Although there are only seven paintings in Eva Mantell’s exhibit at the Nassau Club in Princeton (on view through Nov. 1), each engages the viewer in a way that sustains attention for a long time.
Many of these “paintings” are made from colorful magazine pages, cut out in lacy patterns and then put back together in a way in which the original pages are unrecognizable. Mantell uses materials as if it were her paint: in the background, in the foreground, with textures of dreams in the layers.
One piece, titled “The Dew Soaked Hedge,” a meditation in blues and greens, suggests an underwater world in which something like a red crustacean surfaces. The title of the work relates to the exhibit title, Autumn Almanac – which comes from the song written in 1967 by Ray Davies of the Kinks, a pop classic that has been compared to the poetry of William Wordsworth. It’s first line is “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar.” Davies wrote how the song was inspired by a hunch-backed gardener in his North London neighborhood, a neighborhood he doesn’t want to leave: “…I’m always gonna stay here/ If I live to be ninety-nine,/ Cause all the people I meet/ Seem to come from my street/ And I can’t get away/ Because it’s calling me (come on home).”
Mantell compares the song to something grabbed out of thin air, with a “structure so simple yet so sturdy that any part of it can stand in for any other part. Lyrics can join the melody or fall away into la-la-la’s leaving nothing more (yet nothing less) than a delicate pattern of repeated connections.”
The song is like a leaf, she said, or the remains of one she found in the woods this past summer, an “airy structure composed of tiny interconnected veins” with a lacy network, a delicate complexity, a scaffolding. “It’s the blueprint for a system that we can’t live without, and yet it’s all very casual, discarded, blown around by the wind. Nature makes it look so easy.”
Both Mantell and Davies know it’s not so easy. “Ray Davies is mapping aspects of memory, of context and of emotion so you can find them again,” said Mantell. “He’s sharing how you might value your own memories and emotions.”
Thoughts of neighborhood, patterns of repeated connections, memory and emotion – surely there’s a lacy network of these running through Mantell’s mind.
The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of her husband, Merrell Noden, who lost his battle with cancer in May at the age of 59. Yet Mantell forged ahead in life, organizing exhibits of the artwork produced by children who face homelessness, a cause so close to her heart that she created the Merrell Noden Fund for HomeFront.
“It’s more than hard for me to put anything in words about losing the man I built a life with over 31 years,” she wrote on Facebook in June, when she received an outpouring of support on the social network. “Husband and father of our children. I met Merrell when I was 20 years old, and I had a vision flash before my eyes of a future with him and two children, a girl and a boy. (Never mind that I wanted to name them Jagger and Hendrix.) It seemed too much to ask for but it came true.” Noden (1955-2015), a Princeton University alum with all-American good looks, was an athlete and a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine.
The paintings in Autumn Almanac were completed in 2013 and 2015 – years Mantell was by her husband’s side through his decline from running into using a wheelchair and then a hospital bed. “Art happens while you are busy making plans,” she wrote on her blog a year ago. “Doing so much driving recently I decided to bring my art with me and when I am waiting to pick up my husband, our son or our daughter, I try to get some work done. Tearing, folding, mirroring pages of magazines. I keep the pages ready to go and work on them throughout the day.”
Starting with magazine pages, photos, text and advertising, “I tear and fold until I have a mirrored, fabric-like material,” she says of her process. “I am thinking about the physicality of reading, rereading, memory, erasure, uncovering and revealing new forms. I’m attuned to an annual edition of leaves that fall from the trees. If the leaves stay on wooded paths, by spring they may be on their way to becoming lace. New patterns and structures open up to hint at what movement and life is stirring in next year’s leaves.”
Mantell was born in Princeton and continues to make it her home. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in fine art from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and along the way has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, ICA Boston and through various dance theater workshops and festivals throughout the world. As Outreach Program Manager for the Arts Council of Princeton, she said “There are kids who have disadvantages and need artwork to be in control, to make decisions about something that’s totally theirs.”
She works with people with memory loss, caregivers and at-risk youth, enriching their lives through the process of art making, frequently leading programs for the Society for Arts and Healthcare, the National Center for Creative Aging, and other organizations that help people with disabilities.
“As an art teacher I always say to students, ‘Use your mistakes. They can be more interesting than what you were trying so hard to control.”
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.