Twenty-five years ago, Cynthia Bronson was raising two teenagers by herself in Ann Arbor, Mich., working at a government job that made her feel, she says, like "I was slowly dying."

Twenty-five years ago, Cynthia Bronson was raising two teenagers by herself in Ann Arbor, Mich., working at a government job that made her feel, she says, like "I was slowly dying."

"(It was) a job I was not suited for, but it was 'the good job' with the house and the car," says Bronson, an Ashland resident since leaving her native Michigan in 1992.

As her kids neared high-school graduation, she decided to redecorate her life. To prepare, she made a list of the top 10 things she wanted.

Foremost, recalls Bronson, "I wanted to be making my living from my art."

Bronson began selling her work at street fairs until a chance encounter during a vacation to the Yucatan Peninsula led her down the path that has defined her art — and career — ever since. She met another artist who hand-painted dresses with a special dye that allowed the clothing to remain machine-washable.

Bronson tried her hand at the technique on her next vacation. The results surprised her.

"I took a few of the dresses I had painted with me," says Bronson. "I sold them in a boutique on consignment. They were gone in the next few days, and I took back more money than my vacation cost me."

Though her style and motif have changed in the intervening years, hand-painted dresses have remained the niche that has defined her work.

Today, Bronson maintains a studio in a classroom of the former Briscoe Elementary School in Ashland, surrounded by a dozen other artists. The long, flowing dresses that hang in her studio are streaked with shades of turquoise, lavender and fuchsia. On top of the palette are tiny floral designs, applied thickly with oil paint.

If the elfin queens of Middle Earth went shopping, they'd buy Bronson dresses. These clothes, however, are designed to suit just about anyone.

"I decided I'm going to make dresses that look beautiful on everybody — dresses that a woman would put on, and she would see her own beauty, and people would tell her about it," says Bronson.

The secret is in the material and the cut.

"The fabric is viscous challis rayon, a fine material," explains Bronson. "The dress is cut more fully, size for size. The dress graces the form; it's not going to be too tight anywhere. Then it's painted to be slimming."

The dressmaking begins with white, ankle-length rayon. Bronson squeezes pearlescent paint from plastic bottles in streaks to create an ethereal look.

"The dye is French; it's called fiber-reactive," explains Bronson. "Basically, during the heat-setting process, the dye molecule and the fiber molecule bond, becoming one molecule. You cannot get this to fade."

This claim has been tested in Bronson's own wardrobe. One of her favorites, she says, has been through wash and dry cycles for 18 years.

Though the overall style of her dresses has endured over the years, the individual designs change every season. Her spring collections are the most popular.

"I do a series every spring called 'The Gardens of Giverny' — Monet's gardens. It's all Monet's palette," says Bronson.

Bronson sells her clothing not only at her Briscoe studio, but also at artisan markets up and down the West Coast. A dress purchased at Lithia Artisans Market in Ashland costs about $150.

Once she gets started talking about her dresses, it's hard to get Bronson to stop. As a little girl, she made her first dresses for her dolls. Her inner child is still having fun.

"I make my living playing dress-up," says Bronson. "That's what I tell my friends."

Bronson is a member of Northwest Art Alliance. She can be reached at or email