With four art openings and the official unveiling of a mural that celebrates Bakersfield's rich guitar-making history, there's a lot to love about First Friday in February.

Betty Leonor -- whose exhibit, "Love, Betty," opens Friday at Metro Galleries -- is a woman who knows a lot about bringing love to her work. The primarily self-taught artist has drawn inspiration from her love life since her first major heartbreak at age 19.

"I began painting not to be an artist, but as a way of releasing whatever conflicts I encountered. ... All my work in the beginning was personal. Not just personal, private, a diary. I had to keep it in my house."

Leonor's romantic disappointments fueled much of her early output while she worked in marketing at a financial services agency to support herself and her son, Jonathan. Now lucky in love (married to Cal State Bakersfield baseball coach Bill Kernen), Leonor still pulls from her past for her paintings, which she focuses on full time.

"It (my work) has to do with nostalgia, that you go back. Now that I'm married, I laugh and go back. It's reliving in a different life. Once it's over, you see it different."

Since becoming a full-time artist, Leonor, 40, has had the opportunity to fully develop her technique.

"I learned more in the last four to five years I've been doing this than in the last 15. (Before) it was only on weekends that I was able to paint; I wasn't looking for growth. (Now) I had to bring it up a notch, look at it in a professional way. I paint every single day. There isn't a 'weekend.'"

That process allows Leonor to explore painting in a more universal way, to tell a story for all women, not just for herself.

"I try to keep my own story private. I want people to see it and relate. I learned to pull some things out so other people can relate, try to cover the face or show a back so more people can connect.

"I like (depicting) women that are strong, but you still see the softness. None are exempt from being hurt."

Leonor said "Autonomous," her favorite piece in the show of 40 works, is a nod to her early days when she painted for herself.

The work depicts a woman in repose, holding the hand of a mostly unseen man.

"It takes me back, if you were to see paintings when I used to paint. ... It's a blend of what I have learned and what I didn't know then."

The artist continues to grow artistically as she plans a book of her work (paintings, along with poems and letters) she hopes to complete in the fall, and she looks forward to a conference in Georgia for the Portrait Society of America, of which she is a member.

"That (series of workshops) is always refreshing. There is a wealth of connections and knowledge."

Travel art at BAA Art Center

Like Leonor, Charlotte White is an artist whose work follows her on her travels. The fruits of her recent trip to the Middle East are the focus of the exhibit "Israel," opening Friday at the Bakersfield Art Association's Art Center.

White recently took an 11-day trip to Israel with choir members from Valley Baptist Church for the Bethlehem Christmas Festival. Exploring Bethlehem and Jerusalem, White found inspiration from the steps of Via Dolorosa to the path of Masada.

She also was inspired by a common travel experience: long lines.

"We had to go through customs -- everyone in the world is going through customs. I took a newspaper and drew (the scene) on it. ... It's kind of fun when you look at the print through it. It's like wallpaper."

Although the informal, whimsical nature of the pieces in the show are not new to the part-time art teacher at Valley Oaks Charter School, fans accustomed to seeing her detailed oils may think the work represents a new direction.

"This is work that I've been doing off and on. Working with oil pastel and newspaper is not uncommon for me. The first time was a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. When I got to the show, I had brought my oil pastels and watercolors but had forgot the paper in the car. I went down to the snack bar and bought a paper. Then I decided to stay there and sketch."

Along with newspaper and a bag, White used watercolor paper, resplendently depicting pastoral scenes in watercolor and oil pastels. She sent many of the works completed during her travels to Bakersfield as mail art, which can add another element when the work collects travel postage.

Along with the show, the Art Center will set a Middle Eastern mood with refreshments.

The BAA also will host two shows at Dagny's Coffee Co.: a solo show by Patti Doolittle and a group show featuring Doolittle, White, Cindy Stiles, Shirley Rowles, Norma Savage and Margaret Stephens.

'Focus' on The Foundry

From images of romance and travel, take a step back to something a bit surreal over at The Foundry. Leonid Koff's exhibit, "The Perceptual Focus," is a mixture of oil pastel on paper board and acrylic on wood board that will challenge viewers to consider more than the canvas.

Koff, who grew up in Russia's southern Ural Mountains, fostered his creativity even under a rigid Soviet regime.

"I began painting at 10 with watercolors. I avoided taking any 'art educational' courses for the concern of being creatively limited or restricted. Especially in the 'social realism' atmosphere in the USSR.

"Art has always been a huge part of my life. I paint because I love it and I have to, for it is a resource for creative evolution."

When he moved to the U.S. at age 20, he experienced an artistic metamorphosis.

"An explosion of creativity took place," he wrote in his artist's statement. "Abstract and surrealism suddenly made sense. I learned quickly how to 'feel' the work of art as opposed to 'think' it. The line and the form were the message, and the colors were the emotions."

Koff, 59, moved to Bakersfield in 1991, using his background as a geologist and geophysicist to assist Occidental Petroleum with their Russian oil projects.

The artist, who works as a substitute teacher for the Kern High School District, said he takes inspiration from the beauty of music and nature. Depicting the natural world involves many senses for Koff, and he said he hopes that becomes part of experiencing his art.

"I create art with music. The sounds are in the paintings, flowing within the forms and colors. It would be great for everyone to 'see' the music of colors and shapes and play them in their lives for a long time."

Describing his style as abstract-surrealism, Koff said he wants an even greater artistic challenge in the future.

"(What's) next is a dream to exhibit my abstract work. It is a tough audience there. But I know people have imagination."

Along with music by Therese Muller and valentine's treats from Window Sill Pie Co., another draw for The Foundry show is the sale of ceramics from Bakersfield High School students. BHS teacher Yvonne Cavanagh said proceeds support the school's art programs.

Official unveiling of mural

Although it has been up for almost two weeks, the mural paying tribute to the history of Bakersfield guitar-making is set for a formal unveiling Friday evening around 6 p.m.

The three-panel work, created by Sebastian Muralles and Al Mendez, adorns the exterior east wall of Front Porch Music that faces out onto the Padre's parking lot at 19th and H streets.

There won't be a dramatic reveal, but there will be a ribbon-cutting, according to Michael Millar, executive director of the Arts Council of Kern, which provided the grant for the work.

The artists will be on hand along with representatives from the Arts Council, Bakersfield Californian Foundation, Downtown Business Association, Front Porch Music and the Padre Hotel.