The Portage Center for the Arts opened its doors Friday for an exhibit showing the intersection of art where four women arrived from their own direction.
“I saw all these pieces as they were being made or as they were close to being finished, but having them all in the same room is incredible, it’s much more powerful,” said artist Elizabeth Sawyer Kelly, surveying the 51 pieces displayed at the reception for their show “Crossing Paths.” “We were very clear that we wanted to intermingle them, and when we finished, we managed that each of us is the center of a particular wall and we did not plot that out.”
“It is such a milestone to see it all come together,” said artist Mary Tilton, “and it is so fun to sort of reflect on our different styles, our different approaches, our different reasons, if you will. I’m here because Elizabeth dragged me here.”
The two, along with Marcia Smith, met at a painting workshop at Dillman’s Bay Resort in Minocqua in northern Wisconsin, and upon realizing they were all from the Madison area, felt compelled to continue working together. Janine Bessenecker joined the garage band of visual artists through the Madison Watercolor Society and the group developed as artistic individuals and as a team.
Tilton was the most hesitant of the members to be part of the show after being invited by Kelly.
“You can do a one-woman show and I can carry your bags,” Tilton told Kelly. “And she said, ‘No, no, no, that won’t do.’”
Kelly brought a more abstract collection of works, including negative coloring and printing, in which she used plexiglass to make an imprint on paper and then used a brush to add structure to the shapes that were left behind.
In her own vein of watercolors, Tilton brought pieces from her collection with evocative images of people and landscapes, with one of her favorites being a snapshot of a cabin before the onset of a storm.
“There is an ability to be light and carefree and there is an ability to put some density in it,” Tilton said of watercolor. “What I like about it is that you’re just never sure what’s going to happen. … The mark moves.”
“Elizabeth is really strong in negative painting — so painting around an object. Marcia brings all sorts of knowledge about pigments and Mary is a fan of the old masters’ palette. So that has been interesting too,” Bessenecker said. “I would say that I’m maybe more — my background is in design, so I think that aspect of composition is what I bring.”
While working together, feedback has been direct, Bessenecker said, with Smith giving her the clear note of “paint darker,” which did make its way into Bessenecker’s work. In another case, she brought one painting that would be shown in the exhibit to the group looking for explanation of what had been missing. The response? Put a frame on it; it’s done.
“Sometimes they point things out that you sort of know as an artist,” Bessenecker said, “but it’s just helpful to hear someone say it out loud.”
Smith came to the group after years as an artist, but as the lead potter for Madison Area Technical College. Pottery is a uniquely strenuous and labor-intensive medium in which to work, and as Smith approached retirement and the freedom of full-time creativity, the joints in her hands forced her onto another path.
“So I started doing painting and have had a really good time with it,” she said. “You can see from a lot of my paintings that I really like light and shadow.”
The wall on which Smith’s work is centered featured one of her favorites, as many of her pieces taken from a photo, showing the lifting of a hot air balloon at dawn, with black silhouettes drenched in orange sunlight.
“It is one of my favorites in part because of the memory of being there and getting ready to go up at dawn for a balloon ride and what a great trip that was,” she said. “So you can tell that one is not for sale. It has to be on my wall.”
The four artists are featured in “Crossing Paths: Exploring Watercolor Together” at the Drury Gallery in the Portage Center for the Arts now through Oct. 28. The Drury Gallery is open Wednesday through Friday from 1 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.