Bonnie Lucas’s “aha” moment as an artist came at the ripe old age of 13. At the Maine summer camp she attended for six years, she painted with watercolors and oils and was allowed to pick fresh flowers from the camp’s garden as models for her work. When the camp’s art teacher leaned over and whispered to her, “I have nothing else to teach you,” Lucas knew her future.
An exhibit of Lucas’s works opens with a reception Sunday, May 21, at the Jewish Center of Princeton. The show, which features oils, abstract landscapes, and surreal single-frame stories, is on view through July 9.
Lucas’s first art class was at age 7 at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, where she grew up the second of four children. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, now retired, owned a wholesale distributorship of housewares. Despite warm encouragement from her teacher at the Maine summer camp, Lucas put her art on hold in high school but dove in again at Wellesley College, where she majored in art history and took studio classes. After her junior year, Lucas studied 17th-century Dutch art in Amsterdam for the summer and graduated in 1972. Already then she saw art as her vocation. “I can’t believe I had enough confidence at 21 to label myself as an artist,” she says. “You’re self-proclaimed when you are an artist.”
Of that early period, Lucas says, “my work then was pretty and timid, but there were seeds of what I am doing now.” She remembers one painting of a woman holding up a giant tulip, a symbol of her own creativity. “Part of me was figuring out who I was.”
Another work, “Two Flowers,” depicts a girl who is half flower/half girl; the flower represents originality, creativity, and imagination. But there is more. “Flowers are also sensual and sexual,” says Lucas. “Some of the imagery is saying, ‘I am a sexual girl,’ even though you’re not supposed to say that in our culture.”
Although Lucas wants to create beautiful paintings, she also wants to provoke thought in the viewer. “I have the skill to make decorative, pretty imagery but I want my paintings to have a very strong narrative,” she says. “The key to my work is the sensual, beautiful delights of growing up a girl, but the strange pain, the undersides, the struggles of growing up a girl or a boy.”
Lucas says her work also expresses the contradictions of living in a prescriptive culture. On the one hand, she observes, is the sense of being stuck and claustrophobic because the culture tells people they should be or act a certain way. In response, some individuals are driven to break the mold, go beyond boundaries, and be their own person. “My work is filled with opposites,” she says. “A lot are tight, dense, and contained, yet there are explosions.”
Lucas feels some anger over the struggle required to be an artist in a culture that, she says, doesn’t value art. Not being among the lucky few who are independently wealthy, Lucas has supported herself by waitressing, working for Art News, and serving at the Metropolitan Museum’s information desk. She has been teaching art since the mid-1980s, currently working as an adjuct instructor at City College, CUNY, teaching an art in education course that is a requirement for all elementary education majors, as well as teaching both children and adult art classes at the Henry Street Settlement, which provides social services and art programming in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Although she finds teaching at the City College program to be hard work emotionally, she also derives great satisfaction from her students. “I can take a beginner and make them fall in love with art,” she says. “Some people love it so much it changes the course of their life.” For example, students sometimes decide to become art teachers after taking her class.
Lucas attributes her success as a teacher to her ability to guide her students step by step. Before each project, she shows them 15 to 20 slides, selected from her own work and that of former students, talking about why each piece is successful. “I take the veil from the mystique of art,” she says. “I don’t show slides of Old Masters, and my students don’t read about making art.” They do it, starting in class, finishing at home, and returning the next week to present their work orally to the class.
Lucas also urges her students to share and to use other people’s ideas. According to Lucas, this is not the received wisdom in art education, which asserts that students are not supposed to copy. “But all art has depended on what came before,” she says. Even the Old Masters copied previous artists in the European academies.
At the Henry Street Settlement, the only given is the variation among the students, ranging from a disabled person to students who are developing portfolios for art school and art therapy school. “I have to develop a group dynamic that works for such diverse people,” she says. “I try to figure out what direction everyone wants to go in, and they all do different things.”
Lucas’s success as a teacher of art also grows from her self-awareness and understanding of her own artistic evolution. What Lucas calls her “first artistic work” was during an independent study at Wellesley in which she painted realistic watercolors of flowers in the Wellesley greenhouses. Between 1972 and 1974 her watercolors became more abstract. “I took images from nature and simplified them,” she says. “I realized I was fascinated by circles — flowers and seeds had circular structures imposed on them.”
Around 1974, when she was living in Somerville, MA, she started doing collage as a happy accident one day when she decided to cut and tear up some paintings on paper that she didn’t like. She started gluing the pieces together, along with bits of thread and little beads. The result, she says, was a “series of incredibly delicate paper collage.”
The mid- to late-1970s was a period of experimentation for Lucas. She started using fabric and tried bunching, gluing, and painting on it. Her first show was in 1976 in the common room of Leverett House at Harvard University. “It was my first experience with what showing is all about,” she says, remembering the incredible excitement of having her friends come and see her work.
In 1977 Lucas left the Boston area to get an MFA from Rutgers University; she wanted a teaching degree and knew she would eventually move to New York City. While in graduate school, she would go into the city once a week to explore. She discovered Soho, where she remembers, “I went to galleries and tried to pick out one that would be best for me.”
While in graduate school, Lucas did fabric and fiber work, using yarn, cloth, and found objects from discount stores on Main Street in New Brunswick. At that time Kathryn Markel, a gallery owner in New York, would review artists’ portfolios every Monday. It was Lucas’s last year of graduate school, and she says she was “filled with confidence” and took her work to Markel, who loved Lucas’s work. First she put her in a group show and then in a solo show of what Lucas calls her “white yarn pieces.”
With MFA in hand, in 1979, Lucas found the apartment that is also her studio. She has been there for 27 years — it is affordable, has excellent light, and is in a safe neighborhood that over the years has made the transition from Little Italy to upscale Nolita. To find this space, she walked the streets, talking to people in shops or stopping them as they entered buildings, asking whether they knew of any available spaces. “I’ve always done things outside of the system, of the way nice middle class girls operate in the world,” she says. It worked, although she had to sign the lease without seeing the apartment first.
After working for several years with fabric and fiber, creating work that was “more sculptural, bigger, denser, and more complex,” Lucas started painting again in 1987. For the next decade and a half, she moved from surreal, narrative paintings to more abstract ones.
Her show in Princeton came about when her former freshman roomate from Wellesley, a member of the Jewish Center at Princeton, reconnected with her through the Internet last summer and suggested Lucas send the center’s gallery director, Jennifer Cadoff, information about her work. The images that comprise much of her Princeton show are small and intimate, based on a process of painting and scraping over a three- to five-year period. “The resulting surface is incredibly complex, sensual, and beautiful,” she says, “and the colors are lush and bright.” Her fascination with circles is clear in this work, in which trees, suns, and flowers have all been transformed into circles, some in counterpoint with houses that are triangles and squares.
Currently Lucas is working again with fabric, found objects, and small dolls, placed in circular configurations that recall her earlier surrealistic and feminist paintings. “I always want to discover new ways of telling the same story,” she says. Over her 30 years working seriously as an artist, Lucas has seen both evolution and constancy in her work. “Although my art has changed,” she says, “there is a seed that links the pieces..”
One thing that hasn’t changed is size — she has always chosen small to medium formats. “I like intimacy, to be able to hold the canvas or the painting in my arms and look down on it, to embrace it in a way.”
She sometimes asks herself “am I the same person or am I not? Here I am in the same 400 square feet. My box. My container.” Yet as she grows as a person, her art develops with her. “Art for me is slow, thoughtful, layered,” she says. “The best art comes from you, yourself, and your passions.”
Art Opening, Sunday, May 21, 3 to 5 p.m., Princeton Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street. Reception for solo exhibition by New York City artist Bonnie Lucas 609-921-0100.