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This review by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the May 26, 2004

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

F.R. Rivera: Art at Ellarslie

Twenty-two years ago the late Ben Whitmire, the first director of the City of Trenton Museum at Ellarslie, had an idea. Mary Yess, past president of TAWA (Trenton Artists Workshop Association), had persuaded him to create a salon-type exhibition that would showcase the community’s new and established talent. In 1982 TAWA was only a decade old and still prospecting for artist members. When the first Ellarslie Open took place it seemed that the association had struck a vein: Create a salon and they will come. Even an insider like Whitmire probably could not have imagined that there were so many artists out there eager to show.

Whitmire died in December and the Trenton Museum Society has established a Purchase Award in his name. This debut award went to Kristin Lerner for "Ethereal Mother." An expressionist painter, Lerner studied at the New York Studio School and teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton.

Regular visitors to past shows will find many familiar faces in this one. The vast majority of exhibitors, in fact, are seasoned alumni of the Open and some have told me that they take pride in reserving their best work each year to exhibit in this annual event. The exhibitors are professional enough to have a 9-out-of-10 chance of being accepted if they submit.

This year’s juror is Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, an art historian and writer who teaches at Seton Hall University. Out of 340 entries, 78 made the cut; and she would have selected more if it were not for space constraints, according to museum director Brian Hill.

In all salon shows – which are by definition everything by everyone – there is something to fit every taste. For Hill, such diversity reflects what’s happening today, the community’s energy, and "the great strides and strengths of the exhibiting artists."

Some highlights of this show include photography, led by the strong images of Francesca Leipzig Picone and George Olexa Jr. There are solid figure paintings by Salomon Kadoche and Dolores D’Achille, and honest en-plein-air-style landscapes by Reid Taylor, Paul Mordetsky, Marilyn Brent, and Linda Osborne, past director of the Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission. Now retired, Osborne says that she is following the advice of former teacher Mel Leipzig to paint – "not clean house."

Shedding full-time, gainful employment in the pursuit of art is not a luxury that most of these exhibitors enjoy, yet a quick count reveals that most of the artists are working at art-related jobs when they are not in the studio producing art.

John R. Thurston, for example, is a graphic artist. His skill as a typographer shines through in a piece entitled "Tex Anita." A 1982 graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy (the famous arts high school in the Michigan woods), Thurston uses three upper case letters, T-E-X, creating an elegant cartouche on marbleized paper that speaks volumes about balance and proportion and, not coincidentally, about his own solid academic training in design and color.

What these artists do for a living may – or may not – provide a deeper insight into their image making. Daphne Hawkes, for example, is an ordained Episcopal priest (M. Div., Princeton Theological Seminary). Like most of the exhibitors here she acquired formal art training along the way. The viewer must decide whether there is spiritual content in Hawkes’ acrylic, "Tamalparis."

The "spiritual," although not immediately self evident in her work, figures prominently in the thinking of Carla Falb, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her piece in this show is "Viper Drawing #3." This charcoal-on-paper drawing consists of a tangled volley of lines, resulting in instant vertigo. (Falb told me the drawing is part of her Roller Coaster Series.) The artist takes the landscape painter’s stable horizon line and allows it to careen out of control. Falb says she equates this toggle between thrill and relief with the struggle between the physical and the spiritual and the very human need to strike a balance between them.

Falb is more settled perhaps than her Roller Coaster Series might indicate. Like so many in this show, she does not make art full time. She is a teacher at Allentown High School and even though "Viper Drawing #3" won the TAWA Award, she seems most proud of having been named Monmouth County’s Art Educator of the Year 2004.

Peter Stefferson has a theory that when things are made life size they become more "real." To prove his point, he told me the story of his cat, who was spooked by stumbling onto a life-size clay model of a cat he had been working on. "That was the highest compliment paid my sculpture," he explained, "to see my cat jump like that!" (You can fool people, but you can’t usually fool cats!)

Stefferson is a sometime painter. (He showed two watercolors in the Ellarslie Open of 2002.) As he did last year, however, this year he is showing his life-size assemblages and, in fact, he thinks of himself as a sculptor with strong penchant for cats and birds. For a time he fashioned miniatures of them in shadow-box environments in the manner of Joseph Cornell, one of his early influences.

He adheres strictly to his preference for life-size depictions in a freestanding structure in a piece entitled "Childhood Memories." In this piece a hand-carved crow and cat join a medley of found objects, including a toy car and sewing machine, which makes his art an extension of the room.

Bordentown resident James Freeman has his own faux-finishing business. He and his brother, also a painter, came to New Jersey from Illinois four years ago in search of a more stimulating art scene. Trained as an illustrator/painter at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Freeman is currently a member of the Artist Co-op Gallery in Lambertville.

His memory-based landscapes, like the piece in this show, are teeming with life. He used to collect insects of all kinds and he combines their images with those of plant life in elaborate compositions of exacting detail.

In this exhibition he shows an oil-on-panel (24 x 35 inches), "Northern Illinois Quarry Sink," which, he says, took the better part of three months to finish. Viewers of this work may feel they have been magically shrunk and through no fault of their own have been suddenly plucked down into a space smaller than human scale. Their bug’s eye view is contained within the shell of a tree, and, through an opening, their gaze is directed toward a sun-lit path.

Something in Freeman’s smooth rendering and rolling contours will put viewers in mind of the landscapes of Thomas Hart Benton. The tree wall, for example, seems to unfurl like a sail cloth underwater, spreading slowly and adding to images of discarded bottles, curling leaves, and little wavy ribbons of green and gold to its viewers’ line of vision. Because these paintings are so labor intensive, Freeman says a good year will yield six to ten paintings. A pity he has to work at anything but painting.

I think Whitmire would have liked this painting. Those who knew him appreciated his great affection for those who make art, particularly for those who make it while burdened by the need to also make a living.

At times he could be dismissive. He would not defend the work of every artist because some work he simply did not like, but he always loved the mix of a group show, particularly the Ellarslie Open. This one would be no exception.

Ellarslie Open XXII Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, Trenton, 609-989-3632. Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday: 1 to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays. Through June 13.

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