Watercolor for all
Community art group is both eclectic & experimental
Robin Hoffman, left, hangs her water colors of live sketched local bands with Jen Simms, an art instrutor at GCC.
Robert Whitney and Kathy Maisto hang thier artwork at GCC South Gallery
They come from different places and times, and create art for different reasons, but for one hour each week, a cast of Franklin County characters gather at Greenfield Community College to discuss watercolor painting.
The Experimental Watercolor Group includes a house painter, who spent 30 years putting brush to hardwood.
There’s a music lover who attends concerts, transporting the performance from stage to paper.
The group is led by an art teacher, who would rather spend the hour as a peer instead of an educator. And there’s an art student, who relishes in creating work that is about more than simply getting a grade.
Between 12 and 15 members — a mix of students, faculty and community members — came to GCC each week for one hour. They hung their works on the wall and traded with one another observations, lessons and strategies.
And now, until Jan. 18, the work of 10 of those artists will hang from the walls of the GCC South Gallery — the finished product of a third semester of the experimental watercolor group.
The story begins with Jennifer Simms, a 40-year-old mother of three from Gill who teaches art classes at GCC and can’t get enough of watercolor.
A GCC alum in the early 1990s, Simms moved to San Francisco to work on film and printmaking. But she returned to the area to raise her three kids — the oldest of whom is preparing for college.
It was during her role as parent, when free time was short and space was limited to a kitchen table, that Simms began to become passionate about watercolor. Over time, she grew tired of having to fit into a rectangle or square — and moved outward, using watercolor as one element in her mixed-media displays.
With a wet brush on wet paper, she loves to let the colors move on their own as she watches, captivated by the medium’s “uncontrollable and unpredictable qualities.” She will work on as many as six pieces at a time, knowing that only one or two may work on an visual and emotional level.
Simms began the watercolor group in fall 2011, envisioning a play on an old-fashioned watercolor society that accepted everyone — regardless of age, level of experience or artistic style.
“I was really interested in bringing a group of people together that could expand the definition of watercolor,” she said. “I got such a mix of people ... It was this eclectic group.”
In the first semester, watercolor group members met weekly to play “Exquisite Corpse” — a game where a large drawing is divided into thirds, with one person painting the head, another the torso and a third the legs.
Then, in the spring, the members worked with the GCC environment — painting outside around campus or using Google Maps as an element in their images.
But this most recent semester has been the group’s most cohesive one, said Simms. She set out a challenge for each member to bring one new piece of artwork each week. It was a way to instill in them a work ethic so they could begin to craft their process and artistic style, she said.
Her role as faculty adviser and artistic guide is sometimes confused by some with her day job as a full-time art teacher.
“People want to learn watercolor, and it’s like, ‘Nope, this isn’t a class,’” she said. “This is more free-flowing ... lower expectations in a diverse crowd.”
The House Painter
The first wave of watercolor group participants included James “Jamesy” Cusimano, a Colrain resident and house painter for three decades.
“I knew how to use brushes and I knew how to use paint and wanted to try to use them in a different way,” said Cusimano, 62, who joined the group with his son, Aaron.
For Cusimano, every painting is a discovery. It has always been that way for him, since he learned on the job during his early days as a house painter.
No one taught him to use color matching techniques to make pieces of old wood grain blend in with new casing. And he would prefer that no one teach him a “how-to” lesson on working with watercolor art.
“To some degree, I don’t want to know what the rules are,” said Cusimano, “because the rules then become the way to go, as opposed to trying to figure it out on my own.”
Cusimano captures nature in a series of four paintings that he works on simultaneously.
One series of images tells the story of an ocean wave as it crashes into the Mohegan Bluffs, which are large clay cliffs on the southern shore of Block Island.
The Art Student
Crystal Atramor likes to draw graveyards, but the 28-year-old Sunderland resident will throw in an occasional self-portrait or two.
In her final year as a fine arts major at GCC, Atramor decided to check out the watercolor group after hearing rave reviews from fellow classmates. She had never worked with watercolor before — focusing mostly on acrylic paint and digital photography.
In the group, she found a place where people made art for the sole purpose of wanting to — not to complete a project or to get a good grade.
“When you’re doing critiques in the classroom, you talk a lot about the stress of getting the assignments done and trying to learn the technique the teacher is trying to teach you,” said Atramor.
But here, in the watercolor group, the conversation is more unstructured. “Almost like therapy,” she said.
People bring to the table different backgrounds and experience, as well as a varied set of techniques, she said. Some like to carefully control the painting, while others let the paint travel in its own path.
Atramor serves as the group’s student leader and helped Simms with some behind-the-scenes administrative tasks. The watercolor group is technically a club, receiving financial support from GCC Student Life.
The Music Lover
Robin Hoffman, a retired professional ballet dancer of 19 years, can relate to the art students in the watercolor group. She was one.
But now, the 46-year-old Conway resident takes on a new artistic challenge: attending live musical performances and drawing them during the show.
It was a practice that began about four years ago at a small music venue down the street from her Brooklyn, N.Y., home. And it’s continued at venues like The Arts Block in Greenfield since her move to Franklin County two years ago.
During a performance, Hoffman sits near the stage, equipped with paper and three pencils: red, blue and the reddish-brown color of sanguine. Sanguine and blue can be combined to create black, she said, giving her five colors (including white) that she could work with and identify in the dark.
She lets one song go by, absorbing the sound and style of the music and its players. Then, she waits patiently to capture the musicians in a perfect moment, particularly one that they repeat over and over throughout a song. Once she finds it, she quickly draws the scene, all the while becoming absorbed in the music around her.
“You’re drawing live and you’ve got the live music, (you can) feel the vibration and everything,” said Hoffman. “In a private way, it’s like being part of the performance.”
As for watercolor, she uses it very sparingly. It’s a chance for her to build off the sketches she already does — to accent colors or blur edges in order to create an effect that was not previously there.
The watercolor group has given Hoffman both a new audience and a new group of artists to observe and learn from — which is “all really good artistic fuel,” she said.
She has loved watching the group members progress and seeing the work culminate in the final exhibit.
“I just really enjoy seeing the work up on the gallery wall. It’s a thrill,” she said. “It’s really a group show. It doesn’t feel like a bunch of strangers anymore.”
Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education and health and human services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261,
ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.