Beauty is not trivial.
So often the time-line of a region’s art is lost, a victim of weak economic times, indifference, and the misconception that beauty is trivial. Artwork and scrapbooks of art shows, dating back to the 1920s which had been stored in sheds around Cape May County, have been resting easier for the last year in the Cape May County Art League’s new home at the Prickly Pear Cottage in Cape May. Founded in 1929, the Cape May Art League (CMAL) is the oldest county art league in the United States. After frequent attempts, artists both current and past – some long past – have finally found a venue, easily accessible to the public, where they can meet and show their work.
For a while the itinerant Art League enjoyed the hospitality of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) at the Physick Estate carriage house. An artist-in-residence served as caretaker for the gallery during the summer months; but CMAL did not have a true home base. Prior to last year’s Prickly Pear Cottage opening, artists ran CMAL from their homes and used the Middle Township Performing Arts Center for shows. Recognizing the need for a more visible location, the league’s board of directors were about to start a site search when by chance the owners of the Prickly Pear, Joseph and Gail Muscatello, stepped forward and offered to rent the first floor of their home to the artists.
According to artist Stan Sperlak, the Gallery’s director, the Muscatellos were concerned about the inability of “underexposed” artists to find a venue for their work. In CMAL’s newsletter “ArtNews,” Sperlak states that since the Prickly Pear opening “there have been strong showings and sales, accounting for more CMAL commerce than any five year period in [the league’s] history.” Most of the profits earned by the sales helped support artists themselves and all CMAL profits helped defray costs incurred by running the gallery. The Prickly Pear Cottage has opened the community to other artistic venues. Poetry readings are a regular activity, lectures on art and writing are on the schedule of events and, weather permitting, music can be heard on Prickly Pear’s porch. CMAL’s president, Reta Sweeney indicated that membership has grown from 97 members a year ago to 260 business and individual members. “People buy a lot more art than the perception is,” Sperlak says. “And now they know where to go to buy regional [Cape May County] art. We sell all kinds of art from pottery to photography, watercolor to pastels.”
What follows are three profiles of Cape May County Art League artists whose work is represented in the gallery of the Prickly Pear.
Artist Diane Close has had an on-again, off-again affair with her art. She first studied art in high school in her native Liverpool, England but after graduation, she said, “I abandoned it. When I had two daughters, I quit my job and started up again. I abandoned it again when I went back to work.” In the 1980s she and her husband, Brian opened their own clothing stores, “Ragtime,” in the City Centre Mall on Washington Street in Cape May and Frontier Resort Wear at 526 Washington Street.
By 1995 self-employment at last freed her to devote time to her watercolors. Diane’s next problem? What to paint? “As an artist,” she says, “you are always looking for subject matter.” One day she came upon a group of artists set up along a sidewalk in Cape May. She talked to them and learned that they got together once a week and looked for scenes in Cape May to paint. “Then I realized,” she said, “Why was I struggling for a subject matter when it was right here, around me everyday?” As she walked around town “constantly thinking about how this, that and the other could be interpreted as an artist” she began to notice an appreciable difference in how things look in Cape May versus other historic settings like Philadelphia for example. It’s the light.
“The light,” she observed, as we sat in the Gallery at the Prickly Pear Cottage with a Sunday afternoon sun filtering in through the windows, “is brilliant in Cape May. The colors move around more because we’re surrounded by water which reflects light more than other places. It’s a shimmer of colors that is constantly changing.” Close’s paintings reflect that shimmering with every stroke. They are tranquil, filled with muted colors of summer’s light. Her focal point is Victorian architecture. Even when
she starts out to paint flowers or trees a building usually sneaks into the framework somewhere. “I like to paint buildings,” she explained, “and Victorian houses are like a puzzle with different angles. I like the challenge of the intricacies of Victorian architecture.” Often she takes photographs of a point of interest and paints at home.
Once Close’s love affair was uninterrupted, she began to amass a body of work. Five years ago, at a dinner party at her West Cape May home, friends of hers, George and Marguerite Patrick suggested she try a show. The Patricks organized the event at their B&B, the CapeScape. It was a great success. Diane sold 19 paintings from the show. With “serendipity” in the form of commissioned art and the opening of the Gallery at the Prickly Pear, success has followed her. As a “low-key” person Diane shies away from aggressively pushing her work. “I don’t pursue selling,” she said, “it’s too much pressure. Just being an artist is pressure enough.” Diane feels that when the commercial side of art takes on too much importance the artist will paint to please the seller “instead of painting for yourself.”
Once a week she still meets with a group of women who move about Cape May looking for subject matter which appeals to them on that particular day. As we move onto the Prickly Pear porch to get ready for a photo shoot, one has the sense that it’s been a long journey for Diane Close who, because of other demands, once had to look at her art as only a “pass time.” She sees herself in a “nice period” now, one she is not likely to abandon again.
Pastel artist (and landscape designer) Stan Sperlak didn’t start out to be an artist. He needed to learn how to draw so people would have an idea of what their grounds would look like when he was finished. He ended up at the Pennsylvania Academy for Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Soon he went from drawing landscapes to painting them. Then he went from artist renderings of people’s lawns to the marshes, fields and woodlands of Cape May County.
Today Stan Sperlak roams the same paths taken by the Crow Creek Tribe as much as 200 years ago trying to imagine what it was like back then. He finds much of his subject matter around Swainton and Goshen on forgotten dirt roads. He looks for the natural history of the area as he searches for the perfect subject of his next pastel painting. As we sat in his spacious, airy studio located above the retail space which serves Cape Shore Gardens Nursery & Landscape Company, Stan explained, “I spent years as a teenager taking pictures of everything I saw with no aspirations to be a photographer, I just liked doing it. I liked having a record of the times.”
The other love of Stan’s life is working with plants. Looking back, he reflects that “I didn’t think of myself as a creative person, but I liked plants. I liked working with trees and shrubs. My parents always had plants all over the house.” At 19 he started working in a nursery and so began his journey as landscaper and artist. Just driving into Cape Shore Gardens and observing the almost Zen quality of how the nursery is designed tells the visitor that this is a business run by someone with artistic sensibility. A quiet calm comes over the visitor looking at all the plants and shrubs even on a miserable rainy day. “I like to paint outside,” he said. “It’s more vital. More spontaneous.” But in the winter and in the rain he paints from photos and tries to experiment a little more with his medium. Sperlak finds the light an artist finds in Cape May to be equal to the light talked about in New Mexico and the south of France. Bucks County, he said, also has a similar quality of light, but the conditions in Cape May are unique to this area he said. “We are surrounded by water. The peninsula makes the light very reflective.” In addition, he noted the humidity and wind help create “lush but subtle quadrants – the sky, the shadows, the grasses, the water.”
Good surroundings are important to an artist’s development, as are good patrons, but Sperlak also cited the need for artists to have mentors along the way. He found a salon in Millville run by artist/teacher Pat Witt. “The camaraderie of her students and the self expression I found with the art group led me to wonder if we could have that (art scene) here in Cape May County.” Sperlak’s good friend, the revered artist Alice Steer Wilson, encouraged him to reach out to other area artists in the same way as his mentor Pat Witt.
In terms of selling his work, Stan Sperlak says “I try not to think about it. I don’t have to sell my work, I have a business.” At the same time, he feels no particular desire to hold onto a painting. “It’s all about the painting. That’s everything.” Once finished, he’s ready to let go of the piece. “I like to share that connection.” By default selling a piece accomplishes that goal. The first piece of art he sold happened by chance. He wanted to see how the framed painting would look on a wall, so he hung it (a painting of the free bridge into Stone Harbor) in his store. A customer looked at and said “I cross that bridge everyday,” and asked him how much he wanted for it. Thus began his art career.
“That’s what I mean by sharing the connection,” he said. “People buy art a lot more than the perception.” But they are often, he noted, looking for a reminder of something – a place, a time, a feeling – a connection.
Mary Simkins Federici
When asked what her medium is, Mary Simkins Federici pauses, then lists them – batiks, watercolors, oils, textiles, Plexiglas. Her circa 1870 home in Cold Springs underscores the depth of her talent. The walls are filled with oils and watercolors. In the corners of the parlor spinning wheels accent the variety in the room. Her studio toward the back of the house is filled with large batiks which she holds up to the light so the observer can get a full measure of the subtleties of color in them. When pressed, Mary admits that her favorite medium is watercolor because “it’s
easy to put it in your backpack” when she takes off in search of a new subject. Botanicals are her favorite. She finds the gardens of Leamings Run and Hereferd Inlet to be “very artist friendly” although she says her backyard, a natural habitat for turtles, tortoises, butterflies and birds, is just as interesting and can keep her occupied for days.
How did she get started? “You know I was lucky. I always knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist.” She grew up in Salem County (NJ) near the Delaware River. “I’m not happy,” she said, “unless I’m near a large body of water and an open space. It suits me down here [Cape May County], but I mourn every time I see an open field get developed or another cluster of trees get torn down.”
A mother of two grown children, Mary enrolled at Cape May County Vocational Technical School to study commercial art when her children started school. Eventually, she earned a dual-major degree from Glassboro Rowan in Painting and Textile Design. For a while she worked at Cold Spring Village as an historic re-enactor– spinning, weaving, and dyeing. But the light always drew her back out into the fields and gardens.
“The light down here – it’s everything,” she said as we stood in her garden. “Look,” she said pointing to new blossoms all around us. “the light is bouncing all around us all the time and changing all the time throughout the day. The white light at mid day is spectacular. In South Jersey we’ve always had the sea surrounded by sky as Alice (Steer Wilson- revered watercolor artist) used to tell us ‘we’re sky painters what choice to we have?'” Mary Federici brings her art into every aspect of her life. She points to a canvas lying across a sawhorse. “My grandson was here this weekend,” she explained. “I asked him what we were going to paint.” The two-year old chose a dragon with him on its back – a dragon without scales but with large ugly teeth, flying over a castle, on a moonlit night. And Voila! The artist unfolds the canvas to show a blond haired little boy hugging a dragon, flying up in the night sky over a castle toward a big round moon.
For Mary Simkins Federici art is everywhere. Like other artists associated with the Cape May Art League, she takes great delight in pointing it out to those of us less tuned in to the beauty in the life all around us.