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Showcase Magazine - Cover Story
Thursday, February 5, 2004
Works of love: Three artists show off their "Valentines of Mass Devotion" at the Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery

By LAURA POPE

Showcase Correspondent

ELLEN FRIEL'S watercolor and oil pastel, "The Kiss," is on display at the Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery. (Courtesy art)

The Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery on lower State Street in Portsmouth has always been a place of visual abandon, where viewers immerse themselves in two large rooms full of mixed-media exhibitions.

The threads linking the monthly shows and special exhibitions at the Levy are often wrapped around a theme and always inclusive of pure and hybrid art forms.

This month, the theme is certainly lighthearted and often hilarious, and as the Levy staffers are wont to do, the display is inclusive. Titled "Valentines of Mass Devotion," this mixed-media show by three well-known New Hampshire artists heralds the coming of Valentine's Day.

"Valentines," which opened Wednesday and is on display through Feb. 29, samples the works of clay artist/storyteller/comedienne Jane Kaufmann of Durham; the whimsical renderings of found object artist Nina Fox Herlihy of Rye; and watercolor paintings by Amherst artist Ellen Friel.

Dubbed the "Axis of Eves" for this show, the three women are acclaimed artists with the New Hampshire Art Association and the Levy as their common stomping grounds. Together, they summon a collective visual gravitation toward "Art Works of Love," a theme the three came up with rather spontaneously.

"Ellen and I had gallery-sat at the Levy a couple of times, and we always tried to think up ways to make the gallery more fun," recalled Kaufmann, designated New Hampshire's most famous underground artist in the media. "She used to bring food to give to people who walked in off the street to view the art in the gallery and we would always put lively music on."

"One day, she said she was going to have a show in February called "Friends and Lovers" and I asked her if I could be in it. Then we thought some of Nina's pieces hanging in the window would look good so we asked Nina. Then Becky, (Kaufmann's daughter) wrote the press release called "Valentines of Mass Devotion" and we went with that, so it sort of changed from the original idea. We just want to have a party. I have never shown with Nina or Ellen before, but we have become good friends doing this."

FOUND OBJECT ARTIST NINA FOX HERLIHY brings a touch of whimsy to the "Valentines of Mass Devotion" exhibit with pieces such as this one. The exhibit runs through February. (Courtesy photo)

In Kaufmann's case, art lovers will gain exposure to a wide variety of shapes, sizes and messages in her legendary raku-fired clay orbs; dozens of flat, wall-worthy Valentines inscribed with landscapes, flowers, people and cats; reclining animals and people; and a few interactive, story tower sculptures of the world's greatest lovers, including the story of Napoleon and Josephine and Adam and Eve. She will also include some "Bad Girl" sculptures from an earlier exhibition in Holderness where she showcased famous women who were outspoken or sexually active, plus a wall of portraits, drawn into flat canvases of clay, depicting her best girlfriends with text explaining the virtues of each.

Those who have never experienced Kaufmann art firsthand will quickly realize the artist's talents as a sculptor, her tendency to label art with words often incising a short story right into the piece, and the fine quality of her drawing and coloring when she uses clay as a canvas.

Herlihy will display her signature line of found object art sculptures, which she names "soulful synthesis eco art assemblages or Herli-hedrons," including birds, fish, dragons, flowers, people, animals and mermaids. The vast array of organic and manmade materials found, rescued, revived and implemented in Herlihy's artworks range from wood, metal and feathers from her free-ranging chickens ("eventually taken by fox and birds of prey, may they rest in peace") to old ashtrays, buttons, mini tumbleweeds of her dog's hair, shingles, old earrings and other bits.

An avid beachcomber, the assembler of new and old artifacts said she does enjoy collecting some of the wood and stones for her work at the shoreline. Rather than dwell on the pieces she finds, Herlihy explained she is often more driven by the process of assembling her artworks. "Most often, I stash the bits and pieces I find in my studio or in the cellar."

Like a New Millennium archaeologist, she returns to her cache of treasures from time to time, rediscovering what will work in an artwork pieced from several mediums.

"I do a lot of birds, and for this show I have attached a valentine theme to them such as "Owl Always Love You" and "You Send My Heart Soaring." One of the fish pieces is titled "You're the Only Fish in the Sea for Me." Then there will also be flowers "many wall flowers both large and small" and a variety of human figures exhibiting different postures, expressions and body language for a group called "Expressions of Love." Some of these mixed media objects are free standing and others hang on the wall."

Like Kaufmann, Herlihy includes smaller, affordable pieces starting in the $20 range for those on the lookout for sweet valentine keepsakes.

"People generally laugh, find the artwork humorous or respond warmly to my artwork," she added, ravings about the great energy and friendship of showing with kindred spirits. "There is so much fun, so much laughter and enjoyment in launching this exhibition. I have known Jane and Ellen since I joined the Art Association three years ago."

Recent exhibitions of her work include displays at the Button Factory Open Studios at Christmas, at Tulips in Portsmouth and the Chameleon Gallery in Newburyport, Mass.

Friel is an award-winning watercolorist. "I am a native of New Hampshire and my work celebrates what is so delightful about this state," she writes in her artist statement.

She began her career as a member of the New Hampshire Art Association and now exhibits in Boston at the Copley Society and at the Cambridge Art Association. For "Valentines of Mass Devotion," Friel put together a collection of still lifes, landscapes and portrait watercolor paintings, some started five years ago.

"The portrait watercolors are especially whimsical and the characters in them express a lot of emotion. Some of the titles are "Old Love," "Hot Love," "In Love," "Love is My Native Tongue" and "Oceans of Love." I intended the floral paintings to be enduring gifts for people to give to their sweethearts in lieu of real flowers."

Visitors at the gallery will have 25 Friel works to ponder, both framed and shrink-wrapped in the portfolio bin.

"Jane and I go way back," she said. "I met her in 1981 and we’re both members of the new Hampshire Art Association. She and I immediately clicked. We have the same personality, like to have fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We both work with a lot of color, which reflects our sensibilities and we get along well as friends. Viewers will recognize a vitality which is common to all of us and our work. It is happy, colorful, comical, and whimsical. There is a wonderful blend of technical mastery and a dynamic creative force."

Additional proof of fun and friendship among the three is easily discerned on their publicity poster for the exhibition, featuring photos take by Kaufmann's University of New Hampshire physics professor husband, Dick.

"Because Dick takes all my photographs of my artwork, we have the lights and the backdrops and the cameras. We just set it up and got some props and went nuts.

"We wanted to give the impression that the show would be fun to see. It didn't take very long to take the pictures. It was only when we got the pictures back that we realized Ellen was wearing her bedroom slippers. She forgot to change into her shoes. But it didn't matter. Dick is fun to work with because anything goes. He doesn't have preconceived ideas of how it should be. He just tries to take our pictures when our eyes are open."

Friel added that in trying to convey to would-be gallery visitors some idea of what artwork would be shown in the exhibition, it became obvious that "we like attention. We hammed it up."

As for the perennial embrace between love and art, Kaufmann believes there are many reasons for the pairing.

"Art and love are good themes because, well, love has been a theme of art since the Renaissance. ... Because we encounter it every day in our lives it seems like a natural theme. And love is so silly that a reclining moose seems to represent that whole "look at me, I am adorable" mood. But really look at us, we are sort of silly. Art and love are good partners and could be a sculpture — Art (pompous) and Love (silly), sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G."