Over 60 artists work in a wide variety of media to create abstract art — and they want to invite new artists to join in
By John Addyman
What a blessing to be able to enjoy works created by local artists at the height of their game. And what an added blessing to partner with them as they challenge the limits of their own skills and pound through convention to offer things we’ve never seen before.
That’s part of the charge of the Arena Art Group, a collection of 60 artists who produce and explore ways of communicating visual images that make you ponder and react to. It’s abstract, expressionistic art that requires a connection.
You can look at what the Arena Art Group does at its show at the Geisel Gallery in the Legacy Tower at 1 Bausch & Lomb Place in Rochester from Aug. 30 to Oct. 27, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. The show is free.
When you linger on the shapes and colors and whimsy and projections, remember the first rule of garage sales: “if you like it, don’t walk away from it.”
The artwork on display requires a little work. Some you’re going to love and be in awe of from the get-go; other pieces will require a second or third visit or moment of reflection to understand what the artist is saying to you.
Margery Pearl-Gurnett, 69, from Pittsford, and Chili resident Dan Scally, 68, will have some of their works on view. They’re a sample of what the Arena Art Group, founded in 1951, offers in hosting this community of artists in the wider area, but also what’s available to art lovers here and, frankly, around the world.
Pearl-Gurnett had an eye for color that started in the cradle.
“One of my early memories is being in a crib in my house. I had a box of crayons and a pale green crayon fell out onto the floor,” she said. “I remember reaching out between the bars of the crib and I couldn’t get it. I remember my parents were eating in the kitchen. I was yelling and screaming because I needed that color, it couldn’t be any other color — color and visual things have always been my first language.”
“I always knew I was an artist,” she added. “There was not even a question.”
When she was 12 and living in New York City, her parents entered one of her artworks in an art show — for adults.
“On awards night, they called my name. I had my hair done. I had my hot pink dress mini-skirt. They asked me, ‘Are you accepting this award for your mother?’ I said ‘No, I’m accepting this for myself.’ I got a $150 check. I was in he New York Times.”
She graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University as a ceramics major. Her parents asked her what she was going to do with her new BFA degree.
“I’m going to make some pottery, I told them. That went over well,” she said. “They told me I had to make a living and sent me to dental school (the Magna School of Dental Laboratory Technology) to make porcelain restorations, capped crowns and bridges.”
Pearl-Gurnett liked the work.
“I made a lot of money and socked it all away to go to graduate school,” she explained.
After three years of study, she had a master’s degree from the School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology, majoring in glass.
“I was a glassblower,” she said. “One of the first solo women glassblowers.”
She set up shop in downtown Rochester.
“I made a lot of perfume bottles, vases, dishes, plates — I probably made 10,000 perfume bottles over 15 years,” she said.
She attended two wholesale trade shows a year, each one allowing her to book enough business to keep her kiln lit for half a year. She was busy.
“Then the economy changed. People weren’t buying handmade items as much. The focus on my work changed when people from Delta Airlines came into my booth and they saw some tables I was doing, which I had sandblasted and painted. I started getting work from architects and interior designers through Delta Airlines. I did a lot of glasswork for the Delta Crown rooms in all the airports around the country and some in Canada and the Caribbean,” she said. “Some of those jobs paid better for the big projects than making all these little perfume bottles. I really liked blowing glass, but the bigger stuff was much better monetarily. I was still getting my vision out into the world in public places.”
She got married. Her work changed. She spent years concentrating on mosaics. Then her artistic technology changed again.
“I started doing the pieces I work on now, figuring out how to make pieces come together without actually firing them and putting them in a kiln,” she explained. “What I’m using now is glass, paper, found objects and I imbed them into resins, in layers. It has a glass-like feel to it, and there’s some glass in it.”
She has a bright, friendly high-tech studio, Pearl Glassworks Ltd. in Fairport.
Dan Scally: ‘Doing better’
“My best subject in Churchville-Chili High School was art,” said Dan Scally, whose workshop is close to his home. “I got a partial scholarship to RIT and got my BFA in 3D design. I ended up getting a job right away as a model maker. I did prototype work in plastics at Faro Industries, for Kodak and Xerox. If they had 3D printers back then, that would have been my job.”
He picked up some extra skills at night by earning a certificate in model-making at Genesee Community College.
“I pretty much had it made. I was getting paid pretty well, but I thought I could do better,” he said.
“Doing better” meant starting an electronics business, Pacer Electronics, with his brother and two others. After a time, the company split up, the brothers went separate ways, “and I started working at Kodak in the digital print business. I’m not talking desktop printers, I’m talking printers the size of a minivan,” he added.
He was one of the select 40 people developing this new business.
“I did all the trade shows and traveled the world. I met with customers, helped sell this million-dollar piece of equipment. It was a good ride. I spent time in all the demo centers around the world,” he said. “It was kind of cool. Customers would come in, I’d be all dressed up, the CEO of the company would come in, bring his high-level guys in, and I would have to talk them into buying, answering any of their questions. I was the demo guy — I actually taught people how to demo the equipment. Then I retired, after 25 years. I kind of had three careers.”
The digital print division at Kodak had given Scally access to the latest software programs and a very wonderful printer for output.
Life changed in 1998 when he was in a serious car accident.
“I saw the priest twice,” he remembered softly. “I had to learn to walk again. I was on my back for six months. I told my wife to go out and buy me some paint brushes; otherwise I’m going to go crazy here. I literally was on my back when I started painting. I came full circle to get back into the art thing again. I was like, ‘I can do this. I can still do this.’
“Then, I started creating more. Just toward the end of my days at Kodak I was getting fairly serious at it, painting canvases and showing my art around town, entering shows here and there. I used to sell my work at the Tapas Restaurant, I knew the bartender there. He said, ‘Yeah, bring it in, we’ll hang it here, we’ll hang it there.’ I started doing this and I enjoyed it and I could sell the work.”
Scally joined the Chili Art Group and helped set up art shows and promoted new members. Still active, he managed an art show at Roberts Wesleyan University this spring.
Then came the epiphany.
“I went to the Arena Art Group show in 2011. I walked in, saw what was being exhibited, and I said to myself, ‘This is me. This is the kind of art I want to make. This is not realistic; it’s not like taking pictures. These people are working from their emotions and they’re experimenting with different materials, and they’re riding the edge. This is terrific. I’ve got to join this group.’ I submitted the required artwork and application and was approved to join the group,” he said.
He said he likes “being in a group of people that I can learn from. Everybody I talked to in the early days when I joined Arena, something rubbed off on me. ‘That’s great. That’s brilliant. I like what you’re doing’ — that’s what I heard. I just felt so part of the whole. That’s what I liked, being involved with a group. It’s such an incredible learning experience.”
Scally has had his work at the Van Der Plas Gallery in New York City (“home to artists willing to explore unconventional modes of creativity”) and Pier 92/94.
Looking for new talent
Pearl-Gurnett heard about Arena from Jean Geisel, an archivist for Bausch & Lomb who hosted art shows in the factory on Goodman Street. The quarterly art shows allowed artists to submit about 15 pieces of their work — after a two-and-a-half-year wait. You could graduate from there to the Geisel Gallery, which is now in the Legacy Tower downtown. When Pearl-Gurnett made it to Geisel Gallery, she brought 50 pieces of her work.
When she was taking down her artwork after her show, Pearl-Gurnett had a talk with Geisel, who recommended she join the Arena Art Group.
“Because of the respect I have for Jean, I looked into it,” said Pearl- Gurnett. “She is very friendly to the artists in our community and even in her own galley she would hang things and never take a commission.”
Scally had a show at Geisel and is famous for getting a phone call from the building inspector.
“He told me I had to take one piece down because of all the rubber bugs I had on it. They were coming around the corner right into the picture frame. I thought it was funny, but the building inspector didn’t.”
“Somebody freaked out,” Pearl-Gurnett remembered.
“Art isn’t always pretty,” Scally added.
The 60-some artists who form the Arena Art Group are always looking for new talent. The membership process requires a submission of artwork (which can be done through flash drives, CDs or website), an application, and a review by the eight-member steering committee, which Scally and Pearl-Gurnett serve on. If the committee thinks the applicant is deserving, the application goes out to all members, who vote on the final say.
And there are definite benefits in joining.
“We’re a group that is mainly involved in showing artwork,” said Pearl-Gurnett. “We have also been a social group. We did a picnic in the park last year and we’ll have a dinner this year — most of that gets paid through our $70 dues per year. Important for our member artists, they don’t have to pay anything to show their work with us.”
“A lot of the people in Arena were once art educators,” Scally added. “[Member] Jim Thomas was my 3D design teacher at RIT. I took a class from him in the summer, ‘modern industrial plastics.’ I immediately got a job because I took that course they could have cared less what I did in fine arts.”
The fact that Arena doesn’t demand a fee for its shows is an important feature, Pearl-Gurnett and Scally agreed.
“Nowadays in the gallery world it’s pay-to-play,” Scally said. “You want to show your work at a gallery? Well, you can rent the gallery for $4,000 a month. Then if you sell anything, they get 25%. It’s scary out there.”
Pearl-Gurnett said Arena “is an older group of people. One of our concerns is that we’re looking for younger people who will take our places when we become elders. The average age of people in the group is probably 60-plus.”
To contact the Arena Art Group, start at the website (www.arenaartgroup.org) or go on Facebook or Instagram to see the latest goings-on.
Arena Art Group is sponsoring a show at the Geisel Gallery in the Legacy Tower at 1 Bausch & Lomb Place in Rochester from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, Aug. 30 to Oct. 27. The show is free. For more information, visit www.arenaartgroup.org