On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Terenia Offenbacker poised over her four collages arrayed on a long table, adding dark streaks to a cutout "13" on one of the sheets, a paint-soaked brush in each hand.
Offenbacker, of Los Altos, is one of a group of nine artists who meet in the Pacific Art League's Ramona Street building every Wednesday. The group is nearly a decade old, staying together even after its teacher left, members said.
The artists are aware of the drama that has shaken the organization in recent months, turmoil that flared recently when Executive Director Stephanie Demos tried to return to work April 1 after a nearly four-month medical leave.
But with background jazz playing, the spring sun illuminating the studio's tall windows, and paint everywhere — including on the well-worn wooden floor — the organization's current struggle hasn't jarred these league regulars.
"You don't feel it here," said Rosine Ferber, a Palo Altan Offenbacker calls the "Queen of Squares," a reference to Ferber's grid-based creations.
Ferber and Offenbacker both opposed the sale of the building, a deal proposed last fall by the non-profit's former board in an attempt to finance the building's rehabilitation. The league would have retained the ground floor, but the upper floors — which now house a gallery, office, outdoor patio, print shop and studio — would have been sold.
That plan was defeated following a bitter "Vote No" campaign led by current board Chair Walter Smith and member Donnasue Jacobi. The conflict led to the resignation of all but three board members and the mass resignation of five of the league's six staff members this winter. Eight new board members were elected in early January.
Demos, the one staff member who remained, said she suffered a "collapse" Nov. 26 from the harassment and stress directed at the staff, returned to work in early January, but left again days later.
"I worked on Wall Street with traders. Stress is not something that sends me running out the door," Demos said recently. She joined the league in 2006 after working for EHC LifeBuilders, a homeless services organization in San Jose.
Demos is speaking out now, hoping to expose what she views as inappropriate behavior by the current board. She's also trying to save her job.
"My reputation is my most valuable asset. I have been maligned, called a liar, accused of fraud, so many false accusations made," Demos said.
Demos also has filed a worker's compensation claim against the league. With such rancor, why stay?
"I love the league. I believe in the mission. There are a great many people I have formed relationships with," Demos said.
On April 1, she had hoped to return for good.
Miscommunication, and the absence of Smith, who had been traveling, had left those currently at the league unaware of Demos' return, Smith and Demos said.
On her first day, Demos said two new board members confronted her, telling her she didn't belong and asking her to leave the building. By some members, she is considered to be affiliated with the former board and its controversial building plan.
"We did not have adequate time to prepare for her return," Smith said. "That could have been handled better."
Demos' position is also under review. The board held a special meeting Sunday morning, announced with fewer than the 48-hour notice required by its bylaws.
"We wanted to have the meeting on the weekend so we would have something to report on Monday," Smith said. "It was not a secret meeting."
At the meeting, Demos said the board discussed several options, among them: reducing her responsibilities to fundraising and grant writing while retaining her title and $80,000 annual salary, or developing a severance package.
Smith said he could not discuss the meeting's discussion because it is a personnel matter.
He acknowledged the board is considering structural changes to the executive director position, all driven by the need to ensure the league stops losing money, Smith said.
In the most recent tax record available, from August 2005 to July 2006, the league lost $94,000. The year before it had been $156,000 in the red, up from its 2003-04 deficit of $226,000.
Smith said he aims to have the league at a balanced budget by the end of July.
The league is already moving to replace most of the departed staff positions with volunteers. It is advertising for a volunteer gallery manager, webmaster, volunteer coordinator and chief financial officer.
Deb Killeen has returned as a part-time operations manager, with three members hired to share the front desk position, board member Kay Culpepper said.
They report to the board, however, not to Demos.
Demos said she is troubled at having the liability and title of the league's top job but none of the power to ensure smooth operations.
Smith said he hoped to resolve the staffing solution quickly.
"I hope very soon, for everyone's benefit. You can be sure we're working on it," he said.
The board is also working on a plan to restore the 1929 building, which is vulnerable to earthquakes, inaccessible to artists with disabilities and generally in need of repairs.
It intends to send a letter to its 600 members informing them of the plan within two months, Smith said. The league would retain ownership of the entire building and rely on fundraising to finance the project.
Class enrollment is up, paintings hang in the league's two galleries and a recent First Friday Art Walk attracted more visitors than ever, operations manager Killeen said.
The building debate was a "big heart thing for many of the members," she said.
The league will make it, she said.
"It's survived, we survive. It's about community, about family. It will be here before us and be here after us."