Lighthouse brightens up Annapolis holiday card

Through stroke of luck, local artist's painting makes way into homes


An original painting of the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is featured on the Annapolis holiday card for one reason, and her name is Bette A. Applegate, an 80-year-old watercolorist.

Applegate, who lives in a cheery, cluttered home overlooking Lake Ogleton with her husband, Richard, says she is captivated by lighthouses. They inspire her to paint their stark forms and settings.

"I go where there are lighthouses," she said. "Lighthouses influence people's lives. Each lighthouse has its own story.

"It's the shape of them. Each one is different. Some are landlocked; some are way out," she said, leafing through her lighthouse books and photographs.

Capturing the six-sided Victorian lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay years ago was no simple task for Applegate, who favors moody skyscapes.

"Thomas Point was the most difficult of all [the lighthouse works], with a hexagonal roof and all the details, doors and windows," she said.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who chooses the art for the holiday card, said showing the city-owned lighthouse is meant to bring some bay-based cheer into hundreds of households. The card also issued an invitation to a City Hall open house earlier this month.

Still in use and valued by the U.S. Coast Guard, the striking "screwpile" structure is undergoing a renovation and will open to visitors for the first time next spring. The iron and wood beacon is built on off-shore pilings about 5 miles from Annapolis harbor and flashes every six seconds. The original keeper's cottage shapes the lighthouse design, but it is no longer occupied.

"That's the symbol of the bay, so it's very fitting and important to us," Moyer said.

Creating and working with her hands is something Applegate has done since she was growing up in Ohio. As a young woman, she was an industrial designer, making toys and girls' dollhouses. After raising five children, she worked for the city of Annapolis as a cartographer, drafting maps, until she retired. Over the years, even with 19 moves when her husband was a naval officer, she always painted, but now she is more single-minded about it.

Her workplace is the dining room table, where watercolor easels are spread out and the grandfather clock keeps her company. She says she occasionally exhibits her art, but her painted lighthouses are mostly for her own enjoyment.

But the mayor's recognition gave Applegate a sizable lift during an illness. Applegate underwent chemotherapy this fall for lung cancer, and her prognosis is good. Still weakened by the radiation, she has been mostly confined to rest and recovery at home.

"I was very honored, and it eased the difficulty a lot," she said. "It's amazing."

Just how the Chesapeake Bay's hexagonal lighthouse became the city's holiday motif was simple: small-town serendipity and a bit of match-making.

Applegate recently saw the mayor at the Free State copying and printing shop on West Street. As longtime Annapolis residents, the women have known each other in city government circles since Moyer's years as an alderwoman. The shop owner, Jim Martin, had been making a color series of Applegate's lighthouses, which, he said, struck him as "a cool idea."

So a casual conversation started when Martin said to Moyer, "You ought to see the lighthouses Bette is doing."

When Moyer looked at several of Applegate's miniature lighthouses in watercolors then and there, she immediately agreed. And that was pretty much that - as an executive decision.

"When I happened to run into Bette, I asked, `Gee, could you put a wreath on that?'" Moyer said.

So a wreath was artfully added to the keeper's cottage gate and, for good measure, a minimalist tree was added to a piling - just to deck out the last working lighthouse of its kind in the country.

Applegate's oldest daughter, Jeanne, a local resident, said her mother's other abiding avocation is civic volunteer work. Applegate helped the successful effort to bring a bicycle trail to Bay Ridge Avenue, near the Anchorage neighborhood where she and her husband, a former treasurer of Catholic University, live.

Moyer said Applegate's contributions to the city's life couldn't be counted in dollars and cents: The lighthouse art was a gift.

"She's a good soul and has done a lot of public service, too," Moyer said.

After facing a hard fall, Applegate says spending Christmas with her family will seem even more full of spirit. "We'll be with our children and three grandchildren, here at the house," she said.

Then the new year will bring more lighthouses.

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