Warm Up with Winter Exhibitions at the Center for Contemporary Art
Dallas Piotrowski spent her childhood years in what sounds like a storybook setting. Her home sat off a dirt road in Hamilton. Her family raised ducks that swam in a pond beside the house. Their backyard had nut trees and blackberries growing. They even got their milk from a farm a few doors down.
“That gave me a love for nature,” recalls Piotrowski, a New Jersey painter. “I was constantly in nature. It was an idyllic place.”
Decades later, the dirt road — Nottingham Way — is now paved over and serves as one of the main thoroughfares in the Trenton suburb.
But Piotrowski’s affection for nature lives on in the hundreds of paintings she has created over the last 40 or so years — scenes depicting birds, sunflowers, a gorilla, flower-filled fields and, yes, even storybook characters like Red Riding Hood and Alice in Wonderland.
Over the next few weeks, you can glimpse at many of them in an exhibit of Piotrowski’s work from the last four decades at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster
It’s one of three winter exhibits on display at the museum through Feb. 20 — including another show, “Nature,” featuring similar outdoorsy pieces from other artists, and a show featuring the work of New Jersey ceramics artist John Reinking.
Piotrowski says the goal of her work is similar to a quote by early 20th century artist Rockwell Kent.
“I’m not trying to make people love my art,” she says. “Through my art, I’m trying to make people love nature.”
As she grew up in rural Hamilton — and later Lawrence Township — art was always present in Piotrowski’s life. At age 6, she designed clothes for paper dolls. And her brother made artwork.
But nobody at the time, she stresses, considered art as a career.
“They never thought you could make money,” Piotrowski remembers. “I never even considered it. It was something I enjoyed doing.”
Still, after Piotrowski got married in her early 20s, her husband made a suggestion: she should take art classes at Mercer County College.
“That’s where I met Mel,” Piotrowski says.
Mel is renowned artist Mel Leipzig, who spent 45 years teaching art at the school before retiring a few years ago. Piotrowski became his student in 1974.
“Mel was the force,” she recalls. “He always encouraged all his students. He never wanted them to stop painting. And I was one that never did.”
Now, her relationship with Leipzig has come full circle. He is the curator of her show at the Center.
“Her paintings are really very beautiful,” says Leipzig, now 80. “She has extraordinary technical skills.”
He’s also proud that Piotrowski “stuck to her guns.”
“A lot of people go to school, take art classes and they give it up and do it time to time,” says Leipzig, who will have a show of his own work on display at the center in September. “She’s developed into quite an exceptional artist. She deserves attention.”
Over the years, Piotrowski has studied at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), the Children’s Book Institute of Publishing and Writing, Rider University and Vassar College. She was the curator of The Gallery at Chapin at the Chapin School in Princeton. And her work has also been included in more 200 exhibitions and 25 solo shows.
As for the career-spanning show in Bedminster?
“I feel accomplished,” says Piotrowski, who now lives, once again, in her native Hamilton. “I’m pretty proud of the show. I think it’s kind of refreshing for people to see so much beauty in plants and animals.”
The other nature-centric show currently on display at the Center — aptly titled “Nature” — features the work of regional artists Katrina Bello, Jessica Demcsak, Jason Middlebrook, Naomi Reis and Ben Suga. It was curated by Wes Sherman, the Center’s chair of exhibits.
The third exhibit — a faculty show — features ceramic works by John Reinking, the head of the Center’s ceramics program. And the dozen or so pieces were forged from an unusual instrument: Reinking’s Anagama wood kiln.
Reinking, 37, also has a New Jersey background. He grew up in Berkeley Heights, and graduated from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. He then took a detour to Scranton, Pa., where he got a master’s degree at Marywood University.
“I think it was the science behind it,” he explains. “There was more to it than applying paint to a canvass. There was lot more depth and discovery involved.”Along the way, Reinking learned to favor ceramics over painting.
And the Anagama? The kiln — one of only three in the state — requires someone to add wood to it every few minutes for 96 hours straight. In other words, it fires for four days, with seven days to cool down. And it reaches a temperature of 2,400 degrees.
The pieces in the show are the result of the kiln’s inaugural firing.
“I’m pretty excited,” says Reinking, who also teaches at Raritan Valley Community College and the County College of Morris. “The center got its first crack at showing it.”
Just don’t expect the pieces to be “conventionally beautiful,” he says.
“There are ash runs, there are some cracks,” Reinking explains. “But there’s beauty in those imperfections.”
The gallery at the Center for Contemporary Art is open Monday–Thursday 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. and Friday & Saturday 9:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., as well as on evenings when there are classes in session. For more information, visit www.ccabedminster.org.