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Art Saves Lives: A Wondrous Vision

Paintings by Amy Charmatz at JCC MetroWest and Arts Unbound delight the eye and inspire

Right now, West Orange is twice blessed: The wondrous paintings of self-taught artist Amy Goldsmith Charmatz are on exhibit both in a 22-piece, one woman show at the JCC MetroWest in the township through Nov. 6 and in "Symmetry," a group show by differently abled artists at the Arts Unbound Gallery in the West Orange/Orange Valley Arts District (VAD) through Oct. 14.

Charmatz's visual word poems — her hand lettered text is very much part of the story — have universal appeal. With a vibrant sense of color and design, her autobiographical works all have these elements in common: cats, cats and more cats in all colors, sizes, poses and personalities; some dogs, too; richly textured interiors — patterns abound on floor and walls — and a representation of Amy, sometimes younger, sometimes older, sometimes wry, sometimes philosophical, sometimes wistful, sometimes very funny and always direct and always herself.

Being Amy is loving to make art; the paintings are who she is. All of her paintings tell a rich story, in words and images and each time you look, the story becomes deeper and richer — a gesture there, a look here. And before I write another word, let me add, the paintings are absolute visual delights.

Being Amy means having had multiple brain surgeries since childhood and having known bouts of clinical depression. She overcame the depression through art:  One work says:  "She knows art keeps her sane" as the Amy character sits, surrounded by her beloved animals, near a window overlooking bucolic scene. Another tells us, "She knew she usually had something to live for." Amy and I talked about that work:

"That is very positive," Charmatz said, "If you've ever been depressed and can get together something for five minutes, a day, that's an achievement. All the works are 'My Realities,' the name of the JCC show."

That discussion was part of a recent, long recent conversation about her art, her working methods and her plans.

"Your canvases just pulse with life," I said.

"That's how I feel when I am painting, the works are alive to me and I am fully alive when painting," Charmatz said. "It's really so much fun."

Charmatz paints everyday; she figures each completed canvas takes one or two months, "I am meticulous about my painting," Charmatz said, "everything has to be right."

Charmatz says a lot about growing up female, in her case in South Orange, in the second half of the 20th century. One of my favorites is "She usually tried to please everyone," shown among the paintings in the gallery of photos above. The table is set and I noted that each plate has a different meal on it. Those are dinner plates for people, but Amy applied it to the cats:

"You know how it is with cats, each one wants its own favorite can", Charmatz said. Dressed in blue, cropped pants and multicolored sneakers, the work's central figure nestles a cat to her chest. Charmatz deftly captures the essence of the human-animal bond.

"I might rub something out 16 times before I get the gesture that I feel is right," Charmatz. Same, too, for the lettering, which forms another visual element in each painting; the lettering echoes the internal rhythm of each work. "The letters take me hours," Charmatz said. "I have to get the spacing just right."

Charmatz spoke about the messages, her truths: "I was so happy at the JCC and Arts Unbound openings," Charmatz said. "People were really looking, really reading the text. It's such a high when people come, love my paintings and really get my messages."

"Her truths are universal and really resonate with other students her, the instructors and art lovers," Gail Levinson, the executive director of Arts Unbound said.

While Charmatz's canvases are very well priced (My recommendation: Buy now for the holidays and to pass on to your children so they can pass the painting along to theirs), she is also currently making very affordable house charms, small paintings and sculptures, for a fall opening of a second Arts Unbound store in Maplewood. Her note cards are favorites at the Arts Unbound home gallery and shop at Freeman Street in Orange, and also available from www.artsunbound.org on line.

With the assistance of Arts Unbound, a not for profit dedicated to furthering the art of the differently abled, Charmatz is looking into making available prints of her work. Levinson explained:  "Amy has been part of programs led by our educational director, Gayle Mahoney on how to market you art," Levinson said. "; she has an on line portfolio of photographs of all her work and she is really poised to reach a larger market."

Charmatz became an Arts Unbound artist in 2008; her message "ART SAVES LIVES" hangs in their gallery window and has become the informal motto of the organization.

She is joined in the current show at Arts Unbound by other artists with disabilities, both from the host organization and VSA, the New Jersey state organization promoting the creative powers of people with disabilities. (Amy has exhibited with the latter group at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.)  

Among the Arts Unbound artists, new to me, are the lovely watercolors of Gregory Smith, which capture the light of a fall day or the vitality of a neighborhood store, as seen in "Foster's Market "shown here. Stacy Crawford has two strong portraits and Tom Wade a happy quartet of whimsical, small color pencil works.

There are also new works by popular Arts Unbound artist Jon Gabry, who is legally blind and deaf. Among these, I especially liked one inspired by this summer's bamboo roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Rooftop Bamboo at the Met."

The Arts Unbound Gallery is at 544 Freeman Street, Orange. Hours are weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. or by appointment. Call (973)675-2787 or for more information and exhibit images see www.artsunbound.org as well as selections from the Arts Unbound store.

Amy's mother, artist Joan Goldsmith, is currently showing in "Ageless Art, Boundless Creativity," at the JCC; that show will be discussed in an upcoming West Orange Arts Beat.

Hours for the Roland Exhibition Corridor, Arts Lobby and the Gaelen Gallery East at JCC MetroWest, 760 Northfield Avenue, West Orange are Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, please contact Lisa Suss at (973) 530-3413 or e-mail lsuss@jccmetrowest.org. Closed Yom Kippur.

Lisa Suss October 01, 2011 at 01:40 PM
Great article! Amy is an inspiration.
Dorothy Higgins October 01, 2011 at 07:27 PM
I've known Amy for a very long time. I moved to another state about eleven years ago. We have kept in touch. I am so very proud of all Amy has accomplished through the years. Amy is a person everyone should know. Dorothy Higgins
Carol Selman October 01, 2011 at 09:08 PM
Amy is an inspiration and her art has such a grip on being human. And being cat...And she is a knock out artist! I hope they fly off the gallery walls; it is art you can look at everyday, seeing and feeling something new. Thank you, Lisa for exhibiting Amy and curating her show at the JCC and Dorothy for your lovely post.
Tara Grey October 05, 2011 at 05:19 PM
Amy's art just makes you feel GOOD! I've known Amy for many years and have always been amazed at how personal her pieces are, yet her words and 'sayings' can really apply to anyone. She really has a way with color and words. Congrats, Amy! And great article!!
Carol Selman October 06, 2011 at 12:03 PM
Thank you for your enthusiastic comment that goes to the heart of Amy's art & being.

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