Rock Paper Scissors?
The diverse creative visions of six artists contribute to a rich tapestry of Connecticut art
By Joel Samberg / Photography courtesy of the artists
My mission was to take readers on an expedition into the special world of local artists – but not just any artists. Those who are making an impact through a striking or unusual interpretation of their artistic vision.
Along the way, I discovered that it’s a world of far more than just colors, shapes and interpretations. The Connecticut artists I visited introduced me to a realm of dreams, inspirations, enlightenment, lyricism, memories, experimentation, instinct and, in the words of one of them, even a little mayhem. So forget the five senses; these professionals use a few more than those.
This distinctive group, living in different Connecticut towns and creating in distinctly different mediums, proves one other thing: even though they may not be world-famous, they are as unique and noteworthy as the most celebrated artists in the country.
While most artists start with something inanimate – a blank canvas, a can of paint, a piece of wood – Mark Mennin starts with a living organism: stone.
“There is a movement and inner life within a stone,” insists the Bethlehem-based sculptor. “I think about this whenever I see a rock taken out of a quarry. I ask myself, ‘How can I repurpose this rock into a sculptural element? How can we experience an entire evolution of a raw stone into something new?’”
Mennin has been answering his own questions for about 35 years, shaping stone into abstract monoliths that can, with a little resilience and imagination, represent (and sometimes function as) gigantic pieces of furniture, including beds, pillows and benches, along with other outdoor decor that can appear and function as fountains, sundials, landmarks and other objects, some curious and others even more curious.
“Often the word ‘fabric’ is used as a metaphor, as in the fabric of a person’s soul,” Mennin explains. “Well, stone also has a fabric, which is why a giant piece of furniture made from granite can so easily relate to the human figure – even to the softness of flesh.”
Mennin, raised in a family that revered art and music, was lucky enough to tour Europe as a child, and the majesty and historical significance of much of what he saw overseas stuck with him. After graduating from Princeton with a degree in history, he returned to Italy, where he began to carve stone. After several solo shows in New York, he moved to Paris, where he had more showings and began to take on commissions.
His installations can be found at New York’s Chelsea Market, Stanford University, Penn State, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Waterbury, and elsewhere. He has also taught at the Parsons School of Design and the New York Academy of Art.
“I had a nice studio in New York City and one in Paris, but both were in urban areas,” Mennin says. “When the scale of my projects started to grow, it was impossible to work anywhere in the metro area.” Now he does much of his work from a barn studio in Bethlehem, where he resides with his wife, writer Marcia DeSanctis. They have two grown sons, one of whom is a college senior.
Mennin’s work has been described by art experts as ‘abstract ambiguity,’ ‘beautiful and elegant,’ ‘physically appealing,’ ‘conceptually savvy,’ even ‘lyrical.’ Those are all wonderful testaments to his artistry – though really, the only thing he would like to hear is how his hard work simply conveys the softness of rock.
For a guy who has the word “tradition” wrapped around him in so many ways, Guilford’s Sid Werthan is one of the most non-traditional artists I’ve run across. For one thing, he grew up in a family of traditional landscape and portrait painters; for another, he has worked for years as a traditional karate instructor. And after a few years as an army brat, he settled into a traditional Connecticut childhood. But now, his metal creations – from chairs and tables to banisters and lighting fixtures – almost defy any sort of tradition because of how, in his words, they mesh “sculpture with found objects, digital photography with sound technology, Eastern aesthetics with Japanese Zen Buddhism, and martial arts with motorcycles.”
Werthan’s work has been called everything from mechanical mayhem to Zen metal mastery.
He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Maine College of Art in Portland, where he graduated with an MFA in conceptual theory and studio art. At the beginning of his career, he devoted his activity to what he defined as “pop surrealism,” using mostly paint as well as pen and ink. Slowly, he transitioned into metal-based conceptualizing. “I like to make things!” he states. “I also did a lot of traveling, so the artistic ideas inside of me are definitely a reflection of my being out in the world.”
Early on, the travel was related to his father’s army career. Later, it had to do with his work as a karate instructor and travels as a biker. While on the road, he also put into serious play his love of photography. “It helped me collect memories, so anything I saw could be used as an inspiration.”
Today, Werthan has a studio called The Metal Way in Branford. For years, his work had been given gallery showings several times a year, from Boston to upstate New York and elsewhere, and then word of mouth compelled many people to request his work for themselves. That kept him busy in the studio with commissions. Much of his work these days involves custom-crafting furniture, and he continues to explore landscapes and the countryside for objects to use for new works. He also still teaches karate, as does his partner, Noelle Talmon, a martial artist.
One of his best and most important students is 87 years old. That by itself is a bit usual, but what’s even more intriguing is the fact that the student is his father, George Benson Werthan, the former lieutenant colonel who settled his family in Connecticut when Sid was seven. Fate being unpredictable, had the elder Werthan made other plans, the younger Werthan may have grown up to be a more conventional artist. Good thing that never happened, because then his customers might have had to settle for traditional chairs instead of inspired metal mayhem.
Although she doesn’t work with chemicals, test tubes or Tesla coils, Weston-based conceptual artist Ellen Schiffman might be mistaken for an experimental scientist, simply because she’s known to take objects not associated with art and modify them into what she calls metaphors for tenuous times.
“I don’t know of other artists who use some of the materials and techniques I use in my work. For instance, I don’t know any artist who works with Q-tips,” says Schiffman, whose current body of work includes items from nature, found objects, rusted items, cotton twill tape, toothpicks, woodshop shavings, vintage fabrics, and almost anything else that might cross her path. The materials she finds, combined with the techniques she uses, make for brand new kinds of artwork.
“I start with material and experiment with it,” she explains. “I may not even have a vision in my mind of what the completed piece will be.” Case in point: she broke her ankle, needed to stay off that foot for four months, looked at the ACE bandage she was about to put on, and started stitching into it. That began an entire series centered on ACE bandages.
“When I broke my ankle, there was a dark moment. But as an artist, I had the impetus to keep going and be creative,” she says.
Such inspirations have resulted in dozens of exhibitions, including at the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, the Mercy Gallery in Windsor, the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury and the River Street Gallery in New Haven, as well as galleries, museums, art centers and creative workshops nationwide.
Schiffman’s material-driven artwork began almost 30 years ago, after the birth of her second child. That was the result of a simple desire to use her hands to create interesting things, which soon developed into a specialty that she traces to a well-developed sense of visual curiosity. Ellen looks at random objects and sees their artistic possibilities. She also endeavors to make each piece speak to hope and resilience. Today, she both displays and sells her metaphoric artwork.
Her support team includes her two grown children and her husband – “my right-hand man” – who handles many technical aspects of her work, including making frames and pedestals. He also takes many photographs which are on her website and in art publications, and which she uses for other promotional purposes.
Before becoming a professional artist, Schiffman had a business that sold the artwork of other artists to architects, designers and corporations. Once she started to create on her own, her work took on a special life that resonated with many people. A native of New York who loved the city but needed a quiet studio, she settled on Weston in Fairfield County for the best of both worlds: the nearby city that never sleeps, and a peaceful little hamlet in which to create brand new kinds of art.
If you ask him to, the only thing Durham-based wood artist Ben Dworski-Riggs will agree to teach you is how to challenge your ideas of what art is and what art can be – simply by looking it. He’ll avoid committing to actually teaching you how to do his particular kind of art – the Lichtenberg method of electrical sculpting – because it uses high volts of electricity, which is far too dangerous for the average person to work with. Using the Lichtenberg method, Dworski-Riggs creates gorgeous wooden figures, furniture, vases, pendants, and dozens of other objects.
Nor can he really teach you how to decide just what to create in the first place, since it’s difficult even for him to put his finger on it. “I just go where my imagination takes me. I think of something and look around to see if there’s anything out there like it,” he muses. “If there is, great, but if there’s not, I try to create it.”
It’s instinctual, and often, instinct cannot be taught.
The Lichtenberg method is named after German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who identified the patterns of leaf-like figures created by electrical discharges on the surfaces or interiors of insulating material. That’s what Dworski-Riggs creates on hardwoods. There is no staining involved. The creations are the natural result of the electricity and his skill in controlling it. Often, it combines metalwork, and lately it has included the use of phosphorescent and LED lighting, magnetism, and combining wood with glass, stone and resin. In many ways, his art is still evolving.
There is no one style on which he concentrates. A recent series of pieces has a wizard feel to it. “It just came out of my imagination,” he explains. “I wanted to see if I could create some kind of ‘Lord of the Rings’-style decor. That seemed like something that hadn’t been created yet.”
So he created it.
In addition to his own Lichtenberg designs, Dworski-Riggs – who describes himself as a “wood artist/mad scientist” on his website – also works for a custom cabinet shop where, without the electricity, he enjoys expressing himself through woodwork.
His Lichtenberg pieces have shown up in several galleries and art shows, and lately he’s been doing quite a number of more conventional furniture commissions. He does most of his work out of his home garage studio in Durham, where he and his wife Camilla Zamboni, a professor at Wesleyan University, reside.
Zamboni is very supportive of all he does as an artist and craftsman. Like his customers and fans, she learns a lot about the Lichtenberg method just by looking. Then again, that’s all she can do, since Dworski-Riggs will never teach her or anyone else. He doesn’t have to. Looking at it is enough.
While many artists express their visions through paint or other mediums, Amy Genser, a resident of West Hartford, fashions large canvases entirely with paper. That paper is cut, rolled, shaped, patterned, tinted, colored, and manipulated in ways to make it emotionally representative of such pensive panoramas as oceans, galaxies, coastlines, islands, horizons, and more.
Until she was 11, Genser’s family moved from state to state several times, mostly down south. Her father was a neonatologist and pediatrician, and Genser still recalls with clarity some of the biological images from his medical books, which she suspects was one of many visual elements that fed into her artistic sensibilities. There is even a touch of that imagery in her art today. Interestingly, many of her commissioned pieces hang in hospitals across the country.
When her family finally made it to West Hartford, Genser found a hometown she loved, which is why it’s no surprise that she never left. Nor will she, especially since she adores her studio in the Capital City, in the Parkville neighborhood. “It has big windows, a tremendous amount of natural light, high ceilings – it’s just awesome,” she says enthusiastically. “I love it here!”
That’s where she assembles the magnificent building blocks that make up her paper-based masterpieces – which, in addition to the commissions she receives, are sold to discriminating art lovers and displayed at select galleries.
The way she arrived at her special brand of art is a complex one. Mixed into the equation are a first career as a graphic artist that made her question her profession, a tragic family event that made her question life itself, and an artistic awakening at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received a Masters of Fine Arts degree. But no matter how it all came together, she’s happy it did – as are her private and commission customers.
Genser has been married for 19 years and has three sons between the ages of 16 and 12. “My boys seem to think what I do is cool,” she says, “though the youngest loves to give me business advice!” All in all, Amy Genser is juggling the many building blocks that make for a full and busy artist’s life.
“I love American impressionism,” says Simsbury oil painter Catherine Elliott. “Connecticut is so rich in the kind of imagery and landscapes that lend themselves so well to this style. When I see something that strikes my impressionistic eye, I’m motivated to paint it.” Which is exactly what she’s been doing for 35 years – taking a blank, impassive canvas and turning it into a colorful burst of emotion that is at once soothing and peaceful.
Elliott, who as a young woman had apprenticed to a painter, put the artistic muse on hold while she raised her family. Around the time her third daughter was born, she combined what was then a new hobby as an oil painter with a new habit of regularly visiting museums and galleries. That, in turn, resulted in a few sales and exhibits of her own work. The hobby turned into a profession. One of her first showings was at the PS Gallery in Litchfield.
What followed became a vibrant portfolio that continues to grow, and one that is always peaceful and soothing. Dozens of her paintings – autumn foliage, rustic lakesides, tree-canopied country paths, and an occasional surprise such as a shooting star, pancakes, or a Greenwich Village street scene – have been sold or have been on display at such venues as the Lyme Art Association in Old Lyme and the Sosebee Studio & Fine Art Gallery in Nantucket. Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford has six of her paintings. She also sells prints of some of her work. Though it is the work itself that’s most rewarding to Elliott, professional recognition has followed, including prizes from American Artist magazine, Plein Air Magazine and several others.
In addition to her own home studio in Simsbury, Elliott turned one of her daughter’s old bedrooms into a small gallery, which is open by appointment. When weather allows, she goes into the backyard where an old tennis court has been repurposed into a garden studio, complete with perennials, fruit trees and enough natural imagery to inspire year after year. The garden is a tribute to the eldest of her three daughters, whom she lost many years ago in an automobile accident. Naturally, that has affected her life as well as her work.
“At least a hundred paintings have come out of that little Garden of Eden,” she says. Once a year, she holds an oil painting workshop in the garden. Undoubtedly, it provides Elliott with a measure of comfort to know how the inspiration she shares with students is steeped in the love she draws from memories of the past.
Connecticut journalist Joel Samberg – who has profiled artists, musicians, actors, and comedians for magazines across the country – is a frequent contributor to Seasons.