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Works by Rita Argen Auerbach on Display at Two Local Galleries

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An Artful Life

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso’s words remain true. For each budding talent who continues to work through adulthood until the very end of a long life, many others drift away or never fully plunge into the endeavor. The fruitful results of Rita Argen Auerbach’s creativity, passion, and technical expertise are now on display in two exhibitions, including a limited edition archival catalogue containing an impressive overview of the work and available for purchase at each location. After visiting both shows, JTR comments on the Meibohm show and PP comments on the Kenan Center show.

“Western New York in Watercolor” is on view through May 24th at Meibohm Fine Arts in East Aurora. An accomplished artist, Rita Auerbach knows what she wants and how to achieve it in transparent watercolor, a particularly complex way to represent something artistically. She has exhibited regionally and nationally for over 30 years. Her confident and accomplished execution, an inquiring mind, and decades spent refining her perception, infuses her choice of composition to place her in the forefront of contemporary representational watercolorists. Long celebrated for her skillful control of an elusive medium, the artist demonstrates a deftness of touch in passages of color-filled brushwork, especially in the relationships among aspects of direct light, ambient light, and shadows.

She arrives at dramatic flowing atmospherics and gothic perspective in portraying Richardson Complex, the Electric Tower, City Hall, and grain elevators to create a majestic aura around these familiar cityscapes.

Blessed with both talent and charisma, the artist’s professional interest in educating students ranging from school-age children to adult learners has been inspiring to generations of Western New Yorkers. As an advocate for the arts in WNY, she was a charter member of the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society in 1980. Most recently, she has been instrumental in her contribution to the establishment of the International Center for Watercolor at Burchfield Penney Art Center, where she chairs the Advisory Council and is a major patron. This series of paintings offers a sense of the more comprehensive exhibition at the Kenan Center. Auerbach explores the best traditions of the Plein Air genre in bright profusions of floral arrangement, bold architectural views, and sunlit scenes of leisure on Victorian porches in Chautauqua. The paintings display well in the comfortable rooms of the East Aurora gallery. It is easy to imagine her vibrant watercolors enhancing home or office.

“Chronicle of a 40-year Career in Watercolor” is on view until June 15th at Kenan Center House Gallery in Lockport. Industrialist, William R. Kenan, Jr. settled in the town during the late 19th Century. His land was once an experimental model dairy farm, but since 1969, the home and property have been left to the community as a cultural center. The Victorian mansion is an ideal setting for this look back into four decades of one woman’s painting career. Curated by Gerald Mead, the careful arrangement displayed throughout eight rooms of the mansion delivers the viewer a compelling narrative reading of more than 60 paintings intermingled to highlight themes and patterns. This exhibition shows a deepening of the creative process, rather than a significant progression or linear timeline. Inspired by the way light transforms the world around her, Rita Argen Auerbach paints what she sees—flowers, fruit, home fronts, textiles, civic buildings, churches, boats and water, wild life, and travel scenes. Her expression of common subject matter is far from ordinary, though. The historical figure, William Kenan, is reported to have stated: “Results are determined not so much by the number of hours a man puts in, rather by what the man puts into the hours.” There is plenty to say about the beauty and vitality of Auerbach’s work, but the Kenan quote is a call to know more about what the “woman” put into the hours of her artistic life, thus far.

What conditions nurture the artist? It helps to have a creative permissive mother who allows doodling on the bedroom walls. It also helps to have a junior high art teacher who turns you on to the fun and magic of perspective drawing. She began to imagine herself as an artist and discovered in herself a competitive hardworking nature, likely learned from her creative entrepreneurial mother who was an interior designer. Auerbach aspired to become an architect, but bright young women living in Kenmore during a certain time were directed to art education. She did just that—attended Buffalo State College and Albright Art School. After a brief start as an art teacher, she went off with her Navy officer husband to live in Morocco and travel throughout Europe. The seeds of creativity were sprouting during this time of colorful experience abroad, but back home in Western New York during the 1960s, the need to create stirred once again.

One afternoon as her baby napped, the artist took out a box of watercolors and painted a still life of fruit in a bowl. She kept on painting and eventually returned to art education—spent 20 years in the Clarence Central Schools and summers as an instructor at Chautauqua Institution. Auerbach pursued painting with serious effort while crafting her technique as she learned from visiting artists invited by the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society (find out more in a 2012 interview broadcast in an episode of “Take Off” at

Great American watercolor painters include Andrew Wyeth, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keefe, and many more, such as Charles Burchfield, a local artist of growing notoriety during Auerbach’s formative years. He once commented: “An artist finds his happiest combination in a play of complementary colors. They are in direct contrast yet do not jar; they awaken the beholder, but do not disturb him.” It would be hard to simply walk past an Auerbach painting without stopping to look—they are made to awaken the senses. She also manages to incorporate a similar kind of mystery found in Burchfield’s work, prevalent in her depiction of famous Buffalo buildings, often shown towering and tilting into dark swirling skies. Her style is representational, yet not too tight or too loose. Portions of the paintings are nearly abstract. She tried abstraction early on in her career. “Cathedral,” one of these earlier works from 1963 is exhibited in the chronicle, but the rest of the work on view clarifies that Auerbach’s gift is her ability to layer watery color to render forms as she sees them. While she has found a wealth of subject matter locally, her wide experience of travel adds a special dimension to the scenes of Bangkok, Costa Rica, Spain, Moscow, and Africa. Most of the titles are simple and direct, though I smiled at those assigned to the Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin Martin House—Wright On, Wright of Kin, Wright of Passage, and Done Wright. I especially enjoyed seeing the richly-patterned draping scarves of the 1999 Fiber Flow still life series. Whether the subject is a scarf, a building, or a flower, the strength of the artist’s style is consistent over time, marked with her signature touch.

A child’s first scribbles with a crayon quickly lead to loopy flower petals. The attraction is in our DNA. While some artists turn away from beauty in their art, Auerbach moves toward it. This may be a key to her enduring ability to remain fresh as an artist. The floral paintings point to the timeless primal fascination with blossoms blooming on a stem.Gardens and cut flowers feed the senses and heighten a feeling of aliveness. An Auerbach floral painting lends a similar energy. Her work inspires gazing. The artist states: “I can’t imagine waking up on any given day and not being an artist. It’s who I am. Art is my life—it defines me.”

This is evident in the rooms at the Kenan Center. The narrative of Rita Auerbach’s painting story continues.

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