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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

in abundance.

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

Fay Sciarra, Stuart Country Day School, Norbert

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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