For more than 30 years, Gretchen Feldman got up first thing in the morning, walked into her art studio and sat at a blank canvas. She was meticulous and inventive, sometimes using American Express and hotel key cards to apply her strokes.
Over a lifetime, she produced thousands of paintings, mostly robust watercolors, of rural landscapes, scenes of life on Martha’s Vineyard and abstract art.
“Sometimes she was in there three or four hours at a time,” recalls her husband of 53 years, Sam Feldman, a retired businessman who owned a chain of men’s clothing stores. “She’d come up for air, and then go back. Most of her work was bright, luminous and optimistic,” he says. In some of her farm paintings “even the pigs were smiling.”
So at 73, in the fall of 2007, when she was told she had lung cancer, Feldman went at the disease the only way she knew how — with a mind to paint that chapter of her life in dynamic, buoyant colors.
She spent hours researching cancer cells and how they looked under a microscope. She printed hundreds of images of cell formations from websites at places like the Cowan Laboratory Gallery at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Those images, five of the pieces she painted after her diagnosis, along with her landscape work are on exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. “Love Letter to Earth (1934-2008)” — a collection of Feldman’s watercolor, acrylic and mixed-media works — runs through January 2013.
Feldman, a retired textile conservator, was born in Philadelphia in 1934. She grew up in Baltimore, where she attended the Park School and Goucher College. A book from Feldman’s high school art appreciation class in 1952 is one of the items in the collection. In it, art teacher Grace Van Order writes: “Your work sheets show real artistic ability and an increasing ability to handle the tools of graphic expression.”
Feldman used those tools up until three weeks before her death in November 2008.
She took no breaks from painting after learning of her cancer, and for about seven months, she was feeling OK, Feldman’s husband says. But soon after, the work appears to reflect a darker view of the disease. She rendered backgrounds in midnight blues and deep teals.
In one painting, “Microtubule Cytoskeleton of a Cell,” cells are outlined in blues, fuchsias and yellows, with blasts of white that seem to propel them like fireworks into the night sky. Feldman’s easel, which stands to the left of the painting as part of the exhibit, holds her last work, which has noticeably less energy than the others.
The Feldmans were donors to the Visionary Art Museum at its inception in 1995. The second-floor gallery bears their names.
Choosing the art “was a very tender process,” museum founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger says. “I knew Gretchen. I knew how much she really loved nature. I wanted to show what it was that was important. What was she trying to say over a lifetime. I also thought I hit notes that spoke to everyone.”
Hoffberger spent two days at Feldman’s studio in Martha’s Vineyard with Feldman’s daughter Dene, poring over 2,000 pieces of abstract art, works on farm life and landscapes. “I would wait for the ‘oh, my God!’ response,” she remembers.
In the exhibit, Hoffberger juxtaposes some of Feldman’s work from her teens, circles of color arranged in a wheel, with her paintings of cancer cells, illustrating the circle of life.
“Gretchen Feldman, Love Letter to Earth (1934-2008)” is at American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore, Md., 21230, through January. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, closed Mondays. Adults $15.95; seniors $13.95; student/child $9.95; 6 and younger free (www.avam.org).