A new exhibit opening May 2nd at Gregory James Gallery brings together two established local artists who share a passion for the medieval medium of silverpoint. Though tied together by their interest in this delicate and unforgiving art form, and the fact that they both chose to make their home in Litchfield County, the artists have disparate focal points for their work and are not limited to the medium.
Tipped Toward the Light
Banjie Getsinger Nicholas has lived most of her life in rural northwest Connecticut, drawing inspiration from the natural landscape that surrounds her. Her art is based on her observation of birds, plants and insects and informed by her work as a licensed wild bird rehabilitator for 20 years.
In 2012, she published “Silver Linings,” a beginner’s guide to silverpoint, which requires the artist to draw a thin sterling silver wire held in a stylus across a ground that is abrasive enough to remove and hold small amounts of the silver. Nicholas prefers to work with natural materials and creates her silverpoint drawings and egg tempera paintings on traditional gesso panel, which is composed of marble dust and rabbit skin glue sanded to smooth finish. This ground has been used by egg tempera painters since the 12th century and is also ideal for silverpoint, Nicholas said.
In her book, she noted the delicate strokes produced when working in silverpoint reveal the hand of the artist. The intimacy and detail of the medium draw the viewer closer.
"To see an original silverpoint drawing is to be captivated,” Nicholas wrote. “Tipped toward the light it shines and left to the devices of time and atmosphere it gently tarnishes to a warm patina."
The new exhibit will feature works such as “Off Season,” a silverpoint drawing of a nest cradling two broken nutshells in 14K gold, presumably left behind by transient mice, as well as egg tempera paintings from her “Songbird Series,” produced to support the Sharon Audubon Center and generate awareness about the diminishing habitat of songbirds.
Nicholas’ work has provided rare insights and experiences with birds, particularly fledglings, which are brought to her door by concerned neighbors who happen upon them. The fledglings are among her favorite subjects. “Baby birds are not that interesting to paint because they’re all pink and beak,” she said. “But there’s something about fledglings when they’re hand raised. They have this innocence, and that little Einstein fuzz on the top of their heads. They’re extremely sweet.”
A prime example is “Baby Robin,” which Nicholas created using a combination of silverpoint and egg tempera. The Cedar Waxwing featured in another painting depicts a fledgling with a broken beak delivered into her care. Nicholas transported it to a bird hospital in Kensington, where its tiny beak was splinted, and hand-fed it chopped up bits of fruit. She captured a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in silverpoint drawn on the inside of a large clamshell, the first in a series. Like her preferred mediums, the shells speak to the strength and fragility of the natural world.
One of her newest paintings of three bluebirds perched next to a saucer was inspired by the eight bluebirds Nicholas nurtured through the winter, by placing a feeder filled with mealworms outside her studio window. Nicholas is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and holds certificates in natural science illustration and botanical illustration from New York Botanical Garden. She studied egg tempera painting with Koo Schadler and has received numerous honors, including awards from the Fredericksburg Center for Creative Arts, Kent Art Association and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. Her work has been featured in juried and solo exhibitions at the University of Connecticut, the New Britain Museum of American Art and Clement Gallery in Troy, NY, among other venues. She has taught at New York Botanical Garden, Housatonic Valley Art League, Washington Art Association, and since 2005 at the Naturalist’s Studio.
An Exacting Art Form
Joel Spector is an award-winning portraitist whose subjects range from close family and friends to CEOs and celebrities who have commissioned his work. Born in Havana, Cuba, he arrived in the United States at the age of 12 with his sister, Dorana. The two settled in New York City with an aunt and were later joined by their parents, who had manufactured women’s apparel in Cuba.
Spector knew from an early age that he wanted to be an illustrator. He graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and attended the Art Students League. Before he even finished his degree, he found work as an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily, the Daily News Record and other trade journals. He also began freelancing as an illustrator for department stores and fashion designers, including Christian Dior Menswear. While working on an advertising campaign for Bill Blass Menswear, he met his wife, Rowena, a menswear designer. The couple moved from New York to New Milford in 1990 and raised four children there.
When the fashion industry shifted from illustration to photography, Spector made the natural progression to general illustrator and enjoyed a successful freelance career. In 2008, he turned his attention to portraiture. He studied under Aaron Shikler, who is perhaps best known for his iconic White House portrait of President John F. Kennedy.
Spector said portraits allow him to establish a meaningful, emotional connection with his subjects. “A photograph just doesn’t do that. I really feel that photography takes a very little slice of time and pulls it out, whereas art takes things and puts it into time. It’s a whole different experience. There are also decisions that the artist is making that don’t rely on the lens of the camera and that instantaneous capture of light,” Spector said.
A few years ago, he began working in silverpoint, which he sometimes combines with watercolor or pastel to add a tint of color to a subject’s lips, cheeks or eyes. An exacting art form, silverpoint demands confidence, especially if one is sketching a live subject, as Spector does. “Once you put a mark down, that’s it. You’re married to it,” he said.
“His “Fragments Series” is created on specially treated board that he breaks by hand. More recently, he has begun working in silverpoint on chunks of marble. “It think it has a feeling of a found object, like it’s a fragment of something greater,” he said.
His subjects include his wife and daughter, Saskia. He has been commissioned to create portraits of celebrities, including the actor Eli Wallach and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In addition, Spector is working on a series of 24-by-24-inch portraits of friends, including the documentary filmmaker Harold Mayer of New Milford, Greenmarket founder Barry Benepe of New York, New Milford photographer Bill Quinnell and filmmaker Charlie Peters, who has a home in Bridgewater.
Spector has received numerous honors including an award at the 2011 and 2013 International Portrait Competition in Atlanta, Ga., Gold Medal awards from the Pastel Society of America, Society of Illustrators awards, and accolades from the Portrait Society of America and Oil Painters of America. He teaches art at the Arts League of Long Island and previously taught at FIT and Western Connecticut State University, from which he received his MFA in 2005.