The richness of area visual art talent is the main show at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College, where the works of 88 artists have been handsomely arranged to create the 2013 edition of Mercer County Artists.

The annual exhibition, which includes a purchase award component, is a collaboration of the college and the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission. It is on display until Thursday, April 4.

It is also a tradition that reflects a philosophy stated by artist, longtime cultural and heritage commissioner, and retired College of New Jersey art instructor Howard Goldstein: “The best way to support and recognize artists was through the purchase of their works and that living with good original art would contribute to expanding the esthetic sensitivities of the public; hence, the creation of the Mercer County Art Collection.”

The county government has funded the collection for 41 years through the annual event.

Coordinated with obvious care by MCCC gallery director Tricia Fagan, this year’s exhibition was adjudicated by Dolores Eaton, director of the Pennington School’s Silva Gallery. Eaton is also an artist and an educator who has taught drawing, painting, ceramics, stagecraft, and printmaking.

From more than 140 artists who entered one or two works of art for consideration, Eaton selected 107 that reflect a wide variety of media. Interestingly, the works complete, rather than stuff, the limited one-room gallery.

“It was a great adventure to have to look really carefully at each piece as a viewer in addition to being a juror. What struck me was the great variety of work, and I tried to represent that by the selection process,” says Eaton.

The exhibition — open to anyone who lives, works, or attends school in the county — includes individuals from all regions of Mercer County. It also allows the opportunity for artists and regional art critics to interact in the less traditional manner: both U.S 1 art writer Ilene Dube and the Times of Trenton art reviewer Janet Purcell are represented.

While the exhibition marks a continuity of artistry, it also marks a change. It is Fagan’s last exhibition as gallery director. She assumes a full-time position with the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission on April 1.

“This is my 14th Mercer County Artists,” says Fagan. “I came in when we were preparing Mercer County Artists 2000, so I kicked off the century. I was only the third director of this gallery, but I think I have been here longer than my two predecessors. Henry Hose — who left to go to the New Jersey State Museum — was here for eight years. Randy Salewski was in charge of the space when it was a small area in the (college) library.”

About the change from part-time gallery director to her new position, she says, “I am coming on as the program development specialist. We work collaboratively as an office, so I’ll be working on all the projects: the teen arts festival, senior show, and cultural festival.”

While the full-time position will be new for her, she is no stranger to the Cultural and Heritage Commission. “I have been their grant writer for almost seven years and will continue to do that. I have also been their historic outreach person and manage their history outreach program, which I helped to create when I came in. A large part of this year is that it’s the 175th anniversary of the county, so I am working with people on events around that.” One such event was an exhibition held at the college gallery before this current show.

Fagan says that some of pleasure of working with the Mercer County Artists exhibition is seeing how it helps develop both artists and the artist community.

“It’s great to watch entry-level artists, some who are exhibiting for the first time, grow and develop into professional artists,” she says. “(The exhibition) is also great because it’s a real mix of starting out and established artists. They interact collegially. I like this show. It has a sense of community.”

Fagan believes that community feel is developed, in part, by the jurying process. Artists drop off the actual work on the morning of a specified day. The works are then juried on the spot over a three-hour span. The gallery director posts the results outside the gallery and online. And unaccepted works need to be picked up immediately. It all happens in about the same amount of time that it takes to perform an opera by Wagner.

“I inherited the process,” says Fagan. “I know for a fact that it evolved because there was no storage here. There is only the gallery. So the jurying has to happen in one day. Because everything happens in one day, many artists chose to hang out, and they talk to one another. So there are numerous artists catching up with each other and talking about art work. It’s that whole thing of community. Even if they want to complain about the process, they’re doing it with other artists. In an era of jpegs and digital reproductions, for artists to stand in line and talk about their work is valuable.”

The process is not easy, however, and Fagan says her first Mercer County Artists jury day was a learning experience. “I didn’t know what to expect and asked Henry Hose to jury. He was very fast and knew most of the artists. He selected and was gone. So I was sitting there and artists began returning. I posted numbers rather than names (of artists selected) because I wanted to take some of the sting out (of being rejected). Then a woman, my first artist, looked at the numbers and burst into tears.”

Fagan says that she felt bad until the woman exclaimed that she was overjoyed to be finally accepted into the show. “That was a good start,” says Fagan.

Fagan did not start at Mercer County. She grew up in Woodbridge, where her father, a former reporter for the Asbury Park Press, handled public relations for Schering Plough. Her mother followed her own plans: study linguistics, enjoy singing and performing, get married, and have a dozen children.

Fagan, the oldest of 12 children, attended Stonehill College in Massachusetts and then earned a master’s degree in social work from Rutgers. In 1988 she moved to Trenton and worked as an arts administrator at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, New Jersey Network, Artworks, and Mercer County Community College. She married area musician Wilbo Wright in 1995 and lives in West Windsor.

Her involvement with the arts seems to have come naturally. “We always had musical instruments. My mom’s parents in New York loved the theater, and my dad’s mother was a self-taught artist. I did art from the earliest time I remember, it was, ‘give me a medium and I’ll do it.’ We all grew up playing an instrument, singing, acting, and I was doing a lot of visual art,” she says.

An artist herself as well as a curator who has coordinated exhibitions in local museums as well as non-traditional venues, Fagan is sensitive to how other artists are treated. And while the Mercer County Artists process of not using electronic images may seem inconvenient, she says that it has other benefits. “For me, a large part of it is that I find jpegs frustrating when I look at a lot of visual art. No matter how you blow them up or get close to the screen, you cannot see the nuances. The tactility shows the energy.”

She adds that the benefit is in the outcome. “I like the quality that we end up with. I think it is far more fair for the artists if the juror sees the actual work. If you have someone working with a palate knife or the work has a luminous glow, you do not get that on a jpeg. Every year I am impressed by how many works of high or quiet energy there are. A lot of time that would be missed with jpegs.”

Eaton calls the solo jury process “a huge undertaking. I juried shows in the past but with at least one another person. There was also the pressure of the time limit, which made it exciting and exhausting.”

The juror says that the first third of the process was simple, “Strong pieces popped out; I felt I knew what was top-notch.” She adds that she moved with a similar speed during the second phase and removed works of artists whom she felt needed more time to develop or present.

“The third section was the most difficult,” she says. “I had to examine what was making me waver: subject matter, frame, or something else. Also challenging were the pieces that were well done but not personally attractive to me, but, as a curator and teacher, I knew they had a lot of validity.”

What was also difficult was communicating her reasons for her decisions. “Since I was going to stay at the pickup for those artists whose work was rejected, I would have to articulate to the artists why. It was draining because some people were a bit emotional, but I felt that I was honoring each artist.”

In addition to the personal honoring of work, the exhibition also honors artists by presenting 16 awards, including several Mercer County Purchase Awards. Those awards involve the county purchasing the work for the amount listed by the artist upon entering. A list of recipients is posted at www.mccc.edu/~humphrew/whatsnew/mca13awards.html.

“It’s that whole thing of community,” says Fagan thinking about her 14 Mercer County Artists exhibitions. While the college will continue with a spring show, there is no named successor. In the meanwhile, she is reflecting on her last show and says, “There’s a very human thing that happens with the show that doesn’t happen with jpegs.”

Eighty-eight regional artists will attest to that.

Mercer County Artists, The Gallery at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor. Continues to Thursday, April 4. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 to 5 p.m.; and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Free. 609-570-3589 or www.mccc.edu/community_gallery_schedule.shtml.

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