Artist Kathleen DeMeo at an opening of the show last week. Abiba Biao Photos.
Mountain peaks sit serenely above a body of water as time travels around them. The sun tucks itself away, giving way to the night sky’s deep blue and starry hues. The water mirrors this transition, holding the warm yellow glow of the sunset before the sky completely darkens.
Kathleen DeMeo’s “Inlet Nightfall” is one of the pieces in Latitudes of Myth, a joint exhibition from artists Magda Mraz and Kathleen DeMeo up at the Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library through Dec. 31. The show, which unfolds in the library’s program room, opens a dialogue around happiness, the pleasures of life, and mental health. It is curated by Johnes Ruta, an independent curator and art theorist.
Both artists bring vivid color, form, and story to the library with their works. Originally from the Czech Republic, Mraz immigrated to the US in 1967 at 19 years old, and went to Queens College in New York City for her B.A. While in New York City, she first worked as a textile designer and artist, then attended the Wisdom Graduate School at Ubiquity University in Oakland California for graduate school.
Artist Magda Mraz with her work. Abiba Biao Photos.
Mraz’s inspiration for her work derives from what she calls “cosmic geometry” and her own interactions with the universe and the natural world around her. The first interaction she had with cosmic geometry was in college, when her biochemistry professor made her examine fermenting vines under a microscope and showed her pictures of a human cytoskeleton.
“You wouldn't believe what beautiful geometric forms and structures they had,” she said. Struck by her preliminary findings in class, she continued to see these complex structures that made up our everyday lives and sought to represent them in her paintings.
“So, we are literally, you know, created from the stardust and there has been a cosmic geometry, which is permeating everything and guiding everything,” she said.
Another inspiration that has heavily influenced her work was Hafiz, a Persian poet from the 14th century. She symbolizes his poetry using concepts and colors referenced in his work, she said. Before discussing one of her paintings at an opening last weekend, Mraz took the time to read aloud from Hafiz' poem "Laughter," after which one of her paintings is named.
In "Laughter," a merkaba star sits in the center of the piece, representing the alignment of the energy in the heavens and in the earth. Each character in the piece is doing something they love, thus enriching their world with laughter and joy.
Mraz said her painting served as an outlet of emotional release during quarantine. In particular, Hafiz’s poems gave her energy and happiness—feelings that spilled into her painting. “And I actually started thinking about the beginning of the pandemic, and you know, believe it or not, all these painting kept me very happy throughout the pandemic,” she said.
The works often feel like they are in conversation with the prints of Kathleen DeMeo, a series of sunsets, land- and seascapes, and abstractions that line on the opposite wall.
The cost of printmaking is quite high, DeMeo said—so she both teaches and does her own printmaking at Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street, which has been her creative hub for the last 25 years. DeMeo had an undergraduate degree in graphic design from the University of Connecticut.
The landscapes she selected from the exhibition are from 2016, and feature a mirage of colors, sunset and mountains. In an interview at an opening last Saturday, she described those as her favorite things.
She added that her artwork has evolved over the years, her styles influenced by her own life events. Before she was doing abstract works, she was living in Wallingford and doing work in New Haven through Creative Arts Workshop. That changed when she moved to Old Lyme in 2016, and found new creative influences.
She was inspired by Old Lyme’s “history of landscape painting,” and was inspired to feature more nature in her work, she said. It gave her an outlet to de-stress during the political tension of the 2016 presidential election.
Magda Mraz and Kathleen DeMeo with curator Johnes Ruta.
She added that she’s always excited for a chance to share her craft with New Haven. When people hear the word printmaking, they’re often under the impression that things are easily replicable. But DeMeo does monotype printing—a single print of an image painted on plexiglass (rather than carved in negative or relief), then passed through a printing press. If there is a second print, it’s called the “ghost” image, rather than the original cost. DeMeo uses oil-based printing inks in her work.
DeMeo explained that her works are originals—and come with huge material costs and an arduous process. She said she was attracted to the work because of the intrinsic challenge of handling the printing process, saying that you have to “surrender some control” to the printing press and take pride in “happy accidents.”
“To correct things is very difficult. You can't cover over things or scrape away, but at the same time, sometimes there's very happy accidents and I try to embrace that when that happens,” she said.
Lisa Seidenberg, who has known Mraz for years but never seen her work in person, made the drive from Fairfield County for an opening last weekend. A filmmaker and visual artist, she said she resonated with Mraz’s creative process. She pointed to a kind of visual poetry that she also sees in her own work.
“How she combined the poetry in the images, I mean, with film work, I mean, it's definitely about words and you know, visual images and ideas. So I mean, I think it's all kinds of continuum,” Seidenberg said.
While Mraz stood up to explain her work, an audience member spoke from the crowd.“I love your texture,” said artist Oi Fortin, a printmaker who works out of Erector Square, but lives in Westville. “How is that done?”
“Layers,” replied Mraz.
“And how is the layer applied? Is it acrylic or spray?”
Mraz answered her question by saying she dilutes her paint medium, such that it’s transparent, and works quickly to get rid of mistakes and develop things on the go.
Fortin originally came out to support DeMeo because they’re close friends, but stumbled across deeper lessons along the way. She said she likes attending the exhibitions at Mitchell to learn more about the artists and the inner machinations
“The most amazing experience I have [is] visiting here and listening to the art talks and getting to know artists’ inside information about what makes them do what they do, and what the outcome of what they do on display,” she said.
She said she was mesmerized by Graz’s patterns that overlay across her image and seamlessly blend in across surrounding materials.
Abiba Biao is a graduate of the Arts Council's Youth Arts Journalism Initiative and has stayed on with the Arts Paper as a freelance writer and photographer. She is currently a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).