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Fearrington’s Vibrant Art Scene: Behind every studio door, there is a unique life story

By Forrest C. Greenslade

Visitors to the village created on an historic farm on Route 15/501 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, know Fearrington for its fine restaurants, lovely gardens and stylish shops. Many couples from all around have celebrated their marriages on the groomed grounds and in the rustic barn. For folks who call it home, Fearrington is valued for its deep sense of community and many creative outlets. Recently, one of those creative groups, visual artists, formed a loose organization to focus on Fearrington Village as an arts destination. Artists Studios at Fearrington Village is comprised of over 50 artists, ranging from established artists like internationally known minimalist painter Murry Handler, to reinvented career artists like former psychologist turned junque artiste Rita Spina, to emerging artists like recycled bottle crafter Jeanette Ragland. Many in the group are opening their studios by invitation to share their creative processes with the public and make their artworks available for purchase. The arts scene in Fearrington is diverse and brings together life experiences from around the country and beyond.

Vidabeth Bensen has lived and created art in Fearrington since 1991, when she and her husband David came here after 27 years of living overseas. Both had been educators teaching in such wide spread places as: Turkey, Okinawa, Germany, Morocco, Japan and Korea. She had seen an ad in the New Yorker, and liked the east coast location, comfortable community, nearby collages and exciting arts scene.

Vidabeth grew up in NYC. "I remember always making art," she says. She majored in art, with a minor in education at Brooklyn College. That intersection has been a continuous thread throughout her life. The other constant has been screen printing. In college she had a lot of acting friends, who asked her to make posters for them. Making posters by hand was too time-consuming, so she learned to do silk screening. "The first time I pulled a squeegee across a screen, I was hooked – I have been doing it ever since."

She had taught art in Brooklyn and Levittown high schools for a couple of years, when David applied for overseas teaching assignments. The couple started this odyssey with two kids and finished it with four; all the time teaching for Department of Defense schools on military bases overseas and making prints. She also managed to earn an MS in Gifted Education from a distant program at the University of Connecticut. “Teaching is energizing,” she exclaims. She has taught art to all ages from grammar school to university to senior citizens. Her innovative screening procedures and teaching experiences provided the basis of her book Simple Guide to Screen Printing published by Royal Fireworks Press.

Having her own studio in Fearrington fulfills a life-long dream for Vidabeth. "I consider myself so very fortunate – I have been doing this for over 50 years – Every print that I make is still exciting to me."

Another anchor of the Fearrington arts community is Carol Owen, who arrived here in 1992, through her husband Gwil’s corporate transfer to the Research Triangle from Jacksonville, Florida. They had two years to look for a home. "I wanted to fall in love with a new home," she notes. "We discovered Fearrington, and our house in which I could have a studio on the very last day."

Carol quickly became an integral part of a nuclear art group called The Collection. In addition to Carol and Vidabeth Bensen, artists Fran Schulzberg, Rita Spina, Jackie Hammer, Claire Levitt and Kathy Curry laid down many of the foundations of Fearrington’s artist community and the Chatham County arts scene. "We supported each other, put on exhibits and just enjoyed developing as artists," Carol asserts.

Carol's own development as an artist began early, in New York. She was always interested in art and writing, and "The City" was perfect ground for these seeds to grow. "I was able to roam the city to indulge myself in the museums and galleries," she recalls. At 11, she enrolled in the Art Students League, and later earned acceptance in the High School of Music and Art. In addition to all the academic courses, she had three hours every day in art.

Carol intended to pursue a career in writing, so she attended Antioch College in Ohio with a major in Creative Writing. She met her scientist husband there, got married and they began a family. A transfer to Delaware, a move to Syracuse and the responsibilities of three kids convinced her that the discipline of writing might not fit her life script at the time. This decision facilitated Carol’s return to the visual arts. She began painting again, took courses and reignited her life-long love of nature. Gwil’s mother was an expert gardener, as is Gwil. Carol learned gardening from them. She became "obsessed" with all things tactile – weaving, pottery and similar crafts. Another move, back to Ohio, for Gwil’s teaching job, gave Carol a house with a studio of her own. Selling her art to faculty snowballed into a very successful endeavor. For 20 years she lived and created art in Granville, Ohio.

In 1972 Gwil had a sabbatical in Chapel Hill to write a book on environmental chemistry. Carol took the opportunity to learn weaving. "The texture and horizontal and vertical design elements propelled me into being a berserk weaver for 18 years. Weaving for 12 hours a day for all those years took a physical toll on her neck and shoulders. "I was tired, and just burned out," she sighs. She had been producing weavings for wholesale – too much production – too much repetition. By then, Gwil’s career took them to Jacksonville. Carol sold her looms and donated her supplies to the local community college.

"Now what to do?" she questioned. For some time she had participated at Penland, assisting in the weaving program. A student was making paper, and again the texture intrigued Carol. She began making paper, and incorporated some family photographs into compositions. "This was the very first time that I had involved my own life story into my art," she says. "Until then, my work was more decorative than conceptual -- Telling my own story led me to exploring ideas around the house image." A friend told her about spirit houses, common in Thailand. She created a house, using paper, family photos and small saved objects that captured family memories, keeping them alive for her. "It was cathartic," she stresses.

Carol began making unique spirit houses on commission. "These were incredible experiences," she says. One piece she remembers was made for a woman whose mother was going to a nursing home. Carol incorporated many of the important elements of the mother’s life into the spirit house. Later, the woman said that piece had deeply affected the staff in the nursing facility, "making her mother a real person, not just a sick old lady." These experiences led Lark Publishing to invite Carol to write her book, Crafting Personal Shrines. After seeing her work at the American Craft Show in Baltimore, Lark commissioned the book.

In her Fearrington studio, Carol Owen continues to weave stories using whatever medium suits her needs. "I see things visually -- Wherever I go, I am composing, translating what I see into my art – It has always been that way."

Retired school administrator Florence Johnson and her husband Cliff came to Fearrington in 1995. They were drawn to the rolling hills, four seasons – not too hot – not too cold, and friendly people – everybody waived and said hello.

As a child in Chicago she liked to draw and paint, but education (an MS in School Administration), work, marriage and two sons left little time for art. "It was always my love," she says, "When we traveled, it was first the art gallery, then the restaurants."

Once settled in Fearrington, Johnson began scratching that lifelong itch. After art classes at Central Carolina Community College, and work with noted area artists Sally Sutton, Kathy Curry, Luna Lea Ray and Jane Filer, Johnson honed her watercolor and ink painting style. She joined a Fearrington working group called the Paletteers, artists meeting routinely to paint together and support one another. "I like to capture the wonderful sites and experiences in our travels – far and near, and share them with others," she notes. "I am especially interested in texture," she adds, "We drive all around looking for these beautiful old barns, with the textures of boards and rocks, to paint."

Florence has shown her work in local venues such as the ChathamArts Gallery and the Joyful Jewell in Pittsboro. "To me, Fearrington offers a solid community which attracts people who truly love art," she says.

Jane and Zen Palkoski, came to Fearrington from New Jersey in 1996. They had been looking for a retirement home, and the location was just right. "Zen is a mountain man, and I am a beach girl," Jane explains.

Art was always a part of their lives. As a kid, Zen saw his first wood carving in Quebec City on a family trip. At the age of 7, he carved a horse from cherry wood. "The legs fell off, but we all loved it," he remembers. He painted a mural in his room – a Native American scene – 17 feet long and ceiling high. Jane always loved art. "I many times wished that I had studied art in college, rather than biology," she says.

Science was the college focus for both of them. Zen studied biology and chemistry, all the time continuing with his sketching. He aimed at going to medical school, but was unable to gain acceptance. In 1957, he was drafted into a medical platoon in the Army. He became a doctor’s assistant, and spent two years in Germany. After the Army, and another unsuccessful try for medical school, Zen began his long cardiovascular research career in a major pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.

Jane’s biological education also brought her to that same corporation as a neuro-pharmacological researcher, where she and Zen met and started a family. Both of their artistic talents were directed toward nurturing esthetic development in their children, and in making illustrations supporting scientific presentations for themselves and colleagues.

A friend introduced Zen to a wood carving club, and he began learning wood sculpture. One day, he was fishing on the Ramapo River, and a beaver felled a tree. Zen looked further. The beaver had downed a large number of trees. Zen returned to make a treasured collection of Aspen stumps for his creations. His long career as a sculptor began in a craft show at Ramapo College, where he sold his signature wood spirit carvings.

After some time in the pharmaceutical industry, Jane began to pursue work that satisfied her love of color and texture. She sold designs for interior refurbishments of corporate jets at Teterboro Airport. "This was fun – Bloomies was my art museum," she laughs. She had always been a knitter, and "picked it up again.V She learned to make jewelry.

Their home and studios in Fearrington are alive with those beloved colors and textures. Zen can no longer find "beaver-collaborated" art materials. Luckily, old cedar farm fence posts are available, and make wonderful supplies for his fanciful and spiritual creations. Jane’s fabric neckware and jewelry are popular accessories. Jane says. "Creating something that someone else will get pleasure from is my pleasure." Zen adds, "It is something that I need to do – I get lost in the process – The wood is revealing something about itself."

Californian John Makowski moved to Fearrington in 2006. "We had to leave California – taxes were too high – the economy was coming apart" he laments. His wife Claudia knew about Fearrington, and they purchased the first house that they saw. "I’m a nature boy," he says. "The quiet woodland setting appealed to me."

In junior high school, Makowski’s teacher had him make a self portrait in clay. "I put my hands in clay, and fell in love!" he grins. In high school, he studied the pottery wheel, drawing and painting. John wanted to go to art school, but his dad insisted that he go to college and study business. He entered junior college, and in addition to business classes, snuck in one figurative life drawing course. In 1966, he enlisted in the Navy, just prior to being drafted.

John was an electrician’s mate, a skill that he employs to this day. "I got to see Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Japan and all up and down the US west coast," he reflects. Using this electrical experience, he did odd jobs, after leaving the Navy, and later found a job in a pottery production facility. He rose to be kiln master and gained expertise in mold making and glaze formulation. Living in a San Francisco loft called Project Artaud (pronounce Art O), the 27-year-old Makoski sold pottery on the streets at Ghirardelli Square.

Seeking a different life style, John bought a little house in Sonoma County, with berry bushes and apple and plum trees. Using the GI Bill to go back to school, he took "nothing but art classes." It took him only a couple of years to earn AA and BFA degrees. To earn money, he did lawn mowing and gardening jobs for "grandmas." "They were my teachers," he says. "I learned all about plants, and what the earth is made of." This knowledge was the basis of a 20 year career as an award-winning landscape designer. "Sculpting with gardens was my art for a long time," he says.

In 1996, he was able to retire to a 60 acre ranch, growing Sirah and Cabernet grapes. In his 500 square foot shop, he finally built his ceramics studio. He asked, "How can I distinguish myself as an artist?" He devised an "out of the box" approach to glazing – using dry glazes on wet clay. He traveled. He studied ancient cultures – the goddess religions – Native American ways. From the many twists and turns of his life’s journey, John Makowski crafted his unique artistic esthetic.

Today in Fearrington he says, "When I go into my studio, it isn't about me and my intellect; it is about spirit coming through my hands as tools."

Another artist couple, Vietta and Reynold Maher came to Fearrington in 2008, after visiting two artists’ studios during the Chatham Studio tour. “We just fell in love with the wooded lots, and the interesting intelligent people,” Reynold recalls.

Reynold's pathway to Fearrington began in suburban Philadelphia. He had no art education in Catholic grammar or high school, but remembers, "enjoying looking" at the impressionist and 19th Century artists. His mother, who did some ceramics, encouraged him, and his arts career started with a large "weird" mural on his bedroom wall. He was sent to a summer art seminar in Philadelphia, where he did a painting of a Russian ballerina. This painting is important in more than one way.

After working for a year, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the prestigious Barnes Foundation. He won a scholarship to travel and learn in Europe. "These were opportunities to build a critical foundation in the traditions and history of art," he remembers. Then, Reynold was drafted into the Army.

While stationed in Augusta, GA, Reynold met a fellow soldier in Special Services, who was interested in Opera. This led to an opportunity to work on the set for a local production of La Boheme, which was his entre to a 32 year career in the New York theater scene. Maher studied stage design, established himself in the United Scenic Artists Guild, and over the years, worked on productions at the Joffery Ballet, Metropolitan Opera and landmark Broadway shows such as Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.

Vietta was born in Alma-Ata, Russia, and brought up in a small town near Novorosyisk Gelendjik by her father's aunt. At 12, with Vietta’s future in mind, they moved to Odessa . A good student in middle school, she was lucky to get into a school of applied arts for the theater, and the mentorship of a teacher who introduced her to poetry, art and literature. “These were things not taught in average schools,” she stresses. She then worked odd jobs, planning to attend art school in St Petersburg. During that time, she benefited by joining a salon lead by a charismatic art teacher. In art school, she studied ceramic and glass production.

Vietta was not looking forward to her post education work life in a glass factory. However, on the train taking her to the production facility, she received a telegram offering her a job teaching in the very school that she had attended in Odessa. Life progressed. She taught drawing, painting and composition. Because she had been involved in theater during college, she became resident designer in a local theater. She married a theatric director.

In the politically restrictive Russian environment, the couple strived to emigrate. A Jewish organization aided them, and in 1977, the pathway to the US began – first through Vienna, and then through Rome. “We got to America on Thanksgiving Day,” Vietta smiles.

In New York, Vietta again did odd jobs. Working for noted Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, "I got to learn about American materials, processes, and way of life," She stated. In 1983, Vietta and her husband separated.

Seeking a way to survive financially, Vietta applied for an apprenticeship at United Scenic Artists, where Reynold was already established. Here is where the painting that he did in high school is again important. "She was the exact image of the Russian ballerina that I painted as a kid," he says wistfully. They married and have one daughter, and now draw on each other’s creativity in their Fearrington studio.

Reynold's paintings on canvas and board come from a primal place, "not from my mind, but from my hands," he explains -- yet referencing the rich reservoir of his artistic history. Vietta composes playful, theatrical worlds, crafted from natural materials gathered from the woods that she loves, near their Fearrington home – “not found objects, but found ideas,” she insists.

The idea for Artist Studios at Fearrington Village was conceived at a party of Fearrington friends. Potter Stan Pomeranz had read an article in a ceramics journal talking about studio tourism as a mechanism for art marketing. Feeling encouragement from others, Pomeranz spoke with the founder of Fitch Creations, the developer of Fearrington Village, organized a small founders group and enlisted the guidance of Enid Handler, wife of artist Murry Handler, to pull a Steering Committee together, and script a strategy for the future. The first meeting of artists took place in April of 2011. On October 9th, they held their inaugural event, Art in the Village, an outdoor celebration of visual arts held in the Fearrington Village Center. The weather was pristine, the crowd was big, art was sold, and the vibrant Fearrington Art Scene was obvious to all.

Learn more about Artist Studios at Fearrington Village at: http://fearringtonartists.blogspot.com.

Forrest Greenslade and his wife Carol-Ann have lived in Fearrington since 2000. He spent his working life as a scientist, manager and executive. Now, he creates nature-inspired paintings and sculpture, and exhibits them in their garden and studios in Fearrington. He is a member and past president of the Chatham Artists Guild, and a member of Artist Studios at Fearrington Village.


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