Visual arts thrive at two Hillsborough galleries

Jun. 05, 2014 @ 01:01 PM

“The Figure in Oil, Encaustic & Clay:  Alicia Armstrong, oil on panel paintings;
Molly Cliff-Hilts, encaustic paintings; Tinka Jordy, ceramic sculpture,”
Eno Gallery, 100 S. Churton St., Hillsborough, through June 22.

“The Fifth Element:  Pat Lloyd, Arianna Bara, Pat Merriman,”
Hillsborough Gallery of Arts,” 121 N. Churton St., Hillsborough.

Hillsborough is less than 30 minutes from Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh and is a destination with a vibrant art scene, good food and a nationally famous auction house; on the fourth Friday of the month, its downtown takes to the streets. Although we have missed May’s excitement, the galleries are open and the exhibitions invite a visit.
Three women artists hone in on the figure at the Eno Gallery.
Molly Cliff-Hilts paints seascapes with small figures enjoying the beach. Alicia Armstrong also paints vast spaces, probably near the ocean, with one or at most two strongly defined figures, who seem involved in fantasy happenings. Tinka Jordy sculpts female figures out of clay; they are substantial forms and fit in with nature rather than stand outside it.  
Mark Donley, gallery director, talked about how the art of the three artists seem to engage in a conversation, and it is true. A walk around the gallery feels like eavesdropping. Cliff-Hilts’ figures on the beach occupy a small strip of land at the bottom of the canvas and seem incidental to the grandness of nature. Armstrong’s figures are clearly defined, yet are also minimized against their surroundings. In a short video, Armstrong explains her process and talks about using three to 10 layers of paint to create an environment which she calls the history of the painting. Then, she writes, she adds the solitary figure who owns the space. 
In Cliff-Hilts’ “Nothing’s Perfect but the Weather,” figures, as splashes of paint, move about a sliver of canvas which is the beach, while an empty awning shelter and beach chairs speak to the human presence. Across the narrow inlet the smoke stacks of an industrial complex occupy the same amount of space as the figures. All the rest is sky. The figures give her painting a subject, but seem incidental to the story of nature.
“Fair Game 9” by Armstrong focuses on a barefoot woman in a short red dress holding a dog by the leash, but the dog has leaped into space scattering a flock of birds.  Watching on the left is another woman with a dog who sits quietly watching the whole thing.  Although the figures are clear and sharp, I believe they are only a cipher against the unpredictability of nature.
Jordy’s female figures are wrapped in nature. In “Fleeting Moment,” which is almost life size, the figure whose surfaces are, as she writes, “full of surface cracks, fissures and imperfections that express the earth, the passing of time, our mortality and the search for spirituality,” is elaborately finished in quiet colors of blues, pinks and greens. In one hand a bird perches between her thumb and index finger while garlands of greenery with nesting birds encircle her body. 
Jordy’s figures are all about peace and quiet and the merging of the figure into nature. I am reminded here of the 18th century romantic idea of landscapes which were, according to the philosophers of the time, ever-changing, unpredictable, awesome and more powerful than people. Jordy’s figures accept nature’s dominance; the painters have created quiet skies, but give them wide berth. 
These artists speak of nature, flight, letting go; their messages are similar although their paths go through different media, different techniques, and begin at different places. Good art invites conversation and that is what we have in this focus on “The Figure.”
Just down the street at the Hillsborough Gallery of Arts three artists, wood turner Pat Lloyd, metalsmith Arianna Bara and painter Pat Merriman, all members of the Hillsborough Gallery of Art cooperative, have pooled their ideas in a featured group show around the “Fifth Element.” 
According to the gallery’s website, the fifth element is different for each artist. It could be the “void, spirit, thought or path, creative energy, inventiveness, intuition, the ‘here’ or center, a signal that the soul is speaking.” For our purposes I will call it the artist’s special inspiration, and we see it in Lloyd’s turned wood bowls. Her “Enormous Ogee Bowl” is satin to the fingers and has a wonderful story. According to the wall label, the ambrosia maple used for the bowl came from a third-generation tobacco farmer. His grandfather had planted the tree in front of the family house in 1920 and in November 2011, had to cut it down because its roots were encroaching on the house. 
For Bara her inspiration begins with free-form stones, fossils and gemstones. She sets the stones in simple or elaborate frames. In one she paired a champagne pearl with an agate and set the small and large stones in a sterling silver arched background. For Merriman, her inspiration is rural North Carolina with its rugged landscape and its old barns. She writes about the barns as “archetypes of American History,” which have been replaced by rippled steel and agribusiness.    
The Hillsborough Gallery of Arts has been operating successfully for six years. There are 22 members including painters, glass makers, fabric artists, sculptors, ceramists, jewelers and a furniture maker. Their business model includes a significant investment in the gallery by the artists, but in return they give up a very small commission. Each artist works a number of days per month, because there are no paid workers.  
According to both galleries, business is good. The message: The arts are thriving in Hillsborough.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.