It’ll take a while to unpack how the pandemic life we lived over the last two years affected us, our communities and our world, but the fact remains that human beings fought each other in grocery store aisles for rolls of paper to use in the bathroom.
The last two years were a surge of hope, sacrifice and bravery, but also anxiety, fear and chaos. Also, boredom and creation; isolation and Zoom. Amid that disequilibrium, Noreen Scott Garrity wonders if, like her, anyone felt any feelings of nostalgia.
(Yes, surely, we did.)
How could you not yearn for better times with a deadly virus just a breath away, and jobs being lost, Capitols being ransacked, elections being “stolen.” All things blasted into your face by the internet and cable news 24 hours a day. How could we not sit at home, waiting always for the events that would finally get us “past this,” and with them never seeming to come, mine the recesses of our memories for a better time?
Prompted by the director of Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts to curate an exhibition, Scott Garrity, associate director of education there, examined those feelings of nostalgia, and turned that kernel into a much wider-ranging exploration of art and the passage of time in the exhibit Passages: 8 Women Painters, on view until April 8.
“It’s a very colorful show in terms of the range of palette that you see,” Scott Garrity says. “There’s a certain joy as well in looking at some of the artwork that hits you in the gallery. There are also these more meditative moments in some of the work that’s sort of reflective and almost prayer-like.”
Scott Garrity’s initial idea was the retro-framed “art school girls of the ’80s, where are they now?” But after connecting with eight artists from her own time at the University of Delaware and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)—where she earned BFA and MFA degrees, respectively—a framework for a much more probing exhibition emerged.
It’s a framework that explores “what happens to artists more than 30 years after formal art school training, how a professional career impacts artistic practice, the affinities among this grouping of artists who shared beginnings and faculty mentors,” and what endures from the ’80s. Though the exhibition’s parameters limit artists with whom Scott Garrity went to school, the work is current.
Her two guiding principles in selecting artists were that, “I respected their work and followed their work in someway and that I felt I had a connection with either still or back in the day,” Scott Garrity says, adding that there was a, “Hey, let’s get the band together again kind of spirit to it.”
That the exhibition includes solely women artists was somewhat of a coincidence—the people Scott Garrity had on her shortlist when filling out the roster were mostly women and they all happened to say yes. But that led to the opportunity to further explore how the unique personal and family demands on women affected their art and careers in art, and to discuss what to make of several galleries recently holding exhibitions solely featuring women artists over 50.
Scott Garrity estimates she took 10-15 years off from “working seriously” on her art while raising a family and building her career. Some of the work she shares in the exhibit come from her Salem County Romantic series, which was born out of a challenge to create something every day for a year. Having run along the Delaware River every weekend for years, always banking scenes that would make for a good painting, the pandemic afforded her the time (and no excuses) to undertake the project, painting a watercolor everyday of a river scene and posting it on Instagram. The confines of the project were difficult to manage—sometimes having to run up to her studio in the late evening to start a watercolor—but… she managed.
“I feel like I learned a lot not just about watercolor but a lot about myself and sort of grit and determination and maybe obsession,” Scott Garrity says.
Those parameters worked for Scott Garrity but the exhibition, of course, explores women artists in different media, with different approaches, and who have taken disparate journeys; some are represented in galleries, others work in arts education, and still more are in film or graphic design. While the journeys and art media may be different for each artist, the hope is that the through-lines of the artists’ experiences are evident, in some way, in the exhibition.
“[Visitors] can know none of this backstory and I think it still hangs together as an exhibition,” Scott Garrity says. “We have everything from non-objective abstraction to hyperrealism and everything in between, which I think is kind of interesting. But it’s interesting that there are these threads, either colors or shapes, that kind of lead you to one person or another, these odd little serendipitous things.”
Like the two separate artists who each created a figure with a rabbit head—”Who could’ve predicted that that would happen?” Scott Garrity says. “There’s certain shapes, this woven textural feeling. I think people can follow that trail as there are these breadcrumbs as they walk through the exhibition.”
Bully for us that the exhibition is in-person; many of the exhibitions at Rutgers-Camden (and pretty much everywhere else) had been virtual over the last two years. Not to say that virtual exhibitions are any less meaningful, but there’s simply no replacing the experience of seeing a curated collection of art in one place, face-to-art. That said, Scott Garrity felt the floor drop out for a minute when her exhibition was scheduled for the gallery, and not for online.
“When I found out it was going be an actual exhibition, I had this moment of panic, ‘Oh no, I have to mine my past. It’s a little intimidating. Even though I had these bouts of nostalgia over the pandemic, to dive into my past and talk to these people you haven’t talked to in 30 years is a little scary.”
Think about your own life and how you’d converse with someone from your distant past, someone with whom you once shared a brief (in the context of time) episode of your life. You’re not the same person, and neither are they, but do they temporarily become part of the same person via the wormhole you open when you, a person from their distant past, reaches out to them? How much of that connection you once shared remains?
“It’s funny, I don’t know if you’ve ever gone back and revisited someone from your past. You’re never quite sure how that’s going to go. You have this very one-sided idea of what that relationship was like because you’re in your own head,” Scott Garrity says. “I guess there were some surprises, some people you think, ‘I haven’t talked to them in 30 years and they’re going to be professional with me,’ and that was not the case. There were shared affinities and shared recollections and this kind of shared past that in a couple cases, even though I hadn’t spoken to the person, we picked up right where we left off, which was a surprise to me.”
Curating the exhibition also caused Scott Garrity to encounter that shared past in unexpected ways. She hit the kind of neural triggers that bring us back to a place in time, like music or smells—thinking even of putting together a playlist from the artists’ time in school, though it was ultimately too tricky to fit in. For instance, Scott Garrity says Paul Simon’s Graceland always reminds her of her studio at SAIC because the artist in the space next to her’s played it “over and over and over and over again to the point where I wanted to lose my mind. Any song from that record takes me right back; thankfully, it was a good record.”
Those connections are alluded to in the exhibition’s catalog designed by another artist in the exhibition, Peg Curtin, who was looking at a Cyndi Lauper album cover and made a design with bright pink and green coloring and bold font. (Scott Garrity, in fact, says she toyed with the idea of calling the exhibition “Time After Time.”)
Those connections between then and now—some superficial and others deeply resonant—and the journey between will not only be on display in the exhibition, but in a series of panels with the artists, including a broader reception panel on April 2 that’ll look less at the art (as it will be in other panels) and more at the experience of participating in the exhibition and the journeys the artists have taken.
You could frame Passages as a celebration—of art and artists, of the connections made deep in our past that lay dormant until we make them live again, of the beautiful machinery of life that allows us to, in tumultuous present moments, as in the pandemic, look to the past to create something for the future.
“I want to celebrate the fact that not everybody takes the same path or the accepted path when you get an MFA: [that] you’re going to go find a place to teach, you’re going to get on a tenure track,” Scott Garrity says. “I want to celebrate the fact that women artists, or artists in general, find a way to fit painting into their lives. It is really hard, and to celebrate that they’re keeping going in spite of doing what they have to do to keep a living.”
Participating artists include Lisa Bartolozzi, Elisabeth Condon, Peg Curtin, Noreen Scott Garrity, Diane Crossan Lawler, Helen O’Leary, Helen O’Toole and Bibiana Suárez.
The exhibition, which is free of charge and open to the public, will run through Friday, April 8 in the Stedman Gallery (Fine Arts Complex, 314 Linden St. on Rutgers-Camden campus). Hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Artist panels on Landscape, Nature and Memory, and The Process of Painting will be held on March 29 and 31, respectively; go here for information. The Reception and Panel at the Stedman Gallery is on Saturday, April 2 from 2-4:30 p.m.