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Spotlight Magazine - Coverstory: Loving (and laughing) out loud
Loving (and laughing) out loud

By Jeanné McCartin
spotlight@seacoastonline.com


What: Valentines of Mass Devotion
Where: The Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery, New Hampshire Art Association, 136 State St., Portsmouth
When: Feb. 4 through Feb. 29. The reception is Saturday, Feb. 7, from 2 to 4 p.m., (snow date, Feb. 8); the Art 'Round Town reception Feb. 13 from 5 to 8 p.m. In addition, on Sunday, Feb. 22, at 2 p.m., there will be a shadow-puppet show featuring Nancy Sander of the Roaring Duck Puppet Theatre.
Contact: (603) 431-4230, www.janekaufmann.com.

There are three ladies putting themselves out on State Street, offering their hearts up for sale. Unlike most who extend themselves this way, they're hoping it gives you a good laugh. Whether it's the offered hearts or other bits and pieces they're putting up for sale, they're looking to tickle your fancy.

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In addition to the tickers, they're selling moose, fish, lizards and a homeland-security defense cupid.

Lost?

Let me explain.

It's Jane Kaufmann. Now do you get it? How about Nina Fox Herlihy or Ellen Friel? Don't ring any bells? Perhaps you need to get out more. Between the three of them, these artists have clocked a century as members of the New Hampshire Art Association, often with works fashioned for smiles.

This time the trio is coming out together in a shared exhibition, "Valentines of Mass Devotion," at the Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery. L'amour is the theme, with little confection added, but plenty of sass.

Jane Kaufmann, of Durham, is certainly the most visible artist among them. Her comical raku-fired clay sculpture figures, orbs and story pillars (decked out in, poignant, humorous social commentary), have been seen throughout the region since the late '60s. Humor has long been this woman's trademark and outstanding quality.

Initially, Kaufmann had a solo show planned for the February slot. The season was a departure from her usual show time, she says. Summers were always more popular, which translates into profitable.

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"But the idea of something around Valentine's Day, when things are crappy and cold, just to have a cheerful thing happening - well, I thought that was a good idea," she says. It was while attending a Levy event that the show got its second participant. As Kaufmann tells it, Friel, a watercolorist from Amherst, was taking photos for inspiration of a series she was working on. Kaufmann says Friel explained it was for a series on friends and lovers. The two started discussing the theme. One comment led to another and Kaufmann asked her to be a part of the V-Day show.

Herlihy, a soulful synthesis eco-artist (more on that later), was the next added - pretty much 'cause these girls just wanted to have fun. And that's what this whole process has been about, say all three.

Kaufmann is making a special lot of valentines for the show, in addition to her usual collections. The focus is girlfriends, and all they do for you. Many won't be for sale, but will be gifts to the women they depict. There's one for Farmington artist Kim Wintje ("When you go to her house she gives you cake on a fancy plate."), and for her co-exhibitor, Friel. ("She sends letters in the mail with sparkles that drop out of it.")

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Kaufmann's also submitting critter figures, such as a reclining moose - you'll have to ask the artist for her views on its connection to Valentine's Day. There's a woman and a cat sitting beside one another, each with thought balloons divulging their true loves. She may also have the first items from a new series, "Good Girl, Bad Girl," and a work on Josephine and Napoleon. The latest story pillar was tailor-made for the show. The theme was prompted by the new, national terror alert practices, she says. Seems to Kaufmann they're always posted at holidays.

"I just get so tired with all of that. They always have an alert right when I have to get on a plane to go somewhere, and I'm already scared," she says, "so why should Valentine's Day be any different?"

Then there are Kaufmann's famous finger puppets. Again, if you're not familiar with these, you're not getting out very much. Kaufmann plans on having one of every style she's ever made, including the latest, a moose puppet, (carefully researched for ear position). Always highly collectible, the puppets may become more so in the near future.

"I keep thinking I'm :going to quit finger puppets. I told Angus (Locke, Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery director). He got green," she says. "One thing about them, I'll always have them for the Levy ... otherwise I'd break their hearts."

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Kaufmann is thinking of letting up on the little works to focus more on the larger, more involved pieces, which are generally socially or politically related, she says.

"You know how it is," she says. "I need to think about what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."

All that business aside, Kaufmann wants to talk about the three-woman show. Collaborating on the exhibit has been a party, she says, and she's hopeful the mood is infectious.

The press release created by this self-described "Axis of Eve" pretty much says it all: "A stash of valentines of mass devotion ... known to arts experts as "artworks of love," can quickly infect hundreds, if not thousands of people with symptoms such as fits of laughter, cries of admiration, accelerated heartbeats and runaway passions."



A soulful synthesis and laughter

Herlihy, the soulful synthesis eco-artist, agrees with it all. The entire process has been about laughing.

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The Rye artist carried the tone of group meetings into her studio. For this show she's created works (also named Herlihedrons) around that theme: "You're the only fish in the sea for me," "You make my heart soar, (for her bird images), and "Wallflowers" ("better than a dozen roses," she says).

All Herlihy's works are assemblages composed of found objects, hence the soulful synthesis eco-artist tag. Generally, they're inspired by found natural-state wood pieces. Then it's off to the studio, where paint, other natural materials, bottoms of shoes, old nails, rusted objects, rocks, and feathers - "from free-roaming chickens" - are added with abandon.

"I've even been known to use old retriever hair, generously donated by my 14-year-old golden," she says.

The figures vary from dragons to flowers, fish, birds and humans, and may be hanging or tabletop items.

"Working with these women (spontaneous laughter), it's been a blast. They are both very generous, open-hearted, creative and enthusiastic, thought-provoking people," Herlihy says. "They're just fun, it's a lot of laughs. ... I don't know how else to describe this."

And the thought is unanimous. Friel, the last of the trio, says it's all been about laughs.

"It really was a lot of fun. Creatively, we all think very much alike. We're not concerned with the seriousness of life - we get as far away from it as we possibly can," she says. "It should show."

Friel, who is from Amherst, is a watercolorist. Her works will depict people and flowers and, keeping in step with the others, a few off-beat creatures.

First, the people.

"I'm interested in how people interact, whether they're holding hands or if the boy has his hand around a girl's waist, or whether they're looking at one another, showing affection," she says. "These people will be expressing love in one form or another."

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The florals just make sense for the holiday; flowers, love, they go together, she says.

Then there are the creatures, fish, lizards and birds "who are going to be in love," she says.

The ladies have posted a warning regarding the show. It's about as serious as everything else they've done for this show (with the exception of their quality). So, read and heed: "All sober-minded individuals and those who wish to minimize unsightly laugh lines should stay away from the venue until decontamination is completed."

But, that said, haven't you been saying you need to get out a little more?