It is fitting that Princeton’s newest group of artists will have its first exhibit, “A Slice of Life: Paintings & Photography,” at Cafe 44 on Leigh Avenue in Princeton Friday, September 7, through Monday, October 1 –– where Art+10 had its genesis.
Artists Betty Curtiss and Meg Brinster Michael met at the breakfast-and-lunch-all-day eatery that opened in March in the former site of Tortuga’s Mexican restaurant (Tortuga’s moved across the street).
Curtiss, who toured with Mae West and Burt Lahr as a young actor, has a history of making things happen in the arts. She helped found Curtain Calls, the Arts Council of Princeton’s former New Year’s Eve celebration, and with Victoria Liberatori formed the Princeton Rep Company, which performed Shakespeare in public places from Palmer Square to Pettoranello Park. In the 1990s she began painting, studying with Mel Leipzig, among others. It was in a figure painting class where she met Michael.
Michael, who had her first solo show at Present Day Club last winter, is a lifelong Princeton resident. As it happened, Michael’s oldest daughter had ridden horses with Cafe 44 manager Matthew Miller in their teen years, though Michael didn’t recognize him until Miller’s father came in and made the connection. When Michael introduced everyone, Curtiss’s mind went into action, looking around to see if the cafe would be a suitable place to hang art.
“They are new, and we are new, and they were receptive,” recounts Curtiss. “It’s going to be a hot spot. With breakfast all day, it offers great value, and already there can be a 30-minute wait for takeout.”
It’s a small world, and indeed it was at Small World Coffee where Curtiss had previously discussed the idea for an art group with Ryan Lilienthal, an attorney who specializes in immigration law. Lilienthal also paints — even as an undergraduate religion major at Tufts he took classes twice a week at the Boston Museum School, and continued throughout his legal career at art centers in Connecticut, Virginia, and Vermont, as well as the Arts Council of Princeton. He is a student of Heather Barros, another member of Art+10 who lives just down the street from Cafe 44.
The loosely connected group felt there was a need to have greater visibility for artists who work in studios. Other Princeton-based art groups have limits on the number of artists who can join, and when there is an opening artists must be invited and then voted on.
Curtiss contacted Mercer County Community College Gallery Curator Tricia Fagan to get the names of other artists who might want to join their group. That’s how Katja de Ruyter, also a student of Leipzig, become a member. And the Arts Council of Princeton provided a space where the group could meet monthly.
“We would like to be part of a group that paints together,” says Barros, in Michael’s living room, where members of Art+10 gathered to prepare for the show, curated by Michael, Barros and Stephen S. Kennedy. “We hire a model, or do a paint out together — we are a force to inspire each other.”
The group has held paint outs in Palmer Square, along the canal, and outside barns, as well as the backyards of some members. Other artists may join the paint outs.
“We even do paint ins,” says Lilienthal. “We’ve painted fruit at the Whole Earth Center market at night, as people look in.”
In addition to studying with Barros, Lilienthal studies with Stephen S. Kennedy, another member of the group. Barros and Kennedy painted together even before forming Art+10. Michael attends Barros’s classes at Art Collaborations. And Lilienthal, Michael, and Barros, as well as Art+10 members Gill Stewart and Jeanine Honstein, all studied together with Gregory Perkel.
Curtiss is the facilitator of the group, keeping records and arranging meetings. “We usually give a show-and-tell of our work,” says Michael. “We may discuss varnishing and framing. Talking about the work can help to solve a problem.”
“It’s interesting to look at Betty’s work — she’s studied a long time with Steve — and see how he’s influenced her, and how she’s gone on her own,” says Lilienthal. “And by my studying with Heather, my palette is similar to hers. And we’ve both been influenced by Gregory.” Lilienthal was also inspired to paint large from seeing his classmates. “Subject matter and style cross-pollinate when working in a room together,” he says.
Tasha O’Neill is the lone photographer in the group. She had had a professional relationship with Curtiss, photographing her paintings for her website. “We had a mutual admiration society,” says O’Neill in an E-mail exchange from Maine, where she summers.
O’Neill had previously run Verde Art Gallery in Kingston, along with Joanna Tully, where Curtiss’s work had been exhibited. “After Hurricane Irene flooded the gallery, and I had left Gallery 14 after six years, I was happy to be in a group again but without the day-to-day management of a gallery,” says O’Neill. “The Art+10 members are a congenial group with a mission to find exhibit space in Princeton. I was made very welcome and felt that I could make some contribution.”
“Tasha is enthusiastic, and a doer,” says Curtiss. “She takes pictures of us at our paint outs and provides technical help.”
Curtiss, whose artwork is in the collection of J. Seward Johnson Jr., among others, often paints landscapes and still lifes, but is a documentary painter as well, having done a series on butchers in Sergeantsville and scenes along the Jersey shore. For “A Slice of Life,” she has included three panels from her photo booth series. We see the white-haired Andy Warhol, mostly behind his dark sunglasses. But in one “snapshot” he is striking a pose where he removes the sunglasses. In another, he holds a hand up to cover his eyes.
Curtiss obtained the actual photo strips of Warhol’s vanity unveiled behind the velvet curtain in one of those booths that were once omnipresent in five-and-dime stores.
She found out that the glamour-obsessed pop figure was a victim of male-pattern baldness, and wore a wig to achieve his trademark platinum shock of hair. “He’s stiff — you never see him bending, because his wig would come off,” says Curtiss, who is looking for the drama that develops in the series of photo strips. Often, subjects start out seriously and become silly by the final shot. With Warhol, it was quite the opposite.
Barros has painted winter scenes at Smoyer Park, Morven, Coventry Farm and Duke Farms. “Heather taught me the magic of gray,” says Lilienthal.
“There are thousands of subtle, luminous sensitive grays,” says Barros, “and they make the other colors more colorful.” One of her collectors admitted to being seduced by Barros’s grays.
“The grays are like a frame,” adds Lilienthal. “They ground the composition.”
“Grays are like the substrate, and colors are the mineral,” adds Barros.
Lilienthal recalls a project he did in Barros’s class, in which they painted graphs of a newspaper. “Heather suggested we gray out what we don’t like and leave the rest. Now it’s my favorite painting.”
For “A Slice of Life,” Lilienthal got literal and painted a large canvas of his three sons, a son’s friend, and himself on the bench outside Hoagie Haven, eating pizza off of white paper plates. Indeed the background includes those subtle luminous grays that make the reds and yellows of their T-shirts and the red P on their black baseball caps stand out.
And Barros’s gray landscape of a peninsula jutting out in the water as the sun settles into the clouds at the horizon shows how gray is really a combination of blues, pinks, oranges, greens, and yellows.
Michael, too, is a master at finding the subtleties of color, the colors within other colors. She admits she is “very fond of artichokes” — there’s a wreath on her front door made of artichoke fronds. She has painted artichokes in a Parisian farmers market in which the globes look like large red flowers.
O’Neill finds color in her garbage disposal — in the remnants of a yellow pepper, the red skin of onion, green stalks of fennel. The metal of the disposal and sink basin adds the gray that makes the color pop.
Other artists in the group are James Bongartz, who has exhibited throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania; Karen Stolper, an illustrator for children’s books, magazines and newspapers; and Mary Waltham, who expresses her interest in people and places of the countryside. At least three members of the group were born outside the U.S., and many have other careers and have either continued to paint throughout or have recently returned to it.
“Out of all these things, collectively, come ideas, and things happen,” says Curtiss. The plus sign signifies the group’s vision to expand beyond the initial 10.
A Slice of Life: Paintings & Photography by Art+10 is on view at Cafe 44, 44 Leigh Avenue, Princeton, Friday, September 7 through Monday, October 1. An opening reception will be held Friday, September 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. Cafe 44 is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. www.cafe44princeton.com or 609-924-3900.