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This article was prepared for the May 4, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Art in the Kitchen

by Euna Kwon Brossman

Nine o’clock on a Sunday night may seem like an odd time to carry out

an interview but for two mothers with three children apiece, it is

actually a time that is quite logical. But when I call Rachel Bliss at

our appointed hour, Bliss sounds somewhat harried, and I tell her I

hope I haven’t pulled her from something.

No, it’s okay, it’s poetry month at school, she explains, and her

six-year-old will be reciting a short poem about a little snail by

Langston Hughes. Which is why Bliss – who has been described by Donna

Dvorak in the journal Art Matters (December, 2004) as an artist "who

finds beauty from ugliness, expands her paintings to a level that

forces people to gaze and reflect on a different side of life, the

real side, devoid of pretty and bright concrete images that we’ve come

to associate with art" – was spending her night putting the final

touches on her daughter’s costume.

"I found a dress that has green, and it covers her feet and arms. For

her head I found a piece of pink fabric. I hot-glued pink tissues on

it so she looks like a flower. She’s actually a rose. She drew a snail

on paper. I mounted it on cardboard and put it on a chopstick and

she’s going to hold it so it looks like it’s walking slowly up her arm

as she says her poem."

Bliss opens her second solo show at the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell

with a reception on Saturday, May 7. She holds a gallery talk on

Saturday, May 21.

Many of the paintings in this exhibition of recent works are portraits

– some human, and some animal. The pictures are sometimes jarring,

even scary – visages with large and staring eyes, eerie-looking

children juxtaposed with images of death, animals with mouths full of

jagged, cutting teeth. A press statement from Morpeth Gallery

describes her work as sometimes "frightening, often sympathetic,

always compelling, a world of publicly lived emotions, the fears, the

joys, exposed in all their complexities."

James Dickinson, curator of an exhibition of her work at the Rider

University Gallery several years ago, had written that "reflecting the

new urban reality, her subject matter is often uncompromising and

disturbing. Her subject matter comes from her own experiences and

observations as a young mother living in a working-class neighborhood

devastated by deindustrialization and political neglect."

Bliss would agree that much of her inspiration is drawn from her

experiences as a single mother to Elijah, 14, Freda, 12, and Rosalie,

6. "It’s kind of a drag that sometimes people never bring it up, the

fact that I’m a mother to three children. I would define myself as an

artist but hands down, I’m a mommy first. It’s a weird tightrope at

times. How do I take care of myself and honor my commitment to

creativity and be the kind of mom my kids deserve. I’m never doing

both. I feel like I fail at both all the time. I have great kids.

They’re amazing. Sometimes I want to kill them but most of the time I

feel like I got lucky."

They live in the Southwest Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia in

a house that she bought in the early 1990s for $5,000. "It’s part of

12 or 14 little rowhouses connected together. We’ve got a mix of

everything here and Caucasians are the minority. It’s pretty much a

horrible inner city neighborhood but it’s my neighborhood, and it’s a

neighborhood because it’s not transient, people know each other. But

that is not always a good thing because sometimes there’s no privacy,

and everybody knows what everybody is doing."

Bliss doesn’t buy into the image of the struggling artist living by

choice in a poor neighborhood so she can surround herself with

inspiration for art. "I mean, come on, would you want to live in a

really crummy neighborhood with three children? I would move out of

here in a heartbeat if I could."

But she can’t, she says, because she’s discovered that critical

success doesn’t necessarily translate to financial success. "I have 20

small pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but I don’t have an

agent or a publicist. I’ve had one but they took 50 percent, and they

wanted me to buy these huge ads but to me it was a waste. I’m in

people’s private collections but I can’t get a grant from their

foundations."

Some of her larger works have sold for $2,700 to $3,000 but what she

pulled in from her paintings last year still put her below the poverty

line for a family of four, which, according to the U.S. Department of

Health and Human Services, is $19,350. She doesn’t have health

insurance, so if she or her children get sick, she has to pay

out-of-pocket for healthcare.

"The last bill I had was $3,600 from two years ago because I had some

abnormal cysts," she says. "I just finished paying the last of that

off, went in for a Pap smear, and found out I have to have another

colposcopy. I drive a car that Rosalie’s grandpa gave me, a

1990-something Toyota Camry but it’s got well over 200,000 miles on

it. Sometimes because I don’t have cash I barter. I barter with the

mechanic. I barter with tutors, I barter for classical guitar lessons

for my son and drum lessons for my daughter."

She paints in her kitchen on top of an old 1950s enamel-topped table

where she squeezes the paint right on. She describes her house as "two

little rowhouses squished together and in the winter I can’t afford to

heat both sides. I paint in the kitchen because it’s the quietest room

in the house. I put in smaller pieces in the oven because the warmth

will dry the oils quicker."

She often uses her own children and people she knows as her models.

"Sometimes I use a composite of (art) students I’ve had. I’ve used

neighborhood kids, friends’ kids, I pick people around me. I work from

photographs but I’ve found that a photo never has enough information

so I have the person sit for me as well."

Sometimes she gets emotionally attached to a piece of art and won’t

sell it. One of those works is "Miss Lou," a portrait of her daughter,

Frieda, done in 1996, an oil and acrylic on canvas. Dickinson at Rider

University called the painting "deeply evocative" and described the

bird she holds in one hand to be done "in the manner of Bronzino’s

portrait of Don Garzia de Medici. In her other hand she holds a Power

Ranger as a crucifix, a talisman against evil."

Bliss explains that her daughter had actually been holding a cookie in

one hand. "To me the cookie looked like a heart so that’s what I had

painted at first. But she said, I don’t want to hold a heart, I want

to hold a bird, so I had her hold a bird instead. In her other hand

she had been holding a Power Ranger toy that one of the neighbor boys

had given her, and I made that into a skeletal doll figure instead

because it would have been strange to have her holding a Power Ranger.

I wasn’t trying to be macabre. For me to render it into skeletal form

was natural. I didn’t mean for it to be the loss of innocence that

everybody read into it."

Bliss was born in Rochester, New York, in 1962. She grew up there and

graduated from James E. Sperry High school in 1980. Her father and his

brother started a graphic design agency. Her mother, who had met her

dad in art school, didn’t pursue a career but defined herself as a

painter. Bliss says: "She did watercolors, something she’s amazing at.

She’s also a fanatical gardener. These are people with no money, no

pensions. When the art business was going well, we did okay. But other

times, we didn’t."

From an early age Bliss was exposed to the joys and strains of the

creative process as well as the life of the artist. "I remember spying

on my dad at night when he would paint. I would peek through the crack

in the doors. You’d see his back and when he stepped back to take a

sip of beer or a drag on his cigaret you’d see what he was working on.

We weren’t supposed to go into his studio but in the morning, we would

sneak in, and I’d look at his painting and would be amazed at how much

it had changed overnight."

She grew up with three brothers and, until she was 14 years old, was

convinced she was going to be a professional baseball player. "I think

about what I came from and what else would I have been. My cousins, my

siblings, even relatives who wouldn’t define themselves as artists use

creativity as a catalyst for everything else – music and literature

and art. I found that I wanted to move people, to find a way to point

out small beauties and injustices that went unnoticed, and that’s why

I became an artist."

She says she admires her oldest brother, a public school teacher in

some of Rochester’s toughest public schools for years. "If the kids

came to school tired, not wanting to learn, he would figure out that

it was because they were hungry and he’d have a snack for them.

Instead of complaining he would bring them stuff out of his own

pocket. Another brother, Charley, paints, and is raising a son by

himself. Her kid brother, Harry, is an illustrator who does cartoons,

and whose work has been featured on the cover of the New Yorker.

Though her biography states that she attended the Pennsylvania Academy

of Fine Arts on a full scholarship from 1985 to 1988 she chafes at the

mention of that and the idea that artists need some sort of pedigree

to be taken seriously. "Who I am is in the work," she says, "not in a

piece of paper. Look at the work."

Since this is the first year that all three children have been in

school during the day, that’s when she tries to paint. "My hours are

nuts," she says. She has a long day Monday, when Rosalie’s father

takes them. She also tries to paint Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Thursday she reserves for studio visits and any other appointments. It

also the one day she cooks a big meal and musicians, writers, and

neighborhood people drop by. Bliss also volunteers at the kids’ school

every Thursday.

"We’ve been making art. It’s an art boot camp with 56 students, first

and sixth graders, and they’re going to have their work displayed at

Snyderman Galleries, one of the most prestigious galleries in

Philadelphia. I get so much by giving to them, seeing them get it,

seeing the lights turn on, it’s amazing to me. I get so much from

reminding them that their job is to recognize beauty outside

themselves.

"So many times I hear, ‘I’m ugly, I’m no good.’ But we have all have

innate beauty. We just have to learn to recognize it outside

ourselves. Once they realize they are beautiful they can see beauty

outside and it clicks. They understand, ‘hey, I wouldn’t recognize

beauty unless I knew what it was from the inside because I am

beautiful too.’"

She says balancing motherhood with the life of an artist can be

draining, especially at night when she knows she has work to do and

she still has to get the kids to bed. "Physically, I’m tired. And

emotionally, I’m trying to be up when I know I have work to do later

on. With my kids, it’s like, ‘I love you too but I need to start

working.’ But first I need to clean stuff up."

Though she has never been married, she is open to the idea of a

relationship – although lately she hasn’t had either time or the luck.

While she says she thinks her dad is one of her biggest fans, she

believes her mother is still somewhat ambivalent, in the way of

mothers and daughters, sometimes a bit critical of her daughter’s life

choices. But her children are a different story. "My kids are proud of

the fact that I’m an artist. They get off on that, ‘yeah, that’s

cool,’ they say."

What are her dreams? "I want what everyone else wants, financial

security, world peace, a nice dress, a new car, and health insurance.

It would be nice to have a relationship. I’d like to be a better mom

and impact the world somehow." Her big dream is to win a MacArthur

Foundation Grant, sometimes called the "genius" grant, a monetary

prize designed to help creative and innovative people realize their

dreams by removing the financial challenges that stand in the way.

"What I like best is you don’t have to apply for it. They find you. So

many of the prizes in the art world you have to apply for in order to

win or submit works, and I just don’t have the time to do that."

She sees herself as a hard worker but an incredibly flawed human

being, a mother, an artist, somebody who is contributing. "I can’t

think not to do this but it would be nice to figure out how to make

this all work. Even struggling I keep it in perspective. Even on my

worst days, when I might be coming out of the grocery store and I see

somebody getting out of a car in the handicapped space, I feel lucky

overall. Everybody struggles. It’s all relative. I’m trying to earn my

keep while I’m here."

Paintings by Rachel Bliss, Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street,

Hopewell. Opening reception, Saturday, May 7, 6 to 8 p.m.; gallery

talk with the artist, Saturday, May 21, 3 p.m. 609-333-9393.

Top Of Page
Art in Town

Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. "The

Art of Nature and the Nature of Art," an exhibit featuring aerial

photographs by Owen Kanzler and 10 area artists’ interpretation of

gourds. The artists include Margaret Kennard Johnson, Susan Kubota,

Connie Bracci McIndoe, Ken McIndoe, Arlene Gale Milgrim, Joan Needham,

and Judy Lass Tobey. On display through May 13. Gallery hours are

Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street,

609-921-6748. "Princeton Recollects" exhibition was organized to

celebrate the accomplishments of the Princeton History Project. In the

1970s and 80s, the project was dedicated to collecting and preserving

memories, and publishing "The Princeton Recollector," a monthly

magazine. The exhibition includes original letters, documents, and

artifacts. Free. Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Hall Gallery, 20 Library Place,

609-497-7990. "Design Matters," the seminary’s history in typography,

photography, illustration, paper, ink, and other graphic elements. The

designs are on posters, magazine covers, websites, greeting cards, and

brochures. On view through May 27. Open Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m.

to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.

University Medical Center at Princeton, 253 Witherspoon Street,

609-497-4192. Exhibit of works by acrylic painter Jeanne Calo. On view

to May 18. A portion of the proceeds from the show benefit the

establishment of a new community Breast Health Center. Gallery is open

8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Top Of Page
Area Galleries

Bordentown Gallery, 204 Farnsworth Avenue, 609-298-5556. "Spring

Members Only Show" for artists with the New Jersey Chapter of the

American Artists Professional League. Princeton artist Charles

McVicker, a member of the Garden State Watercolor Society, selected

the winners. On view through May 18.

Firehouse Gallery, 8 Walnut Street, Bordentown, 609-298-3742. "Picasso

Kids Exhibition," a showcase of works of kids ages 7 to 17. Some work

for sale. Through May 22.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, 609-333-8511. Shared show for

Mark Fields and Jim Hilgendorf. Exhibit on view through May 29.

Gold Medal Impressions, 43 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor,

609-606-9001. Newly-expanded gallery of photographer Richard Druckman,

a freelance photographer for Associated Press. Six rooms and over 250

photographs of professional football, basketball, hockey, tennis, and

Olympic events. Photographs for sale are matted and framed and in a

variety of sizes and prices. Gallery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Marsha Child Contemporary, 20 Alexander Street, 609-497-7330. "Living

History," encaustic paintings by Ilona Zaremba, Marsha Child

Contemporary, 220 Alexander Street. Through Tuesday, May 17. Gallery

hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and by

appointment.

Hopewell Frame Shop Gallery, 24 West Broad Street, 609-466-0817.

"Spring Sampler," a multi-medium exhibit by Susan Freeman of Cranbury.

Works include drawings, etchings, papercuts, wall sculptures, and

household goddesses. On view through May 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday

through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Top Of Page
Art In Trenton

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632.

Ellarslie Open XXIII on view through June 19. Open Tuesday to

Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.

Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. "Moscow

Makes, Trenton Takes," an exhibit of close to 40 mid to late 20th

century Russian paintings from the personal collection of Trenton

businessman, Shelley Zeiger. On view through June 3.

New Jersey State Museum, Galleries at 225 West State Street, Trenton,

609-292-6464. "Vision and Voice: Princeton Artists Alliance in

Dialogue with Contemporary New Jersey Poetry," an exhibit of over 40

works by New Jersey artists and poets. Margaret M. O’Reilly is

curator. Through May 13. The gallery is open Monday to Saturday, 9

a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Old Barracks Museum, Barrack Street, Trenton, 609-396-1776.

"Furniture, Curios and Pictures: 100 Years of Collecting by the Old

Barracks," a display in the exhibit gallery is included in the tour

admission fee. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the last tour is

at 3:50 p.m.

Top Of Page
Area Museums

American Hungarian Foundation Museum, 300 Somerset Street, New

Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "Calm Between the Storms," an exhibit of

close to 70 works of Hungarian Interwar Art from the Salgo Trust for

Education. Through September 4, 2005. Museum hours are Tuesday to

Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.

James A. Michener Art Museum, Union Square Complex, Bridge Street, New

Hope, 215-340-9800. New Hope satellite facility opens with the

relocation of the popular, interactive multi-media show, "Creative

Bucks County: A Celebration of Art and Artists," featuring 19th and

20th century painters, writers, composers, and playwrights. Also on

exhibit, "Pennsylvania Impressionists of the New Hope School."

Also, "The Contemporary Eye" featuring the contemporary art scene

focusing on 12 regional artists who work in media including painting,

woodworking, and photography. Artists include Ricardo Barros, David

Ellsworth, Marily C. Gordley, Judith Heep, Alan Lachman, Ann Lovett,

Robert Ranieri, Chalotte Schatz, Mavi Smith, Susan M. Twadus, and

Valerie Von Betzen. Through May 8, 2005. Museum admission $6 adults;

$2 youth. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday,

11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 6 p.m.Closed Mondays.

Also, "That’s All Folks! The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons."

Expanded version of the four-month tribute at New York’s Museum of

Modern Art features more than 160 paintings, drawings, cells, and

related objects. On view through July 3.


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