Leni Paquet-Morante gazes at a row of her paintings on the walls of her studio in a former Grounds For Sculpture exhibition hall and says, “I’ll be putting in some paintings from this room. There also will be some pieces that haven’t been seen. I want it to be a bit of a surprise.”
“It” is her booth on Sunday, April 29, at Communiversity — the annual town-and-gown mega-arts event coordinated by the Arts Council of Princeton and Princeton University featuring scores of visual and musical artists and attracts thousands.
“It” can also refer to her participation in the current ArtJam pop-up gallery exhibition benefitting HomeFront. That is on view at 19 Hulfish Street in Princeton through April 29. Or “it” can also be the April 28 International Sculpture Day open studios at Grounds For Sculpture.
No matter, in each the artist will be showing her abstracted-nature scenes created with a palette of earth and forest tones. “I am using the landscape as my muse,” Paquet-Morante says. “I am using the feeling of light on my face as I walk through woods. I am after a painterly expression of these places, a painting filled with brush strokes as its own source of enterprise.”
Her involvement with Communiversity began 2016. “I was looking for places to show locally and heard about it. And I connected at the right time.” She then submitted an application, photos of artwork, and a photo of her booth.
“I’ve done lots of little shows in the streets,” she says before talking about how Communiversity connects her with a wide audience.” A lot of people are a going to stumble across me, people who don’t have the time to go out and search for art. Since I’m not in any local galleries, it’s low-cost advertising for me as well. And networking.”
Despite the effort to pack, transport, set up, and hawk her work, she says the long day is satisfying on several levels. One is business. “People had seen me the year prior and came back to make a purchase.” The sales, she says, help keep her painting.
Another is the interaction with young artists. “I always give young artists my ear. I’ve had young artists walk away with tears of confidence. I’m generally bolstering low confidence.”
After years of working part-time at her kitchen table and full-time working with another artist, she secured her 550-square foot studio space in December, 2017. And while she calls herself “the new face on this block,” Paquet-Morante is no stranger. In fact, her husband — sculptor and longtime Johnson Atelier associate Fred Morante — has had a studio in the building for 25 years. And she says her new studio has taken her “full circle.”
“The Johnson Atelier brought me to New Jersey back in 1984,” she says as she recounts her personal journey.
Leni (Helene) Paquet was born in Quebec in 1962. She says her father was involved with forestry “way way north of North Bay (Canada). He graduated from (Universite) Laval in Quebec and was managing the efforts of a paper mill. My mom (Faith Moeckel, now 80) was a young arts student from Baltimore” who had decided to go to Canada to paint. She arrived on a bus with several names of places to rent a room. She ended up at the Paquet household. She also ended up marrying one of the sons.
“My mother was an artist who painted forests in Canada,” she continues. “And a man (art dealer Claus E. Damkjar) went around the country to get art work from all over. At some point someone pointed her out to him. He said ‘I heard you were an artist’ and gave her paint and boards. He’s been written about as being a real presence of giving artists exposure.” There is a chapter on Damkjar in “Ritchie’s: The Inside Story: Insights of a Toronto Auctioneer, 1968-1995,” a book dealing with Canadian art appraising and collecting.
Life changed for Paquet-Morante and her siblings when she was three. “My mother went home (to Baltimore). My father remained in Canada. So I grew up in Baltimore.” Also accompanying them was the story of her mother painting forests.
In Maryland the family moved in with their educator grandmother, who worked and lived in a private school house. “She raised us. We lived in the summer next to Gunpowder State Park. What is odd about the Gunpowder is it has unexpected hills (without connection to others). The land forms intrigue me,” says the artist.
The combined influences had their effect. “I’ve been painting since I was 16. I had the good fortune that my mother moved us to a county in Maryland that had a great art program and teacher. Walt Bartman is an extraordinary educator and a fine painter. We’re still in touch.
“Art was in my family. My desire to do the street shows comes from accompanying my mom selling art near John Hopkins. As I grew up I never questioned if selling street art was legitimate. It was my first legitimate.”
To support the family Moeckel became an editor and illustrator for Forecast magazine. “It was the Washington D.C. version of U.S. 1. It was an arts and entertainment guide to the arts in the area. I also worked there for three or four years in production, lay out. But I started stuffing envelopes,” she says.
Then, for a variety of unspoken reasons, “my mother sent me to another aunt in California, Roxanne McCauley,” says the artist. “She creates ceramic works. She was an early mentor and always encouraged me. The voice of someone other than your mom was louder as a teenager. Being with my aunt and working with ceramics was an opportunity for a young woman who didn’t know how to do that next step. So she provided it.”
While in California Paquet-Morante continued to paint landscapes, learned to work with ceramics, and took classes at Palomar College, a liberal arts community college. “It was where I first cast bronze. It was from that thread that I started looking for opportunities that had something to do with sculpture.”
Why sculpture? “I always made things with my hands, under those trees in Maryland,” she says. “When I was a kid my grandfather was making things. And I was busy with my hands, not with a kit but just scrounging for objects. I liked to work with my hands.”
She also wanted “to figure out what sculpture was.” So as a “young person who never asked for help or permission,” she “wrote a form letter and sent it to a hundred schools. I said this is who I am and this is what I do. I got two full scholarships.” One was at Lycoming College, a Pennsylvania liberal arts college with a relationship to the Johnson Atelier.
“I was ‘here’ at 21,” she says referring to her studio surroundings. “And it was hot spot of activity. People from all over the world, ages, economic circumstances, and very little discipline happening.”
And while she says she made lifelong friends, there were plenty of challenges. “We shared an apartment across the street (from Grounds For Sculpture) with five in a one-room apartment. I slept on an army cot. I pretty much dug my heels in and made out. I managed to make art on the meager wages I made. I did odd jobs. I made castings for (New Jersey-based Polish-American sculptor) Andrzej Pitynski.”
She also was commissioned by atelier founder Seward Johnson. “I had a show at the Johnson Atelier. (Johnson) said he couldn’t come. I responded, ‘How about if I bring the show to you?’ So I took my works to his home. I put it all out on this enormous table. He liked one of the pieces, but he wanted it large and in bronze. So he commissioned me.”
Despite learning and small success, Paquet-Morante realized it was time to leave — or escape. “It was not a healthy environment. I knew I needed to get out. I didn’t know how much we overworked ourselves. We started with a 7 a.m. clock-in, clocked out at 5:30 p.m., and then worked on our own work to 11 p.m.”
She returned to her family in Maryland and began landscaping and working at a garden center.
“It was very productive,” she says of the change.”I also connected with my former art teacher, who encouraged me to apply to Maryland State Council on the Arts’ Arts in Education program and got a residency at Walt Whitman High for nine months.”
Then, she says, her recent past reappeared in the form of Fred Morante. “He knocked on my door a number of times” and presented a good case for them to start a relationship, she says. “That’s what brought me back to New Jersey.” The couple was married by then-Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty in 1989 and moved to Trenton.
Over the next several years, Paquet-Morante worked at Makrancy’s garden center in Hamilton, took classes at Mercer County Community College, obtained a BFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers in 1991, worked with Mary Lou Bach at the former Williams gallery on Chambers Street in Princeton, and had a daughter.
Then, she says, she was hit by “a lightning bolt that put me on my ass”: the arrival of twin boys and the lack of sleep that accompanies child rearing.
Over the next several years she continued developing her art by creating her own ventures. One she called “my kitchen table enterprise. I did hand-painted furniture and things like that. I learned a lot doing this about color and putting a stroke down and living with it. I decreased my expectation and used natural forms, insects, and pods. The trees came back to me.”
After the couple purchased and renovated the former East Trenton Heights Club in Hamilton (not far from the Johnson Atelier), Paquet-Morante got involved with her children’s schools and created several school murals and participated in art-related fundraising projects.
She says when the twins were in middle school she had decided to go back to working part-time and once again connected with someone involved with the atelier network, sculptor Francois Guillemin. He had started Firedance Studio in Hopewell.
“I think he was my first supervisor (at the atelier). But I didn’t get to know him for many years. He and my husband as well as five others had been together at San Diego with (sculptor and first atelier director) Herk van Tongeren in the mid 1970s. He hired me a few times for part-time jobs when I was at a stay-at-home mom. He called (about me becoming a permanent administrative assistant). I was willing take it part time and after two years I went full time, that’s almost 10 years ago.”
“People are surprised I have a full-time job,” she says. “I am trying to create and make it a legitimate endeavor. I am not here just to make paintings for myself. I have to pay my rent.”
Back to her paintings, Paquet-Morante connects her approach to those she found in other artists. “I was 16 or 17 years when (early 19th-century Romantic British artist) James Turner’s paintings got my attention. Up close you couldn’t determine where the sky and water started. Another was (20th-century American artist) Franz Kline and his small drawings made with charcoal. His large (abstract) paintings are details of those smaller drawings. I’m only just now knowing how to apply that to my own work.”
Looking around the room one sees traces of the artist’s entire career: woods-inspired paintings aching towards abstractions, early relief-like sculptures created decades ago, a new wall easel to create larger works (on advice of Ruth Morpeth, owner of Morpeth Contemporary Gallery in Hopewell), and a table where she will soon start creating sculpture.
“I’m returning to something deep and powerful,” she says. “I believe a new turn is coming. I don’t know what it is. But that’s what’s keeping it engaging for me.”
Communiversity, Nassau and Witherspoon streets, Princeton. Sunday, April 29, 1 to 6 p.m. Free. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org/communiversity
ArtJam Pop-up Gallery, 19 Hulfish Street, Princeton. Through Sunday, April 29. Free. www.homefrontnj.org/artjam
Open Studios, Grounds For Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Ways, Hamilton. Saturday, April 28, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Park admission is $10 to $18. www.sculpture.org or www.groundsforsculpture.org
For more information: www.lenimorante.com