Phyllis Kriegel sits down with The Art Barge

Happy New Year! Throughout the winter, we will be updating our website each month with features on The Art Barge and our community. From publicity to profiles, editorials to updates. Keep in touch with us for more Barge news!

This month is our first profile. Jenny Sonenberg, Program Coordinator, sat down with Phyllis Kriegel, a valued member of the Art Barge community for many years, to discuss her history at The Art Barge and her evolution as an artist. Although she didn’t begin making art until later in life, her study of art history, avid gallery and museum going, and collection of paintings and prints, prepared the ground for her “new life” making art.

Victor D’Amico stated, The Art Barge is only as important as the people in it….So please enjoy our interview with her below.

JS: What brought you to The Art Barge? 

PK: A history going back to the 50s. A group of art lovers living in Northern New Jersey were feeling culturally deprived and chaffed at having to cross the G.W. Bridge to get first-rate art instruction. We turned to the Peoples Art Center where Victor D’Amico, the Director of Education at Museum of Modern Art, had started an innovative program. We approached MoMA and, nothing if not cheeky, offered to set up a branch in New Jersey. After some backing and filling MOMA said “yes” on condition that we raised $ 25,000 for the project. Undaunted by the amount, we garnered nearly $6,000, not quite MoMA’s target.

After agonized reappraisals, we decided to launch The Art Center of Northern New Jersey on our own. Victor, helpful as usual, offered lots of sage advice. So when you ask what brought me to the Barge, the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art was lodged in my mind. When I started coming out to the East End and staying all summer, my love affair with the Art Barge in Napeague began in earnest. Lucky me, I found instructors who guided, encouraged and when necessary, gave a firm push. The late Ralph Carpentier and the very present Michael Rosch have been important in my art life.

JS: You were originally a writer?

PK: Well, I mainly edited a feminist news magazine for some twenty years. After a long run, changing times forced the publication to go belly up. And I was out of a job. A month in Assisi, studying Italian, savoring art treasures in Umbria and Tuscany led me to my next venture, taking up a paint brush. This, because of a gifted artist/educator of mine who urged me to start making art. She had me tearing up pieces of paper, which evolved into a collage of the Virgin in Simone Martini’s Annunciation, the one in the Uffizi.

JS: What kind of work did you start out making in Italy?

PK: Besides learning about color and space and line, I did portraits – mostly hard edge portraits a la Alex Katz. Serendipitously, I discovered the Russian Constructivists such as Lyud Popova and Steponova, women who sought to capture the world of modern life through geometry and abstraction. Their innovative paintings and clothing designs helped my sense of design.

JS: I ‘ve noticed that narrative plays a strong part in your work.

PK: Umberto Eco said “to survive you must tell stories.” So yes, a passion for narrative gives a certain twist to my painting and prints: literary sources, myths, the Bible, as well as folk and fairy tales, even art historical movements plant idea’s in my head. You could call me a fool for knowledge. I find doing research heady stuff.

JS: Could you give an example.

PK: I was studying Kafka and found in his Blue Notebooks an amusing line, suggesting that Adam’s first domestic pet after the expulsion was the serpent. So I painted the snake, gussie up as a playmate, and depicted Adam wearing the head of a crow (Kafka means crow in Czech).

JS: Did you continue your studio practice in the winter?

PK: Much of my work was conceived in the winter and realized in summer at the Barge. Academic topics frequently sparked ideas for paintings: I came across the ancient image of Baubo (5th Century BCE). According to myth, when Demeter wandered the earth mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone, it was Baubo’s bawdy speech and obscene gesture that made Demeter laugh and so ended her mourning; and the earth bloomed again. My obsession with Baubo and the way she embodied the complex and mysterious nature of woman led to 24 small paintings done as if the Furies were after me. I explored the visual vocabulary of female portraiture – Coptic funerary paintings and poignant images of Eve, Alice Neel’s splendid women and even Picasso’s Gertrude Stein – eager to have Baubo’s spirit live on.

JS: You also did a series on the Bauhaus.

PK: Exploring 20th century design, I found that women were accepted at the vanguard Bauhaus School but not permitted to study architecture. Some were shunted into becoming weavers—considered a female endeavor. Despite limits imposed by patriarchal culture, they thrived. I did their portraits, placing them against their weavings. They were independent, talented women willing to transgress the norms–I loved their spirit.

JS: What about what you were working on this summer, with integrating image transfers into your paintings?

PK: I learned to do transfers so I could have more control over my figures. For example, I transferred the image of a romantically- involved couple from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Rather than placing them in a bucolic world, I designed a setting of light and dark geometric shapes, attempting to make the image “new.”

JS: You have spoken about many individual projects you did at the Art Barge but how do think about your overall time there?

PK: It’s been a remarkable journey, filled with both delight and despair. Sometimes my ambition has overtaken my skill, then comes the struggle to find resolution. Grappling with new techniques and materials or taking chance in unexplored territory can be exhilarating. On occasion, The Art Barge can turn into your personal inferno, a clash between you and the instructor can ignite fear and trembling. Yet the incredible light and the reflecting water can also transform the Art Barge into a magic space. A potent dynamic between students and teacher emerges. The promise of new possibilities keeps me an eager acolyte.

Stay in touch with us throughout the Autumn!

This month we are excited to share with you ‘Art House,’ an article in Modern Magazine, as well as another episode of Seen in NY both featuring The Art Barge and The D’Amico House.

Modern Magazine’s article ‘Art House,’ offers an intimate look into the Victor and Mabel D’Amico Studio and Archives. Author Jenny Florence and photographer Jenny Gorman beautifully depict the D’Amico residence in Lazy Point, Long Island as “an assemblage of modern furnishings and eclectic objects combined as if the residence itself were a readymade…a riotous and creative composition, an art carnival in itself.” The D’Amico House remains preserved to this day by The Victor D’Amico Institute of Art, and is a living reminder of their legacy, artistic practice and educational philosophy. To read the article and see photographs of the D’Amico house visit: http://modernmag.com/art-house/

‘Seen in NY: The D’Amico Studio and Archive’ a EdLab production from Teachers College, Columbia University is a stunning visual documentation of the D’Amico House and The Art Barge. The Art Barge President Christopher Kohan’s narration provides the viewer with a unique perspective of Victor D’Amico’s educational philosophy. With anecdotes from his personal experiences living and working alongside the D’Amico’s, Kohan discusses the importance of their legacy and his work to preserve the D’Amico’s unique vision. “Victor told me early on when I was with him that there are two types of teachers. There is one type of teacher that can tell you only what they know, but there is another type of teacher that will tell you what you need to know and that is more important.” To see the video please visit: https://vialogues.com/vialogues/play/30803/

Thank you Modern Magazine and Seen In NY! The Art Barge and D’Amico house memorialize Victor and Mabel D’Amico’s contribution to art education. We are grateful for your support.

All the best,

The Art Barge Crew