The stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of the national reckoning over social justice and increased representation of a diversity of voices, are still being written all across the country.
These stories are also being told by artists, and are well represented in the 54th “Art of the State” exhibit now at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
Lancaster County artists, too, are well represented, as finalists, prize winners and creators of works that have been chosen to become part of the museum’s collection.
“Art of the State is always a time capsule of what themes and techniques artists were working on in the previous couple of years,” curator Amy Hammond says.
Subject matter among the juried exhibit’s 104 works — paintings, sculptures, craft pieces, photographs, mixed media pieces and more — ranges from a park empty of people to a pan of brightly colored fried eggs, from flowers to photos of craftsmen’s hands and city row homes to meditations on historic injustice.
Pandemic as inspiration
Becky McDonah’s “Particulate Protection: A Reliquary for the N95 Mask” is a direct nod to the pandemic.
The piece by McDonah, of Millersville, which combines such items as pearls and crocheted metal with an N95 mask, won first place in the exhibit’s craft category and is one of two works given a purchase prize as an artwork bought for the museum collection.
In her artist statement for the exhibit, McDonah, an associate professor at Millersville University, says she chose the format of a reliquary — a decorative vessel where a saint’s remains were contained — to suggest a protection and display of “venerated objects” like the masks so many were thankful for early in the pandemic.
Mary Culbertson Stark, of Bridgeville, Allegheny County, created an acrylic-and-graphite painting of a Madonna-like religious icon titled “Our Lady of The Pandemic, Ora Pro Nobis,” which features a blue surgical-type mask hanging to the side of the subject’s face.
“Pandemic Survival Kit,” an oil still life by Robert Huckestein, of Pittsburgh, “speaks to the human experience,” Hammond says. “The toilet paper ... the hand sanitizer, the gloves, the mask, the can of soup, the (bottle of) vodka. ... people walk up to (this work) because they had this in their homes.”
Other local artists
The other work chosen for purchase by the museum this year is Shelby Wormley’s black-and-white photograph, “I AM Somebody.”
Wormley, of Lancaster, has captured the image of an African American boy wearing both an “I Am Somebody” T-shirt and a broad, joyful smile.
“This is part of a series she did, celebrating her community,” Hammond says. “This is just such a joyful photograph. This is a staff favorite.”
“You’ll notice a common theme of community and gratitude throughout my images,” Wormley writes in her artist statement. “We all want to be seen, we all want to feel like we matter and we all want to be remembered.”
Kelly Kautz, a self-taught artist from Lancaster, won second place in the painting category for colorful and atmospheric work in acrylic titled “Mary’s Office.” The painting captures the corner of said office as sunlight casts shadows across the scene, featuring a yellow quilted settee, colorful pillows, the contents of a bulletin board and lots of houseplants.
“The way she represents texture — the surface looks velvety to me,” Hammond says.
Barry Steely, of Denver, won second place in the works on paper category with his piece “We Are Your Neighbors,” rendered in pencil and colored pen.
“This one has a lot of psychology to it,” Hammond says, “and I think a lot of people are connecting to it because it feels like, ‘you spent the past year on lockdown with people, and how did it affect your relationships?’ ”
In the corner of the work is a tight grouping of black-and-white structures, while the center of a painting is two people lounging on a couch, a man wearing colorful patterned shirt and naked from the waist down, and the other person having placed a colorful bag over their head.
The viewer can’t help but try to fill in the backstory.
Lancaster’s Richard K. Kent’s archival pigment print photograph “Brook Lawn Farm Orchard, 4X” layers multiple images of tree trunks and branches, with the ground behind them, in different seasons of the year, from the orchard of the area farm market.
Ann DeLaurentis, of Lancaster, colorfully captures the pipes of the DuPont organ at Longwood Gardens in her watercolor “Gold & Violet Pipe Dream.”
“She represents the organ in the formal way but brings this color to it in a way that speaks to music,” Hammond says.
The screen print “Terra Firma,” by Becky Blosser of Lancaster, has at its center a mound-shaped structure that’s a tangle of black-and-white lines and shapes. The structure glows green from within and is embellished with twisting green tendrils that suggest vegetation.
Amy Edwards of Lancaster’s “Talisman for the Schuylkill Expressway” is a fiber and mixed media piece in the shape of a necklace, which whimsically buoys up those who must travel the jammed-up Schuylkill Expressway outside Philadelphia.
Edwards notes her “talisman” includes bits of broken glass, hand-polished reflectors and tiny car tires; it “offers much luck to the motorist braving this infamous and treacherous roadway.”
Edwards was a teacher to Malcolm Corley, Hammond says, a Lancaster artist whose acrylic painting “Three Faces of Malcolm” hangs in the exhibit. A Hempfield High grad, Corley is on the autism spectrum, Hammond says.
“This one is really amazing because it looks like Malcolm through the years,” expressed in three images, Hammond says. “I think about painting yourself as a child; I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
A watercolor-and-gouache work by Timothy Colyer, of Lancaster, “Four Jars of Summer,” will spark instant recognition to those who preserve colorful, fresh produce in Mason jars.
“Much of my work depicts simple everyday objects or places that go unnoticed as life rushes by,” Colyer says in his statement. “Enjoy the simple beauty that surrounds you in the form of light, color, texture and atmosphere.”
Amadeo Salamoni, who teaches in Bucks County and has a studio in Quarryville, contributed a wheel-thrown piece of wood-fired stoneware titled “Squared Lidded Vessel.” On one side, it’s silvery with a speckled pattern; on the other, a solid rust color.
“I use the process of wood firing to create a chance element in my finished work,” Salamoni writes. “The nuances of the flame, the drips of ash, happy mistakes — all this excites me.”
Hammond recently facilitated some virtual programs related to the exhibit, including ones concentrating on the disabled artists and the Asian American artists represented.
Following cancer surgery on her arm, Hammond notes, Heidi Hooper of Stroudsburg had to shift her artistic medium of choice from metal to, surprisingly, dryer lint. Her lint painting “Winter” shows a female figure in a red dress with a hat and draped shawl.
“I now very carefully sort my laundry, and admittedly will sometimes buy colorful throws and towels in order to get the lint I want,” Hooper says.
Last year “was also a very traumatic year for a lot of Asian Americans who experienced a lot of racism,” Hammond says.
Hee Sook Kim, of Ardmore, says her “My American Flag 1” mixed media piece is part of a series “responding to the assumption by white supremacists that only white people are ‘patriotic’ in this country.”
This is a work that needs to be seen up close, to appreciate that the stars and the blue field on which they rest are made of tiny rhinestones, and the stripes are made of red and white acrylic fingernails.
After last year’s exhibit had to remain online only because of the museum’s temporary closure for the pandemic, this year’s exhibit “was a community that came together again,” Hammond says. “It feels like a reunion.”