Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
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ArtFirst! Exhibition Draws Artists From Far and Near to Benefit Medical Center

Linda Arntzenius

It could happen to anyone. One day, 24-year-old Beth Livingston got into her car, strong-limbed and whole. Minutes later her broken body was thrown from her Isuzu Troope and she has lived with paralysis and adaptive technology ever since.

Although the accident happened 17 years ago, she recalls the event with the clarity of slow-motion projection: the realization that she hadn’t buckled up, the fumble to find the belt while controlling the wheel, the ditch, the flip, the crashing front windshield through which her body passed after her back cracked on the steering wheel.

Paralysis has become “a second skin, and a ball and chain,” she said. “I’ve struggled to join mainstream America in the pursuit of motherhood with no road map… to teach myself how to care for an infant from a chair, how to set boundaries for toddlers when you can’t chase them down and how to keep moving forward through grief, frustration, and a sense of isolation, finding joy at the end.”

After attending Riverside school, Princeton Day School, and Princeton High School, the Princeton native now lives in Montana where she is raising two children, daughter Lila (11) and son Parker (15), and working for Home Depot’s Olympic Job Opportunities Program, and as a ski instructor for others with disabilities.

She also creates playful artwork like her furniture piece, King Crab, of wood, glass, stones, resin, and found objects, which won third prize in the sculpture category of the fifth annual ArtFirst! exhibition at the University Medical Center, Princeton. Ms. Livingston’s work ranges from serious themes to the whimsical, often finding its inspiration from found objects and folk art. In 2005, she exhibited in the Zimmer Children’s Museum’s Art and Tell in Los Angeles, a show of 100 artists, activists, actors, and athletes benefiting a program that encourages children to “think outside the box.”

Recently returned from ice-climbing in Alaska, Ms. Livingston spoke to Town Topics by phone as she waited to board a flight to New Jersey from Montana. Much of her recent artwork has been inspired by the ocean, she said. “I am drawn to creatures of the deep, the mystery and the wonderment of lesser explored regions.”

Like Ms. Livingston, each ArtFirst! artist has a history of disability ranging from the complications following accidents to those resulting from childhood polio, to developmental issues and disease. ArtFirst! artists have disabilities caused by traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, impairments caused by stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, mental illness, Parkinson’s disease, and visual and hearing impairments.

As remarkable as each individual story is, for the purpose of ArtFirst!, the artists’ tragic histories play a secondary role. The real focus of the exhibition is not the varied and often heart-rending challenges that form the unique backdrop to each of their lives, but the creative impulse that unites them as artists.

The show includes paintings, sculpture, pastels, photography, metalwork, textiles, stained glass, and fine jewelry by artists from five countries and 28 states, including six from New Jersey.

The Exhibition

Co-chaired this year by Susan Burton and Barbara Curtis, ArtFirst! not only features more paintings than ever before — 320 works of art by 98 artists — on the whole the paintings are also bigger in size, creating challenges for mounting the work on the walls of the medical center’s hallways.

“The sheer size of the exhibition, which includes work from all over the world, has been a challenge,” said Ms. Curtis. “In past years, jurors have viewed artwork off site before the exhibition was hung. This year, the exhibition was mounted prior to the judging.”

“Our 25 volunteers did an amazing job of unpacking and checking and sorting the work, helping us to categorize the pieces,” said Ms. Burton. “The exhibition went up on a Sunday and it was a massive collective effort to hang, physically intense, emotionally rewarding, and a lot of fun, too.”

“ArtFirst! offers artists with disabilities a venue to show their art work, and it also provides them with the opportunity to earn income for their work,” explained Ms. Curtis.

“Artists receive 80% of the sales and more than $6,000 in prize money is distributed.”

This year’s jurors were Anne Reeves, founding director of the Arts Council of Princeton, and painter Vail Barrett.

Chronic Pain

Artists like Rae Adelman battle chronic pain. The Schwenksville, Pa. resident, who majored in early childhood education in college, works in stained glass in spite of a progressive debilitating condition that has resulted in chronic pain and reduced strength and fine motor skills. Unable to cut glass with precision or work for long periods, she makes mosaics with pieces she breaks and grinds into interesting shapes. “Art is my passion,” she says, “and it challenges me everyday.” The exhibition features three vintage windows and a mosaic-bordered window.

Mariana Brooks Mueller of Prairie Village, Kansas, has been a professional artist for over 30 years — printmaking, photography, sculpture, mosaic, restoration, and writing. In 1999, reaction to medication resulted in a traumatic brain injury that left her with chronic head pain, seizures, and memory disorder. The show features six of her photomontages including the award-winning She Wore a Crown of Twelve Stars.

Robert Mauro’s paintings reference the polio he contracted in 1951, at age 5. The Levittown, New York resident is a writer, poet, and playwright with seven published books to his credit. Mauro uses a wheelchair for mobility and a respirator to help him breathe, aspects of his life that feature in his small acrylics By My Window and Hydro-therapy that bear a resemblance to the work of Frida Kahlo. Both works received Honorable Mention from the jurors.

New Jersey Artists

The exhibition features six New Jersey artists. Anthony Zaremba of Whiting, a watercolorist with multiple sclerosis (MS) is a frequent contributor. His watercolor Safe Steal received Honorable Mention.

Self-taught Indian-born painter Vimala Gade of Kendall Park has limited mobility caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Ms. Gade’s acrylic on canvas Dancing Elephants is one of three of her works in the show.

Like Mr. Zaremba and Fort Lee resident James Iatridis, who has two acrylic on canvas paintings in the exhibition, Cam Mandakas of Mount Laurel also suffers the effects of MS. A previous contributor to ArtFirst!, she has three mixed media works on show.

Also featured are six paintings by Long Branch watercolorist Thomas Wilczewski whose work is inspired by the beaches and gardens near his home. Mr. Wilczewski works from a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. His work has been used for greeting cards, brochures, and calendars by organizations such as the Christopher Reeve Foundation, Very Special Arts, New Jersey Polio Network, and Easter Seals. He is the author of a book of poetry, Poetry in Watercolor.

Frances Yen of Princeton Junction retired from the telecommunications industry in 2001after finding out that she had Parkinson’s disease. She discovered the pleasures of watercolor painting at her local senior center. Yen says that painting allows her the time to appreciate the beauty of the world and that watercolors provide the freedom to explore and capture her feelings. She has six pieces in the show and won a third prize in the watercolor and pastel category for her Fall Glory.

International Artists

International artists include Joyce Lichtenstein of Johannesburg, South Africa, who contracted the debilitating neurological disease polymyositis in the 1980s and spent years in bed until the disease, rare in South Africa, was diagnosed. A painter for most of her life, Ms. Lichtenstein works in pastels, watercolors, and most recently in oils. Her art found its way to ArtFirst! through her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Princeton. Six oil-on-canvas works by Ms. Lichtenstein are featured in ArtFirst!

As they did last year, stunning collages by two Indian brothers — Siddhartha Sankar Sukla and Sriharsha Sukla — make a splash at this year’s show. But this year, the artwork is somewhat more relaxed with image predominating over technique, especially with the work of Sriharsha Sukla, whose Still Life 998 won a Jurors’ Choice Award. The sibling artists live in Orissa, India, where they showed an early talent for drawing and a love of art that was encouraged by their mother. A noted artist mentored both boys when they were barely school age. Both have been hearing impaired and mute since childhood. Siddhartha has three collages in the show and Sriharsha has two.

Opening Night

Twenty of the participating artists will be attending the opening Preview Party on Saturday, April 14, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., traveling from within New Jersey as from as far afield as Florida, and Quebec.

Tickets can be purchased for $60 or at the door that evening. Eighty percent of the proceeds go directly to the artists, the other 20 percent will be used to benefit maternal health this year and for the next four years.

The exhibit will be open to the public daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., free of charge, April 15 through May 18.

The ArtFirst! exhibition will hang in the public corridors of the University Medical Center, 253 Witherspoon Street for five weeks from April 15 through May 18, free of charge to the public daily, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Everything in the show is framed and the frame is included in the price, which is set by the artists themselves. Prices range from the hundreds to the thousands and proceeds from the sale and the Patrons Preview Party will be used by the Medical Auxiliary in support of maternal heath at the University Medical Center.

The ArtFirst! Patrons Preview Party will take place on Saturday, April 14, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. For tickets, which start at $60, call (609) 497-4069, or email kristinwalpole@gmail.com. For more information visit www.ArtFirstUMCP.com.

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