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This article by Patricia Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 14, 1999. All rights reserved
Untutored, But Not Unknown
It is incongruous — but comfortably so — to
be surrounded by Fay Sciarra’s warmly detailed acrylic "homescapes,"
replete with pussy cats and dear dogs and patterned comforters and
angelic little boys and comfy chairs and bibelots all over. And then
within hours, to watch a press conference about the latest world atrocity.
The sun is always shining in Sciarra’s paintings. The benign animals
that populate many scenes often show sweet half-smiles. This is the
life — the ideal life, that is.
In Sciarra’s "Music Room," a striped orange cat adds to the
carpet’s squiggles, flowers, and geometric shapes. An armchair in
the foreground is covered with a viney, multi-colored floral design
and accented with a skirt and antimacassar in shades of pink. Another
chair — almost organically growing from the rug — sports a
different print and palette, while the teal-toned wall paper features
branches, flowers, and pheasants. Way off-center and almost obscured
in the near-riot of patterns, sits the piano, its black and white
keys adding a horizontal graphic stripe below the curling music rack.
A curving floral vase rests on one end, next to a two-tone door open
to the next room, with its own patterns, leading in turn to a 12-pane
window, through which can be seen . . . Frank Lloyd Wright it’s not.
The story of Sciarra’s leaving a successful West Coast career in television
to spend time with her mother, then dying of cancer, has already been
well told. About two years after her mother’s death, Sciarra, now
42, purchased painting supplies and started what has been so far a
very successful four-year painting career.
Self-taught in acrylics, she works on one picture at a time, with
enough ideas for a year of work, she says. Her paintings range from
a five-inch square to three-feet by five-feet. As part of the "Bestiaries"
exhibition series at the Stuart Country Day School, Sciarra is now
showing about 30 of her new works through April 23. A reception takes
place on Thursday, April 15, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and a gallery talk
is scheduled for Friday, April 16, at 12:30 p.m.
The artist should be practiced at all that, with solo shows behind
her at both the New Jersey State Museum Cafe and the Chapin School
Gallery, and inclusion in the Phillips Mill and Prallsville Mills
juried shows, and at New Hope’s Golden Door Gallery. Sciarra is trim
and assured, with short, reddish hair and a sprinkling of freckles.
She speaks thoughtfully about about her process and finished work,
done in a distinctive personal style that has been called both naive
and primitive, but that all would agree incorporates whimsy and color
Combining her penchant for flea market shopping with her art, Sciarra’s
new work includes pictures on found objects such as wheelbarrows,
fireplace bellows, and washboards, which also allow her to do reverse
painting on glass. "Goddess of Clean Laundry," a triptych
on three old wooden ironing boards, is this genre’s piece de resistance.
A woman with long red hair and a halo is focal point of the center
board, with an iron on each side of her. Stairs — with a blue-based,
flowered runner that is bordered in teal — descend to a black
and white checkered floor and a basically-red oriental carpet of many
colors and designs. The left and right-side panels both show clothes
lines and contain parallel entrances to other rooms, all predictably
chock-a-block with patterned floors and walls, and hanging things,
not the least of which is a mounted moose head.
The Stuart show also includes a few paintings she has
borrowed back from collectors and three "teeny canvases,"
or "Sophie Snapshots," featuring her family’s golden retriever,
Sophie. "Not on the White Couch" is one whose title will speak
to those who share their lives with dog companions. A few limited-edition
Iris prints that Sciarra can embellish by hand for buyers will also
be on view. One example: "Quick Meal," which started with
a stove the artist liked, and now includes a pig that anyone would
be happy to share a meal with, looking hopefully through the window.
In keeping with the series theme, most all the paintings include animals
— besides countless other elements.
"Boudoir, Cigar, and Caviar" — did we mention Sciarra
is a title champion? — shows, from an unusual angle, a canopied
bed on whose patterned surface lies a very, very happy gray cat. Caviar
in a dish is nearby, and a cigar rests on the dresser. The cat is
imagined, but Sophie is ever-real. "Once, I wasn’t sure what I
wanted to do next," Sciarra remembers. "But I can always come
back to my home for ideas. I sat down on the carpet and Sophie was
lying right next to me in a position I loved. I quickly ran upstairs
and got the canvas to make a quick sketch." The result, including
furniture from the same room: "Sophie’s Slumber."
Sciarra may be, as recently described, "untutored" in art,
but she is hardly unknowing. The second of two girls, she was born
in New York and raised in the Midwest, where her father was a retail
clothes executive. Although her mother was classically trained at
Tyler, she painted only occasionally, neither showing nor selling
her work. "Our house was her gallery," Sciarra says. She remembers
occasional museum visits and art books at home, but the closest she
came to entering the field was through the doodles she drew and invariably
left all over. Only because she enjoyed class analysis of art works,
she minored in art history at the University of Michigan, where she
majored in TV and film as a springboard to a career in media. During
that 10-year span, she gained experience in advertising, public relations,
research, and script-editing on the way to her role as a producer-director
of entertainment programming.
"I never wanted to be an artist," the artist says. But events
changed that. "The fact that it was her [mother’s] suggestion"
made the difference. Through her older sister, Jane Tervooren, a Lawrenceville
resident whose own reaction to her mother’s cancer was chronicled
in U.S. 1 in September, 1994, she had met and later married David
Sciarra, an attorney practicing in Newark, and moved to Lawrenceville.
Their son, Sam, now five years of age, was born the year before she
took up her mother’s brushes.
Now, with his dad, Sam is now one of the two people who see Sciarra’s
work in progress, and he’s an appreciator. "Oh, mommy, that’s
so beautiful," he’ll say, of something he recognizes. Besides
Sam himself (he "stars" in a large painting called "My
Little Lamb," that also includes a little lamb), his mother regularly
builds elements of his life into her work. For instance, his Legos
and bubble gum machine show up in her "Tree House" painting,
destined for a child’s room in the Designers’ Showcase house later
this month; his dalmatian-print underpants, in a picture about wash
day. David Sciarra is "the critic I trust the most," she says.
He reacts frankly to what he sees in the works, and while "that’s
made for a difficult afternoon now and then," she considers all
his comments and often acts on them.
"I thought about taking a beginning painting class," Sciarra
says, looking back at her entry into painting, "but I wanted a
completely free creative process, something joyous, that lets me turn
off the left side of my brain. I didn’t want someone looking over
my shoulder, saying, now do a still life, or use these brushes, or
try light from this angle. I didn’t want the mentality that there’s
a right way to do my art."
So far, she says, "I haven’t come to a point where
I can’t solve the challenges that come up. For me, it’s a discovery
process." She points out a picture with a sheer canopy topping
a poster bed: "I didn’t know how to do a wash when I started painting,"
she notes, alluding to the Zen concept that the possibilities of a
thing are unlimited to someone who approaches it with a beginner’s
mind. "In so many other areas of my life, the inner critic is
so loud. I can be on the telephone talking with somebody and the voice
comes up and says, `Ah, you’re sounding stupid,’ or `you’re boring’
— that kind of stuff. That never comes up when I’m working."
So no blinders or ear plugs for Sciarra; she is just selective about
what art ideas and information she pursues. Preferring to have visceral
reactions to the art she looks at, she’ll check out library books
about Matisse, Bonnard, and others, but "I’m careful how much
I read about what was going on intellectually for them. I don’t want
my work to come from that place, but from a soul and heart place.
I’m doing it for my own creative expression, my own joy — rather
than pleasing some teacher."
What some of us do all the time with our homes, Sciarra does all the
time with her paintings. But her result is more clearly a success:
beautifully detailed surfaces and textures; unusual furniture and
fabrics; warmth, comfort, color. She says she constantly goes through
books and magazines on interior design, Victoriana, rustic accessories
— clipping colors and objects that appeal, and "spending a
fortune" on color copies. Drawing from her burgeoning idea file,
she is never at a loss for what to put on top of that side table ("I’d
just seen a magazine spread on Elton John’s collection of Limoges.")
Believably, Sciarra says, "I’m not the kind of artist who works
from memory. I like to look at stuff."
Intent on interesting composition, she is sure her experience in television
influenced her approach to art. Used to directing through a camera,
she knows to crop elements and look for unusual angles. Her editing-room
background gave her an eye for detail, a good visual memory, and readiness
to delete and add to a composition. If she’s gathering impressions
of a scene that she will paint later in her studio, she takes photographs
from every conceivable angle, and makes decisions later.
As attested by "Morning Glory Cows" and "Beetleburg Farm,"
two pictures done on location on Martha’s Vineyard, a favorite family
vacation spot, Sciarra sometimes paints outdoors. But, aware that
for passers-by, "you become kind of an object of interest,"
and knowing that "I get up-tight with people looking over my shoulder,"
she usually opts to work indoors. "I’m very focused when I paint,"
she says. "I don’t even listen to music or answer the phone. It’s
total silence, total privacy."
Sciarra now works in a corner of her bedroom, at a handsome easel
near two windows. From that vantage point, she can see her studio-to-be.
Starting next month, it will rise from the roof of the detached garage,
behind the house, in a setting that is pure "Secret Garden."
The trees, vines, and bushes that assure the privacy Sciarra relishes
for much of the year were not yet out in late March, but by studio-warming
time, they’ll be in business. From her flea market forays, she has
rescued a variety of doors, one with vari-colored stained glass, to
define parts of her aerie.
Fay Sciarra is to her pictures as Ralph Lauren is to fashion: Both
pull from the golden past, the wished-for, the life that often never
was — that is nonetheless warmly evocative. Both produce comfortable
looks that, in Sciarra’s case anyway, are the result of constant research
and adaptation. Her world — both her pictures and her home setting
— is an antidote to international politics, best sellers, TV violence,
and road rage. It’s not a world we recognize, but one we would like
to recognize, and inhabit.
— Pat Summers
Considine Gallery, 609-921-2330. Opening reception for a show of new
work by Fay Sciarra that runs through April 23. Thursday, April
15, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Artist’s gallery talk is Friday, April 16,
at 12:30 p.m.
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