Here’s a column that has been born out of a set of hand-written notes I made many months ago, when I attended an art opening on a Saturday afternoon at the Trenton Free Public Library. The event was organized by Byron Aubrey, the son of my colleague Dan Aubrey. I attended in the role of a family friend more than as a reporter. But, as I do at many public events I attend (including memorial services and charity galas), I pulled out one of those handy Portage reporter’s notebooks and began jotting down notes. You never know.
Months later I see that the Trenton art show, titled “Persistence,” is being reprised at the Plainsboro Public Library, with an opening and public discussion on Sunday, January 20, at 2 p.m. Recalling the instructive moments from the Trenton show, I immediately thought this would be the time to write about it. I rummaged through a stack of notebooks and there it was — 20 pages or so of my handwriting, and one typewritten flyer with the names and brief biographies of the artists.
“Persistence,” the brochure stated, was an exhibit of work by “artists who demonstrate persistence despite what are commonly perceived as obstacles: age, illness, and physical and neurological problems.”
Young Aubrey (who has written an account that explains how he persevered to mount the show) introduced the panel of artists, who shared some of the travails that accompanied their artistic endeavors.
Justin Jedrzejczyk introduced himself as a third-generation painter. “I was getting pretty good by my standard. Then in 2013 I got a brain injury. It’s been pretty brutal. I used to do large paintings, but my brain couldn’t register what had to be done. I had to go small.” Then he realized that “to do portraiture you have to make sure one eye is relative to another.” Jedrzejczyk found that to be challenge. “I switched to landscapes.”
Differentiating lines and colors in the world around him became another obstacle. “I see everything. It’s overwhelming,” he said. “It gets to the point where I can no longer register what I am seeing.” The weave of the canvas’s texture became “unbearable.” So he switched from painting on canvas to painting on more rigid art board.
Through it all he continued to paint. And by participating in the show he realized he was not alone in facing his myriad difficulties. “I didn’t realize so many others had problems. The general public thinks of artists as people who have some special ability.”
Kenny Alexander, a Trenton resident since 2006, told the group that he started pursuing art in the early 1990s. “Art was always my passion,” he said. “I’m a single guy and my life is dedicated to art.” He collected and took a special interest in tribal African art, “knowing that all the masters have been inspired by that — Cezanne, Picasso.” His vision began to deteriorate about a year before the show at the Trenton Library. “It crushed me. I figured I would never be able to do anything again. So OK, you can’t do what you used to do. You get depressed over what you can’t do, but you focus on what you can do.”
“But with the low vision that I have,” Alexander said, “I can still work with texture. There are a lot of words in my paintings now. I’m using words, texture, found objects — it’s more of an assemblage.”
At the group show in Trenton Alexander discovered that “other artists aren’t allowing this to get in the way of their art. I have to go deeper. My new work may be greater than the old. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m psyched.”
Priscilla Algava, an experienced artist, has persevered in recent years despite a protracted battle with cancer that has included surgery, chemotherapy, and “lots of intervention.” Algava said she had “learned to avoid people without positive energy,” adding “I’m more discriminating now, more careful about how I spend my time. There is uncertainty in my art.”
Mel Leipzig, the nationally recognized, Trenton-based artist who has had dozens of exhibits in his long career, was another panelist. Leipzig exhibited one of his signature, highly realistic, detailed paintings of another artist in the exhibit, Michael Austin, a neurologically impaired senior at Lawrence High School, who was unable to attend the panel. “Michael is incredibly gifted. A lot of kids his age waste their time. This kid, while I was painting him, did several self portraits. He has work that speaks to other people. You would almost wish all the supposedly ‘normal’ students to be this good,” Leipzig said.
“It’s a misnomer to say that any of these artists are disabled,” said Leipzig. “It’s amazing how many well known artists have overcome various challenges in their lives.”
Monet, Leipzig told the audience, “was practically blind at the end of his life.” John Trumbull, “the painter of the Revolution,” had lost an eye as a child, a circumstance that some art historians believe may have contributed to his highly detailed work. Degas was almost completely blind. Michelangelo, whose hands were afflicted by gout or arthritis, was racked by physical pain — “you can see it in his work,” Leipzig said.
Matisse was confined to a wheelchair for the last 14 years of his life. He couldn’t paint in the traditional way. But he directed assistants to cut out blocks of colored paper and used a long pointer to position them on a large sheet of paper mounted on the wall. “They turned out to be masterpieces,” Leipzig said. “All artists have to be persistent. The idea that art is a gift and that you can paint since the age of 2 — that’s crap.”
In the question and answer period some of the best questions were asked by the panelists themselves. One of the artists asked Alexander how he evaluates his own work — does he rely on the opinions of others since he can’t see the work clearly himself?
Alexander responded that he relies on the opinions of other sighted people “only if I am trying to get something to look in a particular way. If they tell me it’s correct, then I’m fine. If they tell me they don’t like it, then that’s OK.”
Jedrzejczyk directed a question to Leipzig. “Mel, no offense, but you’re getting old, and you keep on painting. Why?”
Until this point I had considered Leipzig the everyman of able body and mind who was on the panel to provide a broad overview for the rest of us. Now I realized that Mel, like the rest of us in the room, faced the inevitable and final disability — the greatest equalizer of all.
Leipzig, age 83, took no offense and offered the young artist a direct answer to the question. “I simply love painting,” Leipzig said. “But I’ve changed my style. I use more brilliant colors. And I am getting older, so I paint faster.”
A postscript to this scene. At the event in Trenton, I was there strictly as an observer, neither an artist nor a person with a disability. Months later, on the day I began writing this column, I had an extended interview for another story. My right hand has been troubling me lately, and I brought a pocket tape recorder to use as a backup to my usual handwritten notes. At the interview my hand totally failed me. Was it a temporary nervous tic? An arthritic flare-up? Troubling, either way, in my profession.
I may now have to substitute the recorder for that handy reporter’s notebook I have used for the past 50 years or so. My first reaction is negative. But as I write this column I think twice. With a new approach maybe I will concentrate more on the interview and less on the handwritten transcription. Will this new circumstance lead to a masterpiece? I doubt it, but I’m psyched.