Serena Parente Charlebois
I was born a California girl, the youngest of seven Parente children to Pasquale Parente and Cynthia (French) Parente. Shortly after my birth my family moved back to my father’s home state of Rhode Island.
One of my earliest memories in life would have to be of the building of our Little Compton home on Long Highway, the wood lot of author, David Patten, and what my father then romantically dubbed “Shadow Wood.” I was 3 years old when the house was completed enough to move into.
A favorite memory of that early time in Little Compton is just a simple one. After my brothers and sisters would board the school bus to Wilbur School, just my mother, and I would remain at home. For those hours I would have her all to myself. We would wander the woods, my mother in her housecoat and I with bare feet. While, she would teach me of the flora and fauna to be found there, supplying me with the names like Indian Pipe, Jack in the Pulpit and Lady Slippers, and in what conditions they liked best to grow, which could be transplanted to her little rock garden, and which wanted to be left alone.
Like my brothers and sisters before me, I attended Wilbur School when I came of age. The excitement of riding the school bus waned quickly, and I was a bit shy and scared. I once was scolded by my Kindergarten teacher for not taking turns with the playhouse. I started to cry and they had to send up to the 8th grade for my sister, Dianna Parente, to come down and console me until I stopped crying. I’m afraid to say that set a pattern for that year.
At Wilbur, I soon hit my stride and was able to navigate on my own. My 4th grade teacher, then Miss Payne, later Mrs. Mintz probably had the most impact on me. She was the most lovely and inspiring of teachers, who told us wonderful tales of her travels, and sparked our imaginations with a creative writing class. To this day, I love to travel to parts unknown, to discover new landscapes and cultures. I have Miss Payne to thank for that!
There was great debate as high school approached as to which school to select. My parents were in favor of Bishop Stang; I, strongly in favor of Middletown High. My best friends, Robin Wilkie and Nadine Peckham, were attending Middletown. I pretty much based my decision solely on that, and soon found myself riding the bus to Aquidneck Island to attend Middletown!
The schooling debate started once again when considering college. Initially, I had said that I’d had quite enough of schooling and wanted to travel the world–hop a plane to Italy, walk the streets of Paris. Then I stated that if I had to go to college, I wanted to be a professional photographer.
My parents were having none of it, and the discussion continued.
It was only then that my mother explained to me, that she wished for me to be strong and independent and not to have to rely upon anyone else for a quality life. This was important to her, to see me be successful. This resonated deeply with me. I knew that my mother, Cindy, had put herself through nursing school and at that time was working with the Little Compton Visiting Nurses Association.
A compromise was made and with that, my promise to take college in 2 year degree increments. Thus my schooling at Bristol community College (BCC) for Business Administration began.
Near the end of my first semester at BCC, a tragedy struck my family; my mother Cindy died very suddenly at the age of 53. I was only 18 years old, grief stricken and set adrift. I was now the only one left in an empty house that had once been full of noise and life and energy. I was living on survival instinct at this stage of my life, but my mind kept returning over and over to the heartfelt discussion that my mother had had with me about her wishes for my future. I had made a promise that I would finish college and do my best to be a strong and self-reliant asset to society. This goal that I was focused on, fulfilling this promise, was like a compass in a storm.
I got my degree in Business Administration, and went on to the Rhode Island School of Photography (RISP).
It was during my time at RISP that I truly realized that photography was my passion. Most specifically, portrait photography, and that is what I chose in my senior year to specialize in. I found that portrait photography allowed me to become a storyteller in my own way. Every person has a story, of their life, their joys, their troubles, their cultures… a story that they wear upon their faces and is reflected in their eyes.
I wanted to capture that visually and show it to the world.
I began to see that my photographs and portraits were painted with all of the influences in my life, and my childhood spent in the country has echoed throughout my work for over 30 years. I saw it in the color pallets that I created and the environments I chose to work in and it gave me my own voice and style.
So, I left RISP not only with an education and new goal of a life in photography, but also with my future husband, Donald Charlebois, whom I met while attending RISP. It was a clandestine love affair, as he was in administration at the school and I a student. It was quite a surprise to people when he showed up at graduation as my date, and we married just a short 6 months later.
I paid my dues in the photography world while trying to get my own studio off the ground. For three years I took any and all jobs in the photography industry that I could. I free-lanced as a custom printer, drove all over Southern New England working for the Yankee Swapper, and had some grueling 12-hour wedding shoots. All of this, towards the goal of opening Serena’s Studio, Classic Photography. Serena’s Studio became a full time portrait studio in the Mount Pleasant area of Providence, RI in 1992. These were the 10 years that I lived away from Little Compton.
While the studio was quite successful in Providence, I am, and always will be a Little Compton country girl at heart. I soon started making a plan to move my home and business back to Little Compton. My father agreed to sub-divide our family property on Long Highway and before too long we were clearing and having a good old-fashioned barn raising that would be the new home for Serena’s Studio and the Parente-Charleboises.
The past years in Little Compton have been a place of peace and inspiration for Donald and me. Being here has nurtured my creativity as a visual artist and I have had much success in life and business. I finished my Master Photography Degree as well as Photographic Craftsman and published a fine art photography book, The Shape of Beauty. The book has a feminine feel, filled with delicate botanical still-lifes and figures. It was created in memory of my mother; Cindy, using many of the flowers left in her gardens, and is homage to all that she taught me while growing and living in Shadow Woods on Long Highway.
Returning to Little Compton was a coming home for me. My mother called this “God’s Country”, I would have to agree.
Serena Parente Charlebois