The recipe is simple: Take two artists of different backgrounds, communities, and mediums. Put them together to collaborate on an exhibition. Have the opening on a day when artists across the city of Trenton host open studios and art events. And then step back.
The exhibition is “Duet.”The artists are C.a. Shofed and Kathleen Hurley Liao. The exhibition is at Artworks Trenton. The date is Saturday, November, 4, this year’s annual Art All Day celebration of the creative spirit in the capital city — something “Duet” reflects.
Since it deals with two individual artists, it’s best to meet each of them separately before focusing on the artistic ties that bind them.
First stop, photographer Shofed’s workspace on the second floor of his Jackson Street home in the Mill Hill section of Trenton.
“It’s kind of industrial meets nature, or urban meets nature,” says Shofed, 53, of his work. “When I started out it tended to be urban areas or buildings, and nature was taking it over. Now I think it has become taking more ordinary objects that people don’t think of as beautiful and showing making them beautiful.”
His intent is enhanced by an exaggerated sense of lighting that surprises and engages. “I shoot on Vibrant, which makes the images very colorful and beautiful.”
Vibrant is a setting on his Sony A77 camera. He learned it through the use of another Sony camera and decided to make it part of his approach. “It just seemed to appeal to me,” he says.
Part of that appeal is its connection to something he experienced when he was a boy: Technicolor films. “I am inspired by the richness of color, Technicolor movies, and I’m trying to do the same thing,” he says. “I think of the film ‘Brigadoon.’ I love that film. It’s so colorful. It’s almost like a cartoon. If I could duplicate that in my photos — I’d like that.”
His approach was also informed by a trip to Vancouver, Canada, seven years ago with his wife of nearly a decade, Caroline Wylie, a research director at ETS in Lawrence. “Two popular photographers were printing their black-and-white photos on metal,” he says. “I had never seen that before and was struck by how the blacks were so black on the metal. I wondered what it would look like in color, and it looks great. So I print on metal. It adds brightness and vibrancy to the prints. It’s almost an aluminum canvas.”
Shofed’s work has attracted attention and has been shown in group exhibitions at the Trenton City Museum, 3rd Street Art Gallery Philadelphia, D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton, Woodstock Artist Association Museum, and others. He has also presented solo shows at Trenton Social, Mercer County Library, and Pennington Ewing Athletic Club.
In addition to selling photographs and photography services, Shofed consults with groups and artists and helps them with web page-related services. He says he “silos” his activities — using his full name, Craig Shofed, for consulting and C.a. Shofed for his artistic work — with the small “a” coming from a Facebook glitch that prevented using a capital “A” but gave him an alluring creative name. Then there is Amphora Art, his web shop. That name is based on a two-handed jug and reflected a business he started with a partner who is no longer connected. But he keeps the name for personal reasons.
Shofed’s web work grew from 26 years in information technology. It began with a summer job installing computers, which led him to being named a principal at Black Diamond Consulting Group in Hopewell but was then curtailed by an unexpected illness.
“I had my first kidney transplant on one-eleven-eleven,” he says, adding that doctors are unsure of exactly what caused the illness. But he is sure that he wasn’t able to go back to work because of possible infections. So he turned his attention to fine art photography.
“Though my professional life has focused on technology, I maintained an interest in photography, always carrying my camera with me, taking photographs whenever the opportunity presented itself or whenever a particular scene or object inspired me,” he writes in his bio.
In his Trenton studio he is more direct about his experience. “I fell in love with photography while with taking classes at Mercer County Community College.”
That love moved him to explore beauty in the everyday, develop enough work for a solo show, have an exhibition, and begin a new career six years ago.
He says one of the elements that helped him advance was being in Trenton, an unexpected move.
Although he was born at Fort Dix to military parents and later spent time in Germany, Shofed mainly grew up in Hopewell, where his mother, well-known jazz singer Wenonah Brooks, had grown up and still lives. His sister is another well known singer, Danielia Cotton.
Shofed’s future wife lived in Pennington and had become interested in the city by attending Passage Theater productions. She decided to purchase a home down the street from the theater. Meanwhile another of Shofed’s sisters attended the Blawenburg Church, where Wiley also attended, and introduced her brother to her future sister-in-law.
The couple’s relationship and their connection to Trenton blossomed, and they were included in a Trentonian newspaper article about couples of different racial backgrounds celebrating “Loving Day,” a June date honoring the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that protects marriage rights.
Yet for Shofed, the move had another blossoming. “It influenced me to become an artist. Trenton artists are supportive of one another. They watch your back. I can’t imagine how much time it would take (to establish oneself) in another town.”
Noting that he was frustrated in finding an exhibition space in Hopewell, he decided to take the Trenton do-it-yourself attitude and find his own exhibition space. He developed a relationship with the Hopewell Valley Vineyards, where over the past five years he has been curating an annual show “Common Threads,” which binds two of his interests: artists from Trenton and women artists.
“Women have colored and shaped my life. From my mother and my grandmother, to my aunts, my sisters, my wife, and lifelong friends,” he says in a printed interview.
It was during one of the Common Threads exhibitions that artist Liao approached him and asked how she may participate.
About 20 miles from Shofed’s studio, Princeton Junction resident Kathleen Hurley Liao stands on the first floor studio she rents at Arts Station on Monmouth Road in Hightstown. “The paintings go off in their own directions,” she says looking at the various sized abstract paintings — mainly acrylics with some mixed with enamel and graphite — that surround her. “But there are elements in common, movement, color, and a direct honesty.”
The latter, she says, is a “no-frills energy,” an attempt to express “the intangible” — or a reality beyond the surface of things. She points to several paintings to illustrate her point. “(Here) things started to look like something molecular. Here is one of something like a galaxy forming. (And these) are more atmospheric. I let images come and learned to say okay. If I don’t, the paintings don’t work.”
She says she uses automatism, an artistic approach based on the theories of Freud’s unconscious and used by surrealist artists to create dreamlike scenes designed to help viewers experience a more primary sense of being. Liao says abstract expressionist artists also used the approach but removed objective images.
And while she has over the past several years exhibited at West Windsor Arts Council, Artworks, Trenton Social, Ellarslie, Blawenburg Cafe, and other venues, her connection to art was not automatic.
The daughter of a nurse mother and a businessman father working with plastic and resins, Liao was born in Belleville, New Jersey, but grew up in Belle Meade, where she attended elementary and high school.
She originally thought of becoming a nurse and studied biology and medicine. “Since my mother was a nurse so long, I think she wanted me to do something else. But it wasn’t an artist.”
Yet her choice laid a path for her becoming one. “I was always interested in something different when I was a child,” Liao says about her curiosity of different cultures, religions, and art forms. “I went to Barnard College of Columbia University where (prominent American anthropologists) Margaret Mead and Franz Boas had been, and I took an introduction to anthropology and felt it was important.” She also took art history and art electives and received a B.A.
After spending a year in Japan teaching English, she returned to New York City, where a friend introduced her to West Windsor native Frank Liao, now a partner with Meagher Emanuel Laks Goldberg & Liao in Palmer Square.
After the couple married and started a family, they settled in Princeton Junction. “Art took over quite later,” says Liao. “I took a break from art work for 25 years. I got married, was raising my family, and was substitute teaching. (Then) I felt restless. So I found someone who sang and we started to sing together. We started at Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church.”
Then her friend introduced her to more creative people who led her to classes at the West Windsor Arts Center. “The art started out with flowers, and then it started getting more abstract.” Again pointing to works in the studio, she says, “The anthropology influences my work. I also took astronomy and took microbiology. That’s everything here. Everything overlaps and is connected.”
That includes her connection to Trenton, something that started with hearing about a fundraising exhibition at the Artworks Trenton organization, attending art talks there, and then exploring more of the city’s arts venues.
It was while she attending a Trenton Social art exhibition of work by Leon Rainbow, someone mentioned Trenton’s Candlelight Lounge jazz series — the Saturday afternoon sessions featuring established and highly regarded emerging jazz artists from New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia.
“The first time I went to the Candlelight I knew I was home. The Candlelight has become a priority. I try to do things during the week to be there,” she says.
The sound of jazz music playing in her studio reinforces her connection to the style. And while she says jazz music isn’t the subject of her paintings, there are commonalities. “Music is an art that does the same thing paintings do. It helps others have an understanding of humanity. And jazz tells us a lot about things — stories, emotions, introspection, reactions to society.”
She adds that music and abstract art use “harmonies, dissonances, and resolutions, all individual parts come together to make sense. Even in avant-garde jazz, there is a thread. I like to listen to music to get in that mode of thinking. I’m not trying to reproduce it, but trying to get into that zone. The pulse in jazz is rhythm, it is important for me to have a rhythm. Each part is making sense. It could be erratic rhythm, but it is there, something that brings life to the painting.”
Music has also become part of Liao’s creative life via the Woe Nellies ukulele band. She says its genesis grew from an art show where she met another artist who came to a party with a ukulele and started jamming bluegrass. “I have a ukulele, and (later) we both started playing together. And she had a friend who played in Roosevelt, and she had a friend who played. And the group kept growing. So now there are five of us, and we’re being hired to play gigs. It all began through art.”
The Duet exhibition, she says, grew out of her involvement with the West Windsor Arts Center when she had become a member of the exhibitions committee and she and another member went to see the Common Threads show at Hopewell Valley Vineyards. She says she was struck by “an energy and vibrancy in the art, and I said who curated this? Craig was pointed out and I went up and introduced myself.”
The connection between the two artists strengthened through another mutual connection, Titusville artist NJ DeVico. “She arranges art exhibitions locally, and she connected me with Craig. We noticed a similarity (in our pieces): composition, color, and texture. I think he liked the movement in my work. Then we started to find we had a background in common — even a mutual friend whom I went to school with and he knew from his church — so we started putting pieces together to start a cohesive show.”
Shofed and Liao say their process is simple and collaborative. They meet at Liao’s studio where they look at their art together (his is on a computer). “One of her pieces may catch my eye, and I’ll bring up a photo of something I feel looks or feels that same,” says Shofed.
While there is something unpredictable in the process, and a new work may prove not to fit, Liao says the “process has been smooth and things seem to fall together quite naturally.”
She says the reason is “Craig and I seem to speak the same language through different media. What surprises me the most is that the connection of our work continues, even though our individual approach to creating has evolved over time.”
Yet sometimes they say there is a need for both to keep focused on their own artistic vision. As Shofed says, “If I show a piece of artwork to Kathleen that seems to work with a particular piece she is working on and it’s not finished she tells me to take it away so it doesn’t influence her. She wants (her) work to go where it’s going to go without outside influence. I think that’s what makes this collaboration so very interesting.”
While the two share some surface realities — same age, central New Jersey roots, living abroad, mixed marriages — the two point to something less tangible that threads them together. “I think the fact that we both became serious about art late in life is the most important commonality between us,” says Shofed. “I think we were both always surrounded by art in some way in our lives. It took a very long time and Trenton to finally make us become serious about our art” — and the creation of an exhibition reflective of Trenton’s celebration of art.
Duet, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Reception Saturday, November 4, 5 to 8 p.m. On view through Friday, December 1. Free. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.
For more: C.a. Shofed, www.amphorartworks.com. Kathleen Hurley Liao, www.katliao.com. Art All Day, www.artworkstrenton.org/art-all-day.