Despite failing sight, N.J. artist and teacher still paints, still inspires [video]

In Pat Witt’s barn, there are rules.

No cell phones: the 86-year old founder of The Barn Studio of Art in Millville, N.J., has no use for kids glued to texting.

No erasers: Witt takes each new class through a ritual of pulling erasers off the ends of pencils.

“She says there’s no such things as mistakes,” said 10-year-old Raven Figuero who, with her sister Arwen, has been taking art classes at The Barn for four years. “She takes the erasers off the pencils.”

Since Witt founded The Barn 51 years ago, many thousands of kids and adults have learned drawing, painting, and pottery in the renovated hay barn. It has produced a roster of successful artists (including painter Glenn Rudderow, artist and exhibition designer Keith Ragone, and the chief conservator for the Guggenheim, Carol Stringari), and turned Witt into a local legend. She is the Artist Laureate of Millville.

Yajaira Montero, the mother of Raven and Arwen, said her daughters now have a love of the South Jersey landscape.

“I wouldn’t have been able to give them that, because we came from Puerto Rico. I give them that love, and Pat gives them the love from Millville,” said Montero.

The school is surrounded by almost two acres of open land, with a fish-filled pond and a stand of trees. Witt lives in an apartment above the school, keeping her own painting studio in a detached garage across the yard. Witt is a landscape artist, fascinated by the wetlands since she was a girl growing up on a South Jersey farm.

“I got excited about this one ditch at the farm. I would go back again, and again, and again,” said Witt. “My father would say, ‘What do you see in that ditch? You’re always out there painting that ditch.’ Well, you fall in love with a certain ditch, you can’t help it.”

Witt studied at the University of the Arts back when it was called the Philadelphia Museum School, then at the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Morris Blackburn, whom she still cites as a mentor. After her urban sojourn she returned rural South Jersey to paint the wetlands.

Watching the weather and the changing landscape

“In my way of a landscape painter, you become sort of a physicist, a meteorologist,” said Witt. “Knowing all the time of weather conditions because, on a farm, our life was built on weather watching.”

Witt has always trained her eye on the color of the landscape, and why certain colors appear in certain atmospheric conditions. She has a scientific perspective on clouds and the prismatic color chart.

A lifetime of studying color bodes well for Witt now, because she has macular degeneration. She is gradually going blind.

“The way I first discovered something was happening to my eyes — I would go to the ocean, the beach, to look out to the sea,” said Witt, moving her fingers in a wavy line. “It looked like the horizon was going like that.”

Witt’s vision darkened from the inside out. She has slowed the darkening with medication and diet, but she cannot see directly in front of her. Only her peripheral vision is intact. To see you, she has to look away from you.

“It’s not funny, but it is. I’m looking at my palette sideways,” said Witt.

Witt has a hard time seeing detail, but her sense of color is strong. Friends drive her out to her beloved wetlands (she had to give up her driver’s license and her pickup truck) and set up her primary colors on white plastic dinner plates. Her canvases have become more impressionistic.

Continuing the system and the spirit

However, her condition makes it difficult for her to teach. So after more than 50 years of running The Barn nearly singlehandedly, Witt’s daughters stepped in a few years ago to turn the school into a nonprofit.

They also started hiring teachers. One of them is Kara Mackon-Rehm, who started taking classes at The Barn when she was 11 years old. She went on to study art education at Rowan University and has been teaching art at a Vineland elementary school for 10 years now.

When she got a phone call two years ago, asking if she would teach 8-year-old kids at The Barn, she was terrified.

“I didn’t know if I could teach there,” said Mackon-Rehm. “Those are huge shoes to fill.”

There are now four regular instructors at The Barn, with Witt’s daughters doing the books. No one person takes on everything she used to do herself.

“We can never replace her,” said Mackon-Rehm. “We’re keeping the spirit and the system that has worked continuing. We’re the people that will continue it on. She made sure she found people that went here, studied here, that know the magic of the place and can re-create that.”

A exhibition of paintings by Pat Witt is now at the Noyes Museum in Oceanville, New Jersey. A documentary film about her, “The Art Spirit” by Bill Horin and Frank Weiss, will be screened Thursday night.

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