Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Juno show celebrates work of artist Conway

The Rites of Spring (acrylic on canvas, 36 inches by 48 inches), by Norma Conway.

By Katie Deits

JUNO BEACH -- Norma Conway understands that when it comes to ages past, we rely on artists to tell us what the times were really like.

"The Brueghels showed the games and life in Brussels and the Netherlands, prehistoric cave people did beautiful illustrations of animals they hunted, Dutch artists did finely detailed paintings of the lifestyle of the wealthy people, and American illustrators glamorized the Wild West," said Conway, a classically trained painter herself.

"Norman Rockwell painted an idealized American life, though actually my family was sort of like that," she said. "But I can also relate to Edward Hopper’s work that described the Depression era with gloomy night scenes and a lonely girl in a theatre. I lived through those times.”

Conway has been depicting the faces, the landscapes and wildlife of the Florida of her time for decades now, and beginning this Friday, her work will be featured in a one-woman show called Icons of an Illustrator. The show will be at the Juno Beach Town Center until April 1.

An Indiana native, Conway graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and then moved to Florida in 1958. For a while, she painted portraits in Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Fort Lauderdale.

In 1965, she settled in Jupiter on a wide lot by the Loxahatchee River and opened a portrait studio in the Palm Beach Towers, where she painted portraits of the rich and famous. Marjorie Merriweather Post commissioned Conway to restore the murals that adorned Mar-a-Lago, and the town of Jupiter also owns some of Conway’s paintings.

The area around the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was a hotbed of illustrators when Conway was studying there. “Many famous illustrators came from ‘The Brandywine Tradition,’ as the area was called,” Conway said. “Talents such as N.C. Wyeth and his son Andrew, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, and Violet Oakley worked nearby.

"Andrew Wyeth attended some of our academy parties and I remember seeing his painting Christina’s World in a local exhibition," she said. "Andrew was shy and quiet, and still in shock, I think, over his father’s tragic death in a car/train accident.”

Conway was an early member of the Loxahatchee Historical Society and painted portraits of area pioneers such as John and Bessie Dubois and schoolteacher Anna Minear. She also was active in the development of the Lighthouse Gallery in Tequesta, teaching in the Gallery School of Art.

The Circle of Life (oil on canvas, 22 inches by 36 inches), by Norma Conway.

Thirty-two canvases showcase Conway’s artistic skill and knowledge of color. Her depiction of Florida’s wildlife is extraordinary: cranes dance across the landscape, sea turtles emerge from the ocean and a Florida panther tends her young. She captures these intimate moments to share with her viewers.

And because she also is a grandmother, she cannot resist putting in a canvas or two of her family, also caught in the middle of play.

All of it comes back to the basic idea that, as Conway said, "artists were always illustrators."

“Michelangelo was probably the greatest – he illustrated the Bible for the Catholic Church. Most people couldn’t read, so the church hired artists to glorify God," she said. "In fact, when most people think of God, they think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God reaching out to breathe life into Adam.”

Icons of an Illustrator is sponsored by Friends of the Arts of Juno Beach. Conway will be at the opening from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, and also will give a brief talk about illustration and art. The Juno Beach Town Center is at 340 Ocean Drive in Juno Beach.

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