Charles McVicker is playing a Bill Evans tune on the piano, but when he sees a visitor approach the door, he stops. “Come on in,” he says. “I only play for myself. I choke when others are listening.”
McVicker is known for his detailed, almost photorealistic landscapes of local scenes. He and his wife, Lucy Graves McVicker, whose work is more abstract, will exhibit in a joint show, “Opposites Attract,” at the Saw Mill Gallery in Prallsville Mill in Stockton. The show begins with a reception Saturday, June 2, from 3 to 6 p.m. and closes Saturday, June 15.
“Never has the word opposites been more appropriate. Different in personality, temperament, and approach to art, this husband and wife team has worked side by side for many years without influencing each other’s output,” says the exhibition announcement. “With encouragement and humor they have watched each other develop their individual artistic paths.”
Lucy likes to experiment with texture and collage and lifting off paint. She will play around with color and then figure out what to do with the painting. Sometimes she will cut up pieces of her palette to collage on.
“I never know where I’ll wind up because I don’t start with a plan,” she says. “I just fool around and end up with a landscape because that’s what I love.”
In the summer she paints outside, but in winter she works from her imagination. Working primarily in watercolor and monotype, she has recently moved into acrylic, oil, and encaustic — but even these have a watercolor-y effect in her hand.
Charles, on the other hand, takes about a month to complete each painting. His studio is neat and organized. “Vortex” depicts the last concert that composer and pianist Laurie Altman gave at Westminster Choir College. The image is mirrored on the canvas, but on the left the scene is focused and clear, whereas the right side is a swirling haze. The people chatting at the concert’s break are people you swear you have seen around town. McVicker captures just enough detail to bring them to life. “I love looking at people,” he says. “When I see them I give them an identity. I think up a story for everyone I paint.”
McVicker also has music in his soul. His grandfather, a Scottish coal miner in western Pennsylvania, would start a town orchestra and soccer team wherever he lived. All his kids — including Charles’ father — played in the band. His father played trumpet and sang in the Red Arrow Quartet, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Railroad. They performed on the first radio station in Pittsburgh. “They were supposed to be railroad workers who sang, but they were musicians who happened to work on the railroad,” says Charles.
All that ended during the Depression, when Charles’ father was unemployed for six years, then was rehired as an electrician for the railroad. “He continued to sing as a soloist in church and at weddings, but the best part of his life was when he was singing in the quartet. He ended up a machinist in the aircraft industry, but sang all the time. Aunt Minnie was a great piano player, and with her he’d sing his whole repertoire.”
Charles’ own music training began with piano lessons in high school and, more recently, with Laurie Altman, who was on the faculty of Westminster Choir College.
Hanging on the wall over the piano are his grandfather’s violin, a mandolin from an Athens flea market, and another stringed instrument from Istanbul.
But back to that opposite stuff. “I’m impulsive and she’s a micromanager,” he says. “I like spicy food, and she likes everything mild. I eat fast and she eats slow. She came from a musically deprived family, and I’ve been interested in symphonic music since high school. I introduced her to classical music and opera, but I couldn’t introduce her to jazz.”
Fortunately, their differences are reconcilable. “We’re still married because we have a sense of humor,” says Charles.
And though they are miles apart in their painting style, they offer helpful critique to each other. What really makes this marriage work, says Charles, is chemistry. They have clicked ever since their first date, which was determined by a flip of a coin. They married in 1954 after a six-month courtship during which he wrote her funny letters illustrated with cartoons.
“At that time I wanted to be a cartoonist,” says Charles. “I subscribed to the New Yorker because it was the best cartoon magazine.”
Even their backgrounds were different. Lucy was a member of the Mayflower Society, and the family was rife with doctorates — an uncle, physicist Alvin Graves, worked on the atom bomb. Her grandfather was an explorer for National Geographic Society, and the islands off Alaska are named for her ancestors: Port Walter, Port Arthur, Port Lucy. Her father, a gentleman farmer, commuted to New York.
Charles’ father worked on the railroad. His mother was a public school teacher who supported the family during the Depression.
What about other beliefs? “I was born a Republican, but he converted me,” says Lucy. “I love the environment and women’s rights, so it was easy.” Both believe in prayer to get them through difficulties.
Lucy, born in Bryn Mawr, grew up in Westchester, Pa. Her mother was an artist. Charles was born in Canonsberg, Pa., the home of Perry Como.
They overlapped while at Principia College, a private liberal arts college in Illinois founded on the principles of Mary Baker Eddy. Lucy graduated in 1953 with a major in fine art and English literature. Charles graduated in 1952 with a major in fine art. After serving in the army, he earned a second bachelor’s degree from the Pasadena-based Art Center College of Design on the GI Bill while Lucy raised their three daughters.
From California they moved back east to Princeton so Charles could pursue a career in New York as an illustrator. They lived on Jefferson Road, then had a contemporary-style house built by architect William Thompson on Prospect Avenue. From there they moved to a house on Willow Street designed by J. Robert Hillier. The girls could walk to school, and Charles could walk to the Dinky.
At that point, Lucy had been painting about one picture a year, she estimates, and decided to go to Parsons School of Design in New York. She took drawing classes four days a week, thinking she wanted to be an illustrator, until she realized she was really a painter. She sold her drawings to a few popular Princeton shops, including Landau’s and the long-gone Nickel in the Princeton Shopping Center.
Between getting up at 6 a.m. for the four-hour round-trip train ride, then racing home to help her kids with their homework, and doing her own homework, she became discouraged and was ready to give up. Charles saw her despondent and asked what was wrong.
“I couldn’t tell the big hotshot I was failing a class, but I broke down and said I couldn’t do it, I was going to quit,” says Lucy. Charles encouraged her, and she went back, taking extra classes in the summer, so that by September she was on the dean’s list. “I thank you for not letting me quit,” she tells him.
After 25 years as a freelance illustrator in New York, Charles spent 18 years teaching at the College of New Jersey. Along the way he had his own midlife crisis. “I wanted to paint seriously, and I tried abstraction and non-objectivity. Finally I took a photo of people sitting on a sculpture in front of the Seagram building and realized that as an illustrator I had never painted a whole scene. So I painted that scene and that’s pretty much where I stayed.”
The McVickers are also active in the area arts community. Lucy is a docent at the Princeton University Art Museum, and together they started the Princeton Artists Alliance in 1989, along with Margaret Kennard Johnson and Marie Sturken. “I knew the impressionists sat around cafes in Paris, and the abstract expressionists had Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. I got the artists together to talk — the group is diverse. Everyone works differently, but I see subtle influences.” Princeton Artists Alliance is planning shows at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center in December and at the New Jersey State Museum in October, 2014. “We will keep meeting to inspire each other with ideas — we can’t do it alone.”
Artists Lucy and Charles McVicker are constantly looking at the world. While he’s driving, she is looking at cloud formations. “We paint what we see,” says Charles.
Opposites Attract, Sawmill Gallery, Prallsville Mlils, 33 Risler Street, Stockton. Sunday, June 2, through Saturday, June 15. Opening reception Sunday, June 2, 3 to 6 p.m. Talk and tour Saturday, June 8, 2 p.m. Watercolor demo Sunday, June 9, 2 p.m. Talk, tour, and closing party Saturday, June 15, 3 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-397-3586 or www.drms-stockton.org.