been working as an art teacher and theater company manager until three years ago, when she went on disability due to multiple sclerosis. She now paints full time.

“All my life, I wanted to just paint,” Dieter said. “I got that. It just didn’t come the way I thought it would.”

Messenger, of Ocean Beach, sees painting, especially collaborative painting, as a spiritual experience. He has considered himself an artist ever since he won an award for a drawing in sixth grade. His day job is giving tours of San Diego.

I’ve never forgotten a conversation I had with Messenger two years ago when I ran into him at the grocery store because he was so enthusiastic about the new project.

“I’m an intensely private person and typically paint alone. Painting with these two very strong, gifted, intelligent, beautiful women is both challenging and enlightening,” he said. “It was not always a cake walk. There are tears in some of those paintings. Every session was yet another lesson about life, compassion, understanding and love.”

I didn’t see any tears last week as I watched the process. I also didn’t see a lot of laughter. The artists are intense and deeply focused as they paint.

Dorafshan insisted it was important for Hodgson’s portrait that they look at the person behind the camera. Still using black, she painted in a nose unobscured by the camera. Messenger introduced a peach color to the background, giving life to the black and white piece that had been developing.

One of them — I couldn’t tell who in the blur of brushstrokes — gave the portrait a pink mouth.

“Now he looks like a girl,” Dieter said.

“Black lip would be better,” Dorafshan said, painting over the slash of red with black. Messenger put gray over the black.

“One of our challenges is the work can get mucky,” Messenger said.

But when he stood back, he couldn’t help but utter an “Ooooh, yeaaah” of approval.

The two women stood back with him. Dorafshan shook her head.

“His lip needs to be up,” she said.

“No, I think it has to do with the shape of his head,” said Dieter, reshaping the lock of hair that curved languidly over Hodgson’s eye.

Dieter muttered to herself: “That’s a girl. Stop!”

More white paint was added. More black. Messenger took on the details of the nose. A swath of yellow appeared on the right cheek.

About 20 minutes into the painting, they were finishing each other’s sentences like a longtime married couple. Sometimes they abandon the painting, they said. Sometimes they let it dry and come back to it.

They stood back again.

“I think it’s kinda cool,” Dieter said.

“Yeah,” Messenger said.

“That’s it!” Dorafshan said.

“Done,” said Messenger.

Hodgson said he was amazed at the way the painting captured more than a likeness, but a moment in his life. The artists were pleased with both the image and the reaction.

“I think we captured something about Sam,” Messenger said, and then he looked around the room. In the back, I was typing my notes on a laptop computer.

“Let’s do Dani,” Messenger said.

They all turned and stared at me. Intensely. And the process started again.

You can reach Dani Dodge at or see her work at Oh, and she tweets, too.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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