A window into their lives: Mystic Museum of Art explores the work of artists and couple Wendy Edwards and Jerry Mischak
When Mystic Museum of Art Executive Director George King visited the East Providence home and studios of acclaimed artists and married couple Wendy Edwards and Jerry Mischak, he was struck by the individuality of their recent works and, at the same time, by the similarities.
He hadn’t planned to show the two artists together but changed his mind when he saw that the couple’s pieces complement each other. They both focus on floral arrangements and juxtapose their base elements — his concrete pedestals, hers broad strokes of bright color — with the textures of their depicted flowers.
“When you put them together, his in the middle of the gallery surrounded by the strong colorful work by Wendy, they do have a tendency to speak to one another. They exist on their own and yet coexist with one another,” King says.
His observances came as a surprise to the two artists, however, who, despite having been together since 1979, have established separate artistic careers and reputations from one another.
“The strange thing was that we couldn’t see this connection in both our works. It wasn’t until George came to the studios and immediately picked up on the similarities,” says Edwards, who wears neon yellow eye glasses that complement her blonde hair. “He started seeing the work not as individual pieces but as a collection of flowers in a garden.”
Mischak, a sculptor, is also a senior critic at the Rhode Island School of Design and a painting and sculpture professor at the University of Rhode Island. He is best known for his sculptures made out of duct tape, and his work has been shown in museums and galleries across the country and world, ranging from Jim Kempner Fine Art in Chelsea, N.Y., to Centre International d'Art Contemporain, in Pont Aven, France.
Edwards, on the other hand, a professor of art at Brown University, is a painter. Her work, which mostly consists of large-scale pieces, used to be abstract but now often features large flowers over bright backgrounds of contrasting hues. Her work too has been shown around the country and the world. Formerly handled by the OHT Gallery in Boston, she is now represented by Drive By Gallery in Watertown, Mass.
Mischak, as of late, has been experimenting with what looks like abstract potted-flower sculptures. Situated atop strong, angular concrete pedestals inspired by the brutalist Soviet architectural movement of the mid-20th century are undefined plaster floral arrangements that seem to be dripping upwards.
Edwards, who has been painting flowers since 2008, has in recent years “pumped up the scale” in her paintings by depicting thickly textured roses and irises with oil paints over thin, broadly stroked background layers of different colors. For example, under a pink background, yellow can be seen peeking through the top layer, adding more saturation to an already vibrant painting.
Those works together and the odd, yet fascinating and unintentional interplay between both artists is serving as the subject of the Mystic Museum of Art’s first official exhibition in their new 15 Water Street Gallery, formerly the Mystic Emporium, an eclectic gift and novelty shop. The show has recently been extended until Dec. 17.
The exhibit, curated by King, features Mischak’s monochromatic sculptures in the center of the gallery. Surrounding them are three large-scaled works by Edwards.
“Jerry’s sculptures are on pedestals which are very much reminiscent of Brancusi. In some instances, the flowers or heads of them are even reminders of Francis Bacon, whose facial portraits are not fully described,” King says. “In Wendy’s works, I’m reminded by Georgia O’Keefe. Obviously, the color had a part to play. But when looking at her work, it’s like a magnified exposure of the natural shapes that she is depicting.
“In some cases, in certain lighting, the reflections of her paintings emit a wash of color that appears over the gray matter of the sculptures. They are not fighting over one another but work together.”
Over their last four decades as a couple, Mischak and Edwards have only shown in the same exhibition together twice before. The last time was in 2006 in Penn State’s Palmer Museum as part of a show titled “Couples Discourse” and, before that, in 1980 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison — the place where the artists met and fell in love.
They first came into contact while Mischak was completing his MFA and Edwards was working as an assistant professor at the university.
“She was never my teacher. Never. But I truly admired her work before ever meeting her … We just happened to keep running into each other by accident. It was fate,” Mischak says, sitting in the ground floor studios of their home.
On that note, the home of Edwards and Mischak very much reflects the kind of eclecticism and inventiveness that would be expected of artists.
In the neighborhood of Rumford, R.I., stands what was once the East Providence Fire Department. The couple purchased the building in 2004 and spent two years renovating. Now serving as the couple’s home and studios, the domicile preserves semblances of what it once was. A spiral staircase in the back of the home leads from the ground floor, which consists of 2,500 square feet of studio space, to an equally sizable living area on the second floor. A large, now covered, 43-inch circle where a fire pole once ran through still can be observed in their dining room’s floor. Their bathroom includes authentic white subway tiles and has kept two of the four original sinks. Two toilet cubicles remain, and two shower stalls give an added touch.
What was once the holding bay for fire trucks is now the converted studios for the artists. A long white wall runs down the middle of the room, physically separating the artists’ workspaces. In this case, the wall seems to have acted more as a semi-permeable membrane of sorts rather than a solid divider — clearly, an osmotic influence has occurred between the pair over the last couple years through their newest works.
On one side, Mischak’s studio sits cluttered with years of work, as foreign shapes peek out over the crowd of tables, sculptures, chairs, paintings and various other materials. His studio feels like a flea market or perhaps, ironically, the former Mystic Emporium — a place where one can rummage and dig for hours, finding unexpected treasures along the way.
Edwards’ side of the studio space remains more pristine, though there are still tables scattered with hundreds of empty paint tubes. Works in the making hang from the walls alongside oil-on-paper paintings Edwards created for a series she displayed at the National Academy of Painting in Beijing and the Karamay Museum in Karamay, China, last August.
Their workspace differences seem to highlight their independence from each other but also that they are open and comfortable with these distinctions.
“We are both strong independent individuals and artists, but we’re not competitive,” Edwards says. “Our tastes are very different in relation to what we are drawn to. I love Fra Angelico or Giotto, for example. But I see Jerry being potentially excited about Brancusi. Or I’m drawn to the gorgeousness of a lush Van Gogh painting.”
In Mischak’s studio, the couple sits next to each other while surveying a collection of sculptures similar to those on display in Mystic. Edwards critiques Mischak’s work confidently as they stand in a circle in a sunny corner of the studio — their brightly painted plaster surfaces are illuminated by morning sunlight filtering through frosted glass windows fashioned to look like their former firehouse garage doors.
“Jerry and I were blind to our own connection with the work. His had been based on these architectonic forms that hold (these flowers) up, and I had been working with these abstract shapes relating to flowers as well. And I don’t know why, but we hadn’t recognized this or spoken about it,” Edwards says.
“If I think about it, it’s probably this space in itself that has seeped into our work — the backyard primarily, first with its daffodils, then its irises, then its Echinacea. The garden has become something that’s there in the backyard. And the immediacy of this gorgeous, private garden area behind us, I think, seeps into our work.”
When recounting the inspiration for his current collection of sculptures, Mischak refers back to a 2010 dining-room-inspired exhibition held at the Centre International d'Art Contemporain, titled "Les Quatre.” Both Edwards and Mischak were teaching six-week summer sessions at the Pont Aven School of Contemporary Art.
With a focus on the “joys of sitting at a dining table,” Mischak used orange duct tape to wrap four six-foot tables topped with items such as vases, bottles and silverware into one connected piece.
“Everything was covered, as if you poured syrup over everything. All you could see was a silhouette or the raw form of the objects … What was fascinating with these vases was that they started to take on these forms that looked something like flowers,” he says.
Mischak was also largely inspired by the 20th-century Soviet architecture featured in “Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed” by Frederic Chaubin — a book given to him by the couple’s daughter, Georgia.
Edwards, on the other hand, relates her paintings to a 2015 Metropolitan of Art exhibition titled “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses.” The exhibit featured four of Van Gogh’s last flower paintings, and all of them, Edwards says, inspired her work in recent years.
“What intrigued me was that some of the colors were bleached out due to time and exposure, but if you looked underneath the edge of the frame, you could see that the original colors were really intense, and I was fascinated with that idea — the idea of plumping up this intense color in paintings,” she says.
“My paintings aren’t really about Van Gogh. It’s an element that I happened to discover. I’m just taking a moment or a chunk from something I discovered by him.”
As Edwards recounts these details, Mischak sits, with his chin cupped in his hand, intently studying a painting she recently completed. Similar to her paintings on view in Mystic, this one features roses over a green background. As she has done with her past pieces, bright blue and yellow layers reveal themselves under a transparent top layer of green.
One wide brush stroke in particular catches his eye. This stroke, he says, perfectly exemplifies the many layers of background colors playing through in the painting.
“There is a doorway in every painting that will allow you in, a singular element that you will see that is euphoric in a way, that shows the viewer the rest of the painting,” he says, referring to this singular stroke. “This is that.”
Like that stroke, their pieces have in the same way offered a window into their lives.
What: “Wendy Edwards/Jerry Mischak”
Where: Mystic Museum of Art's 15 Water Street Gallery at 15 Water St., Mystic
When: Through Dec. 17: By appointment during museum hours, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except closed Mondays
Contact: (860) 536-7601, www.mysticmuseumofart.org