Local artist Carolee Vitaletti smiled as she unlocked the door to her gallery with a cup of coffee in hand. By the time she opened, the sound of roller coasters and the smell of buttery popcorn had filled the air.
Vitaletti’s store sits on the edge of the New France section of Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
“I think (Vitaletti is) a nice addition to our park. She’s a little bright spot in a village of log cabins,” said Caroline Clemons, senior leader of merchandise for Busch Gardens.
“Carolee has a great personality, obviously, all of us were drawn to her from the very beginning.”
Vitaletti said her art is inspired by the colors of the Caribbean. She paints everything from lamas to dogs in bright reds, royal blues and vivid greens.
“I think she’s not your standard run-of-the-mill dog painter, her things are very unique,” Clemons said.
Vitaletti said she makes art to raise awareness about wildlife issues. She said painting animals in bright colors makes people focus on them.
“If you just walked in and just saw a traditional lion or leopard, you might not look at it as long,” Vitaletti said. “So people really study it and it brings awareness to it, especially endangered animals.”
She has donated her artwork to benefit the Heritage Humane Society.
“There are 19 of my large dogs and cats hung up in the Heritage Humane Society, so I’m really close with them and help raise money for the shelter at events,” Vitaletti said. “I’ve painted paintings at live events and then people bid on my paintings and that money goes to the shelter.”
Vitaletti has been selling her art at the park for five years. Starting with a small booth in Ireland, she slowly moved to larger and larger locations until she was offered a storefront last June.
“It was a dream come true,” Vitaletti said. “When they told me the woodworker left and I could have this shop if I wanted, I jumped right on it.”
The first thing you notice about her gallery is a giant multicolored bear standing out front. Vitaletti said the park’s president, Kevin Lembke, gave her permission to paint the bear when she took over the shop.
“You would not believe how many kids hug (the bear), how many pictures are taken,” Vitaletti said. “It just brings so many people happiness and it brings them in (the gallery).”
Other personal touches include brightly colored walls and seats for guests to rest.
“All the pieces of furniture I bought, so I designed this whole place. I wanted this place to be really happy,” Vitaletti said. “There’s a dog over there on the ground (I painted), I wanted a pet here with me. His name is Art and the kids come in here and pet him.”
Clemons said these things are what makes the shop so inviting.
“If you go into her location, she even has a little table set for children to color sheets while she talks to their parents,” Clemons said. “It’s just those little tiny things she does that makes her store so welcoming.”
Vitaletti also uses the gallery as a studio because she’s at the park almost every day. Some of her most popular works are custom pet portraits.
“I’ve been painting them in the window, so those keep coming in,” Vitaletti said.
With all her success, Vitaletti said the most satisfying part of her job is still the customer feedback.
“People hug me, they want me to sign things now — (owning the store) has made me grow as an artist,” Vitaletti said.
Want to visit her?
Vitaletti’s art gallery is located in New France. If you buy a piece of her work at the park, it can be delivered to the front so you can pick it up on your way out.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.