After eight years as curator of the Gallery at Chapin School, Dallas Piotrowski has decided to retire and return to painting full time. Before doing so, her swan song will be “The Curator’s Exhibit,” featuring artwork of five gallery directors from Princeton-area private schools: Dolores Evangelista Eaton, Silva Gallery of Art, Pennington School; Jody Erdman, the Anne Reid Art Gallery, Princeton Day School; Jamie Greenfield, Marguerite & James Hutchins Gallery, Lawrenceville School; Phyllis Wright, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Hear; and Piotrowski at Chapin.
“I decided to give the curators an opportunity to shine a light on their own artwork and to give the community a chance to meet with them,” says Piotrowski, whose Hamilton home reflects her interest in artists of the region.
In her collection there’s a metal bust, “Dangling Thoughts,” by found object sculptor Eric Schultz, whom she exhibited at Chapin three years ago.
One of Lambertville-based sculptor Dana Stewart’s bronze beasts with an extended tail lives in Piotrowski’s home now. She traded some of her work for his. Stewart’s work is whimsical, so he selected Piotrowski’s “The Frogs Have Arrived,” two paintings of amphibians climbing anthurium (or flamingo flower). Piotrowski, who works from photographs, found the plants with waxy red petals from which a phallus rises in Florida.
“I have always had a great reverence for the natural world. Its infinite variety and beauty always astounds and fascinates me. I started painting wildlife out of my increasing concern for our vanishing species. The main focus of my paintings for almost 25 years had been on endangered, threatened, and extinct wildlife. I tried to heighten people’s awareness to wildlife’s vulnerability and loss of habitat,” Piotrowski says.
Some of her well-known paintings include “Lost in Transit,” two zebras on the New York City subway, and a gorilla in the woods with a computer; on the screen is a message: “This species about to be erased. Press to continue.”
On a wall of her dining room is the painting that brought Piotrowski a bit of fame: Joyce Carol Oates as Alice in Wonderland with an elongated neck. It is a reworking of the 1864 John Tenniel sketch showing Alice “opening out like the largest telescope there ever was,” having just eaten the Eat Me cake. The altered Alice has a pencil in one hand and a book in the other and a face not unlike that of Oates. Oates has titled it “Curiouser and Curiouser.”
Piotrowski created the original for an Alice in Wonderland series exhibited at Ellarslie in 2004 that included Jack Nicholson as the Mad Hatter, Hillary and Bill Clinton as the Queen and King of Hearts, and Martha Stewart as the Duchess.
“I always wanted to paint Joyce because I knew of her love for Lewis Carroll,” says Piotrowski. When Oates was eight her grandmother gave her the 1946 Junior Library edition of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” illustrated by Tenniel. Oates wrote of the gift as “the great treasure of my childhood and the most profound literary influence of my life.”
For Oates’ birthday, Piotrowski sent her a print of her altered Alice, and Oates liked it so much she put it on her website and invited Piotrowski to her home. From then on, the two women, who share a tall elegance, have been friends. Oates’ late husband, Raymond J. Smith, published the series in the Ontario Review as a cover story.
On another wall is a pencil and chalk preliminary drawing by Mel Leipzig, done several decades ago. Piotrowski studied with Leipzig at Mercer County Community College and joined the family of Mel Leipzig subjects. He painted Piotrowski and her two sons, also a few decades ago, in the library of the home that she shares with her husband, Ed, a retired regional IBM financial program administrator.
The library looks pretty much the same today — Piotrowski is a collector of signed first-edition and children’s books. She says she’s a bibliophile who actually reads her books. Her collection includes popup books and works with illustrations by Maurice Sendak and Barry Moser, as well as vintage toys.
The Dodo is featured on the cover of her own children’s book, an ABC book on threatened and endangered animals. In the back is a history and status report on endangered animals. The book is in search of a publisher, and some of the paintings were recently on view at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center.
Piotrowski earned her associate’s degree from Mercer and studied printmaking at the College of New Jersey. In addition to her formal studies, she also studied with Elizabeth Ruggles, Hiroshi Murata, and Nelson Shanks, but it was Leipzig from whom she learned to lay out a canvas, she says. “I studied with him the whole time I was at Mercer. He was a caring, nurturing teacher. Mel projected slides of noteworthy paintings and taught us what drew you in, how colors are used. It was a turning point for me in learning composition.”
Exhibiting in the region since 1980, Piotrowski has had solo exhibits at the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, the Trenton City Museum, Perkins Art Center, the Jewish Community Center of Trenton, corporate offices, and elsewhere. But it was after her 1998 exhibit at Chapin that she was invited to curate the gallery. She still keeps pictures Chapin students drew to thank her for that exhibit.
Chapin offers six exhibits a year, lasting about a month, with an artist reception and artist talks for students. During these talks, the artists explain their work and perform demonstrations, and students get a chance to ask questions.
Artists from New Jersey and Pennsylvania are exhibited and have included Kate Graves, Csilla Sadloch, Charlie Gross, Tom Kelly, Madelaine Shellaby, Charles McVicker, and others. “These are top-of-the-line artists whose work leaves a lasting impression on students,” says Piotrowski. “The students get so excited when artists come to talk and answer questions.” Take-away activities include collage, cutouts, or mosaics.
As a founding member of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association and a longtime member of Artsbridge, a volunteer arts group in Lambertville, Piotrowski has connections to a wealth of regional artists. “You don’t have to go to New York to see good art. The galleries are a wonderful way to teach the children to appreciate art. I can already see how they are developing their opinions in what they like and don’t. These exhibits present a broad palette of choices to spark their imagination, and the art teachers take off on the artists’ ideas. If children are exposed to art in grades K through 8, it will help train their eye. There’s looking at a painting, and then there’s seeing, stopping to understand what makes it work.”
Some curators are artists, and for some curators, the exhibit is their art. “To be a good curator you need to know the history of art and understand the influence of artists — we’re all influenced by the history of art, although we might not be aware of it,” says Piotrowski. “Not every artist can be a curator — it comes from being around art. There are plenty of curators who are not artists but have a great knowledge of art.”
Piotrowski grew up in Hamilton Square when Nottingham Road was a dirt thoroughfare. She remembers it as an idyllic place with farms and woods. “We got fresh milk, had ducks and chickens, a goat, and a big garden,” she says. “My mother was a gardener, baker, and cook, and she whipped her own butter.” Raising seven children, Piotrowski’s mother — who named her daughter after the radio soap opera character Stella Dallas — also worked in retail. Her father, an avid reader, was a production manager for the federal government. He read “The Little Match Girl” to her when she was seven, and she still recalls how she cried at the end and went to her room. The family moved to Lawrence when Dallas was a third grader.
It was reading fairy tales and seeing the illustrations in children’s books that made her want to become an artist. “The imagination soars when you read a fairy tale, and being able to picture it in my head made me feel warm in my heart.”
Many years later, she took a workshop through the Children’s Book Institute of Publishing and Writing at Vassar College and wrote and illustrated a 32-page children’s book.
Her interest in books continues. She is founding member of the Bibliophiles and Collectors Group at Firestone Library and actively involved with several other groups at Firestone. “Being in the library is like taking a walk in the woods,” she says. “It’s a way of escaping.”
For “The Curators Exhibit,” Piotrowski is exhibiting paintings of lotuses. Working from specimens she photographs at Grounds For Sculpture, “I fell in love with the plant.” The lotuses are in different stages of their life cycle: in one, fragile petals are at the end of their life, cascading over the water; in another, they are in full bloom, with seed cups inside the flower.
“The lotus has been a revered plant in Asia for 5,000 years,” she says. “The seed can last for 1,300 years and still bloom. The plant is said to bring good fortune and energy, and is revered in Hindu, Asian, and Buddhist religions. You can eat every part from the rhizome to the flower. It grows in murky muddy water which, to me, shows that no matter how awful things are, you can rise above it and have a beautiful life.”
The Curator’s Exhibit, The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton. Tuesday, April 1, through Wednesday, April 30. Reception on Wednesday, April 2, 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit can also be viewed by appointment during school hours. 609-924-7206.