Love for family keeps Sydney Anne Neuwirth at the easel

Sydney Anne Neuwirth loves red.

The front door to her Princeton, N.J. home is red. The jackets of some of the books she’s published are red, and there are red pillows, cloths and cushions throughout the house.

“I dress in black and white,” says the soon-to-be octogenarian. “But I do like red.” And, of course, red is a highlight color in many of her paintings.

To celebrate Neuwirth’s 80th birthday, Cranbury Station Gallery in Princeton is holding a retrospective, Along the Continuum, October 10 through 12. And yes, there is red on the invitation and brochure, red on her business card, and even on the brochure for the Dancers’ Resource – the non-profit organization started by her daughter, “Madam Secretary” co-star, “Frasier” alum and Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth. Dancers’ Resource is the beneficiary of sales of her dancer paintings.

Although Bebe is the more well-known of the mother-daughter pair, Sydney is herself a force, having danced until she was 47 (“I wanted to go until I was 70 but my knees gave out,” she said), written and illustrated books of children’s literature and poetry, and created an oeuvre of paintings that numbers in the thousands.

Neuwirth works from a two-room studio in the home she shares with her husband, Lee, a mathematician. Her grandfather, a Russian Jewish immigrant, sold house paint from a pushcart in Newark. It was so successful he soon went brick-and-mortar. The shop also stocked art supplies, and young Sydney, who lived upstairs, had free reign of the merchandise and an endless supply of art materials.

Beyond the art supplies, Sydney discovered wallpaper samples and used them to make collage. She incorporated broken glass from the glass repair shop. “It made me realize I could experiment with anything,” she said.

It was a family business. Sydney’s mother worked as a bookkeeper and her father was general manager. Sydney, too, worked in the store and drove the truck. Her uncle, who went to law school at Rutgers, joined the family business. His wife, Sydney’s aunt, was a printmaker who taught Sydney to never date her artwork – although the reasoning is vague, Neuwirth continues the practice to this day.

Sydney’s ballet lessons started at age 7. “It was great exercise and I loved it, even though I knew I’d never be a professional.”

She moved to Princeton when Lee – the two met in high school – was a senior at Princeton University. Neuwirth soon became actively engaged with Princeton Ballet. She took classes, danced with the troupe, and played the Queen Mother in “Sleeping Beauty” (Arthur Lithgow, then artistic director of McCarter Theatre and father of John Lithgow, was her king), and joined the board of trustees, becoming its president. “I wrote everything for them, helped children with hair and makeup, and designed costumes for the hordes of kids who were butterflies.”

With a mother so involved in the world of ballet, it’s no surprise that Bebe wanted to dance from age 3. “We danced together at home, but I didn’t let her get started with Princeton Ballet until she was 5.”

While transporting Bebe to and from rehearsals, Sydney brought along a sketch pad and drew the dancers, from the smallest child to adults. “I would sketch backstage and in the wings,” she said. One might imagine the challenges of life drawing when the models are moving, but Neuwirth says her muscle memory helps her draw dancers in action. And if she needed an arm or a torso, Bebe could model for her.

When she’s not doing calisthenics, walking (“I go for walks while the paint dries”) and painting, Neuwirth is writing. She’s produced three children’s books with the blurb publishing platform – each has fanciful line drawings and elegant prose.

She also devotes time to nurturing the bonds of family. Mother and daughter speak frequently by phone and e-mail. They had a mother-daughter exhibit at the Rogue Gallery in New York a few years ago, featuring Sydney’s dancers and Bebe’s photographs, ceramic pots and paintings made by dancing on canvas. Profits from the show went to Dancers’ Resource, as well as a donation of 90 watercolor paintings by Sydney.

“Bebe is so generous in sharing aspects of her career,” says her mother. “She invites us to openings and parties, and when she was touring with ‘Chorus Line’ we traveled with her and saw the show 16 times.”

It was her children’s idea that Sydney do the retrospective for her big birthday. In her eight decades, what has been the most important thing in her life? “Family,” she says without hesitation.

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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.

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