Pat Witt's Latest 'Visions' StunLast Edited:
The ‘Painter Laureate’ of South Jersey’s latest exhibit, ‘New Visions,’ runs in Millville through November 12. (Photo: Bill Horin)
MILLVILLE, N.J. — It would be a near-impossible task to quantify what kind of effect Pat Witt has had on southern New Jersey and the region. Not just in terms of the countless children whose lives she has touched during her decades of art classes, workshops and other creative endeavors in Cumberland County, but also regarding her time-tested approach to teaching, interacting, and life itself.
Talk to some of the most-respected, talented and prolific creative spirits in the southern New Jersey region and most will mention the 91-year-old Witt, who since the early 1960s has run the Barn Studio of Art in Millville, which is now a nonprofit.
“She’s an extraordinary person,” says Ventnor-based painter Steve Kuzma. “Just being with her, you learn something.”
Cape May County-based artist Stan Sperlak says Witt is the reason he is a professional artist today.
“I started studying with Pat Witt when I got out of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts,” says Sperlak from his barn studio in Goshen, where he now teaches art.
Sperlak, now a world-renowned pastel artist, met Witt about 20 years ago when he first started getting interested in pursuing his artistic calling as a professional.
“I didn’t realize there was going to be any instruction available in South Jersey,” says Sperlak, who currently runs the Goshen School of Art.
“But someone told me about this old lady that might not be alive, and I called 411, got her number. And she answered the phone.
“And I said, ‘So, you’re alive, huh?’ and she’s like, ‘You betcha!’”
After a couple of years taking classes with Witt, Sperlak realized that his teacher not only thought that he had genuine potential as a visual artist, but also that he had a similar view of art and the art world as his teacher.
“It was another two years taking classes before she started to realize that I was really, really working hard in my pastels and I was being a, I think, good student, to where I wasn’t trying to tell anybody else there how to use pastels,” says Sperlak.
“And when she found out that I wasn’t letting anybody know how to use pastels [like I do]—because it was her class, and I would tell them, “This is Pat’s class. Don’t ask me how to paint; it’s her class’—she came up to me and told me that was one of the most honorable things anyone could do. And she said, ‘Keep sticking with what you’re doing, one day you’ll be a teacher, too.’”
Sperlak and Witt have become close friends over the years. Sometimes one will call the other at four in the morning just to ask: “Do you see those stars?”
It’s an example of why so many love Witt.
It’s also the epitome of the space where her gifts as an artist and as a teacher come together—a place where the artist becomes subject, teacher becomes student, day becomes night, and life becomes art.
Today, Witt spends a lot of time thinking, something that has always lent itself to her art, she says.
“I’m a thinker, I sit and stare, you know?," she says. "
It’s not yoga, it’s contemplation. It’s not meditation. Contemplation is more outward than meditation. Just sit and stare.”
Bill Horin, who runs the South Jersey arts organization ArtC (and is also host of the SNJ Today arts program of the same name; he just had Witt on the show), grew up in Witt’s Millville, but didn’t meet her until about 15 years ago.
Along with Cape May County filmmaker Frank Weiss, in 2012, Horin produced a documentary on Witt called The Art Spirit to much acclaim.
“Pat is the ‘Art Spirit,’” says Horin. “Her energy, enthusiasm and knowledge of the arts in South Jersey is contagious. She has had a positive impact on anyone who has met her.”
A couple years ago, the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Art (RRCA) in Millville, asked Witt if she would do a new exhibit.
At the time, she pondered the idea, but was caught in a “painter’s block,” unable to paint, while also suffering from macular degeneration, which she was diagnosed with in 2007 and has since made her partially blind.
However, Witt’s deep friendships with fellow artists—many of them former students—helped spark her creative spirit again.
Witt’s friends and family at The Barn Studio of Art—where classes are still taught and art is still made each week, see barnstudio.org—helped her prime 25 canvases and assist her in getting to work.
Pie tins were turned into paint palettes to aid Witt’s visual challenges.
She tried to have fun again.
As Witt, who started teaching at a local YMCA at 15, states in her gorgeously written Artist Statement for “New Visions”:
“Having observed the sheer joy of four-year-olds painting, I have learned to strive for that in doing my own work. “Rather than being limited by my visual impairment and limited mobility, I have found it liberating and have embraced the idea of having fun with my painting.”
On Friday, October 20, Witt’s exhibit “New Visions” was unveiled at the RRCA on High Street in Millville’s Glasstown Arts District.
A stunning collection of light, color and beauty, “New Visions” is what Witt describes as a “celebration of life.”
“I am captivated by the natural phenomena of light in this environment,” she writes. “I seek to portray Sun pillars, Sundogs and crepuscular rays. … I work to capture the play of sunlight on the clouds and how the weather conditions change the color relationships of sky and earth.”
What’s even more incredible about Witt and her creative spirit is her thirst to share her gifts as well as her sense of a responsibility to other artists as the matriarch of the arts in southern New Jersey.
She is also one tough cookie.
With five broken ribs and a badly bruised lung suffered in a recent fall, Witt—who already used a wheelchair and an oxygen tank due to other medical issues, her eyes often hidden in public behind large protective sunglasses —she rolled up to the RRCA building during the District’s October 20th Third Friday celebration with a smile.
After being chaperoned to High Street via ambulance courtesy of Inspira, Witt and 200 of her fellow teachers and artists, closest friends, students, and fans gathered for an autumn night to remember.
“We’re very honored that Pat Witt chose the RRCA to have her latest solo show,” said Diane Roberts, director of the RRCA. “She hasn’t had one in quite a while. It’s all new work, in the last couple years. And we’re thrilled.”
Horin and Sperlak were thrilled to see Witt at the opening of her new exhibit.
“I should know better than to be surprised by anything Pat does but yes, I was surprised by the quantity and quality of the new work,” says Horin.
“And the fact that she was able to change her style. Because of her macular degeneration, she only has peripheral vision; she is legally blind. Don’t tell her that because to her it’s a minor inconvenience. She still ‘sees’ better than most artists. Her age is just a number. As I’ve said before, she’s not from this galaxy.”
Sperlak adds: “She’s the dean. She’s the Painter Laureate of the whole South Jersey area. And you know what? She’s not an absolute tactician. She’s not a perfectionist. She’s about the voice. She’s about the spirit — the way it looks, the way it makes you feel. She teaches people how to see.”
"New Visions" runs at the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts through Sunday, November 12.
Witt will also give a special Artist Talk at the RRCA on Sunday November 5, from 2 to 3 p.m. (rrca.com)
Witt is confident that her family, including her daughters and grandchildren, will help preserve what Witt has built for South Jersey and the region.
"I think the crucial thing that helps [The Barn Studio] continue is that my two beautiful daughters — Nancy and Carole — believe in this and they want to see it perpetuate," says Witt. "Even though they live far away, they come home every month, and they are making sure it carries on."
At 91, she can spend her time pondering sweeter pursuits — such as SunDogs, shadows, and the colors of the clouds.
Witt is already contemplating another new collection of paintings.
With the pale sunlight shooting through cracks in the blinds in one of the Barn’s main rooms, an empty gold-colored frame leans against the back of a seat.
“I’m thinking about my next exhibit,” she says with the smile of a child.
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