A Beautiful Thing: Eight Area Artists Who Know How to Talk With Each Other

By mark-slade February 19, 2011

A Beautiful Thing: Eight Artists Who Know How to Talk With Each Other

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Jazz musicians call it “a beautiful thing”—after hours of solitary practice, it’s the times when they are really connecting on the bandstand. Many writers meet, read, and discuss one another’s works in progress.
Visual artists usually work alone, sometimes haunted by the harsh criticism they received as part of their arts education. Later, many join critique groups of artists working in the same medium. Discussions tend to the technical. Montclair artist Rachel Leibman: “My former artist critique groups would be all painters. The talk was about brushwork, what kind of medium used, what was mixed in the paint to achieve a certain gloss,” Leibman said.
Leibman, the director of the SMI Gallery @ Academy Square in town, wanted something more from fellow artists. So did West Orange’s ceramic artist Lisa G. Westheimer, who also instructs at the Montclair Art Museum’s Yard School of Art. So did Montclair’s photographer and printmaker Yvette Lucas, West Orange’s Rayna Gillman, Orange’s Susan Lisbin, former Montclair based Keely McCool, Leona Mahler-Sussman of Cedar Grove, and Verona’s Susanna Baker.
If you follow the art scene, you know these names. They show all the time and they belong to Studio Montclair, a long established not for profit artist organization. Right now you can see works by Westheimer, Leibman, and Lucas at the Art Connections 7 exhibit at the George Segal Gallery at Montclair State University. Westheimer and McCool (that is her birth name) are part of Studio Montclair’s “Sustainability” and “Rendering Green” exhibits at the Galleries @ Academy Square and Lisbin is on view at the New Jersey Art Incubator’s “Unemerged Show” in West Orange.
More revealing is the show curated by Yvette Lucas and Susanna Baker at the Watchung Art Center that runs through this month. It’s called “Hidden Worlds,” and it is wonderful. It features all these artists, working in diverse mediums, each with her own story to tell but each having become part of each other’s story, too.
But I have gotten ahead of my story. Let’s back up to the challenge of artists working alone, seeking discussion, criticism, and other artists to talk with.
About four years ago, Lisa G. Westheimer started organizing and running artist critique groups for Studio Montclair. “Initially these were open groups where artists of all levels of experience and from all points of view could come,” Westheimer said.
The initial open groups had both value and also some inevitable problems—experienced artists spending too much time helping neophytes, artists who would attend irregularly, the occasional artist seeking adulation.
Gradually eight artists, working in different medium, discovered one another. They came consistently to the meetings. They shared a seriousness of purpose, a willingness to think deeply and comment thoughtfully about each other’s work and a real commitment to personal artistic growth and the growth of their peers.
While supporting and advising Studio Montclair on the creation of other and new critique groups, sometime about 2008, these eight—all women, all with long artistic and life experiences—began meeting exclusively with one another.
“We meet in each other’s homes or studios about once a month and bring what we are working on,” Lucas said.
Before turning to the art, they share wine, food and conversation about children, husbands, day jobs. That talk is valuable, too. They support one another in the personal as well as artistic lives: “It’s cathartic,” Westheimer said.
When they turn to the art, it’s very professional. “The critiques are supportive and gentle, but also serious and specific,” the artists concurred.
“It’s not, ‘oh, I don’t like that yellow’,” Westheimer said. “It’s more, that area seems complete, but that area seems to need more work.” Or: “Sometimes we take an abstract works and look at it from every side and say, ‘You need to add something to make  holding it this way the only way it can be’,” Lucas said.
For many of these artists, a big question is if the work is completed. “I want to know, am I done or am I going to ruin it by doing more?” Westheimer said. “Then the group says something like, ‘It’s done, don’t touch it, pass the hummus’.”
“Artists are always seeking, always self questioning, never satisfied,” Westheimer said. “Studio Group calms us down, makes us more productive.”
I need to stop and say that if I were a gallery director or curator—and I am neither—I would show them all. And that takes us back to their collective “Hidden Worlds” exhibit at the Watchung Art Center. Lucas had exhibited there in the past and liked the space. Conversation in the group was turning to their exhibiting together. In 2010, when Lucas received a call for artist’s collectives from the Watchung Arts Center for a 2011 winter show, she presented the idea to Studio Group. It was readily accepted.
“After meeting for over three years, we seem to be rubbing off on each other in positive ways,” Leibman explained. “Our pieces do not look alike—our individual voices have remained firmly intact—but there are similarities and parallels in our artwork that keep cropping up.”
Leibman, an experienced writer, and the entire group worked on one another’s artists statements. Lucas created a striking, beautifully laid out catalogue with samples of each artist’s work and incorporating these statements. “I didn’t just want to send in a disc with JPEGS of our works and a sheet of paper with statements,” Lucas said. “You have the feeling that the judges looked at Yvette’s catalogue and said, ‘Hell, yes’,” Leibman said.
That sure would have been my reaction. The catalogue cover which incorporates details from each artist’s work is pictured here.
Lucas and Baker curated the show, visiting each artist’s studio and choosing works that speak to the show’s theme, “Hidden Worlds.” They did a masterful job of choosing the artwork and hanging it so that there was a conversation between the pieces, producing a cohesive body of work,” Leibman said.
The theme and title came from a stream of email exchanges where the group unanimously agreed on the theme and title. “Hidden Worlds” is on everyone’s mind. Consciously or subconsciously we are always questioning the unknown—grieving, life’s journey, sculptural altars, mystical oceans, the wonders of nature,” Leibman said.
The conversation now is about how, when and where they can next show together.
In an atomized world where human interactions are too often reduced to the text, the email, the computer image, these artists have rediscovered the human and real: They have a “beautiful thing.” You can’t join their group, you may or may not be an artist, but go see and connect with their work.
“Hidden Worlds”—painting, printmaking, fiber, collage, sculpture, ceramic, encaustic, and photography at the Watchung Art Center, second floor, runs through Feb. 28. Gallery hours are Wed. and Fri,. noon to 3 p.m.,Thurs. noon to 5 p.m., Sat. 1 to 4 p.m. at 18 Stirling Rd., Watchung, NJ, (908) 753-0190, or see www.watchungarts.org.