From A Barn, The Hamden Art League Grows Its Mission

Lucy Gellman | July 28th, 2023

From A Barn, The Hamden Art League Grows Its Mission

Hamden  |  Arts & Culture  |  Hamden Art League

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Artists Elizabeth (Liz) Scott, Rosemary Serfilippi, Brenda Burt and Sharon Morgio, who formed a planning committee to make the show happen. Not pictured is  Jeannette Wimmer, who was unable to be present Thursday but helped bring the show into being. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Just off Whitney Avenue, the Eli Whitney Barn exploded into color, oil-on-canvas vignettes and acrylic freeze-frames mounted across the space. On one wall, sunflowers burst into bloom from a butter-colored jug. Nearby, Cherry Blossom trees turned Wooster Square into a blur of pink and green. At the mouth of the building, vibrant blue and pink piping peeked out from a quilt, announcing the artist’s hand in brilliant color. 

Those scenes—and so many more like them—are on view at the barn this weekend, as the Hamden Art League opens a jam-packed, vibrant summer art show at 940 Whitney Ave. The league’s first exhibition beyond Miller Memorial Library in Hamden, it features 60 artists and close to 100 works in various media. It runs Friday and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Artists include both members and nonmembers; more information is available at the Hamden Art League’s website. 

“We’re very proud,” said Rosemary Serfilippi, a retired high school English teacher who has served as the group’s president for the last five years. “I just think it’s very high quality, and thanks to our members, it’s beautifully hung.”

She added that the barn feels more like an art destination, particularly as potential attendees roll into the weekend. “It’s too hot to go to the beach this weekend, so I’m hoping they’ll come here.” 

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Top: Jeannette Wimmer's My Chickadees and Lee Heckendorf's Making Memories. Bottom: Rita Brieger's Urban Landscape and Sunny by Nancy McNicol. 

It has marked a period of growth and transition for the group, added treasurer Brenda Burt. In 2022, the Hamden Art League received $5,200 from CT Humanities, made possible by federal pandemic relief dollars that were coming into the state. It was a game changer: the group was able to formally incorporate as a nonprofit, and began building on its goals to increase both membership and member diversity.

Diversity means a lot of things for the group, Burt said: not only attracting and supporting more nonwhite members, but also nurturing a more intergenerational and socioeconomically mixed group of artists. Currently, membership is $30 per year, with annual dues that do not cover the league’s full operating budget. In other words, the funding gave the league a cushion for the first time in its history.

That cushion has allowed for a surprising level of growth for the group. From 2022 to 2023—when the organization received a second grant from CT Humanities—membership grew from 63 to a little over 90. As Serfilippi and an all-volunteer board of artists navigated a new normal, the league was also able to begin hosting weekly gatherings, monthly meetings and semi-monthly workshops at the Miller Memorial Library. 

“It’s given a lot of opportunity to people,” Burt said, pointing to workshops on everything from portrait painting to social justice in the arts. “Over and over again, it’s a reminder of how great it is to be around other artists, talking about the work. That’s the beauty of our presentations. Even if you have no interest in the medium [that’s being presented], it makes you think differently.”  HamdenArtLeague - 14

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Top: Detail, 134340, by artist Sheila Lane. Bottom: Scenes range from landscapes and street scenes to intimate family moments. 

Inside the barn, where the cover of shade and multiple large, whirring fans save attendees from the month’s sticky temperatures, a viewer can see that evolution everywhere they turn. On one long wall, one finds themselves suddenly inside a wintry vision of Wooster Street, the scene bright as snow piles around Gar Waterman’s iconic iron archway. Just as on the street itself, the archway is rendered in intricate detail, with cherry blossoms that lead to an Elm Tree. Beyond the frame, Pamela Mancini’s Ocean Treasures journey forward into summer months, as sand dollars and starfish spread across a yellow smear of beach.  

Up a set of stairs, works catch one’s eye in every direction. Even from where it sits on the floor, propped up against a wall, Paul Wharton’s Jimi In The Sky dazzles, in hazy purple and a spray of color that feels like synesthesia in real time. Lifting a tattooed wrist to his chest, Jimi Hendrix looks straight out at the viewer, his gaze almost pugnacious. His signature afro, rendered with a confetti-like brightness, moves with him, waving in the wind. No need to try LSD: a close look at the painting is enough to get the idea. 

A few feet away, Elizabeth Scott’s Jellies flutter their hello, a sudden reminder that plastic is both omnipresent and can be kept out of landfills when put to creative use. As they float in the warm air, swaying on the occasional breeze, they strike an odd balance: distinctly not human and yet animated, as if there is some life force behind them that the viewer cannot see. Across from these fish out of water, Beverly Johnson’s Mother and Child seems like the right curatorial choice, its thick, fleshy form frozen in time. Thursday, it caught in the afternoon sunlight, glowing chocolate browns and bronzes.

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In a testament to the league’s evolving mission, there is also a palpable sense of intergenerational and multimedia cross talk, although it helps to have one of the art league’s members provide cliff notes (if a Thursday visit was any indication, they are happy to). Near a table that welcomes attendees to the show, Nini Munro-Chmura’s Sally’s Nautilus hangs across from Hugo Hawes’ Kaleidoscope. 

In the first, Munro-Chmura has arranged 30 labyrinthine, nautilus-like shapes in painstaking detail, not a thread out of place. In the second, Hawes begins with a mix of butterfly cutouts in different fabric, layering them to create a brilliant, polychromatic effect and huge butterfly that one can see from afar.

Decades of experience hang between them: Munro-Chmuro is 90, while Hawes is still a teenager who began quilting just a few years ago. And yet, a curious viewer may imagine and hope for a conversation between the two, wisdom doled out by stitch by stitch.

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Decades of experience hang between them: Munro-Chmura is 90, while Hawes is still a teenager, who began quilting just a few years ago.

Sitting behind the barn on Thursday afternoon, Serfilippi said that she is excited for the weekend’s foot traffic, and hopes the show marks the first of many in the new venue. As she spoke, a tree spread its branches above her head, blocking out the worst of the day’s heat. The barn, which sits down a gravel driveway and is surrounded by trees and walking paths, felt like a pilgrimage site on the New Haven-Hamden line. 

Burt, who sat beside her, recalled a plein-air painting session earlier in the day, during which three deer had been the artists’ unexpected morning visitors. New events like that make her think of the possibilities that the art league has in store for the future, she said. Part of that includes the new names and faces, both members and nonmembers, that have come into the group’s orbit through this show. 

“We’re really excited,” she said. “It’s started to really make a difference.”