Marta Whistler - news and events
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Easton artist Marta Whistler: A rebel at heart
by Tim Higgins
Fourteen years ago artist Marta Whistler and her husband were planning to move from California to New York City. They found the city of Easton instead.
"We couldn't afford New York," says Whistler. "We had a friend teaching at Lafayette who invited us to visit the Lehigh Valley."
They visited and, attracted by the cheaper housing, the area's proximity to New York and the fact that they just loved the town ("I'm a city girl," she says) they bought a home on Northampton Street in Easton.
Whistler's husband, Dudley Knight, a well-known stage, television and film actor, passed away in 2013 of a heart attack at the age of 73. Marta won't tell you her age. Make the mistake of asking and you will be immediately rebuked. "Oh, you don't ask a woman that," she says with a smile.
Whistler, one of the original artists in the current Easton renaissance, has become a beloved fixture on the city's art scene. She is easily recognized by her trademark beret and her slim, petite stature as she takes her customary walks through the downtown and greets people with her equally customary friendly smile and warm embrace.
"I'm not afraid of life," says the Amsterdam native, who was educated in Europe, Canada, Latin America and the United States. "I'm not afraid of death either. I was born a rebel and I will die a rebel."
That attitude is reflected in art that often challenges with bold, expressive color, a clear line (she loves to draw) and the unique ability to define her forms in direct ways that may be best described as European Modern. But that is not to say her work is somehow stuck in the past. Whistler's work is contemporary in the truest sense, born out of a complete understanding of art history. Her work can bring to mind the color of a Henri Matisse just as easily as it brings to mind the graphic line of a Keith Haring.
Whistler's work contains elements of the abstract as well as the figurative, with narratives that are often told through a visual language that brings to mind cultures from around the world.
Within her paintings and drawings one finds influences from Native American art motifs to Slavic iconography to Central American costumes, cultures that Whistler has spent time not only studying but actively interacting with.
"In my life I have probably done 1,500 to 2,000 pieces of art," she says. "You love them all equally but in a different way."
Whistler's work can be seen in the summer exhibition at the Bethlehem House Contemporary Art Gallery in Bethlehem along with the work of Rigo Peralta, Darrell George, Ward Van Haute, Yevette Hendler and Bob Hakun.
A large painting of Whistler's greets you as you walk in the front doors of the gallery, which presents works in rooms that represent a home, so customers can see how they would fit into their space. A stylized nude with a field of blue as the backdrop is flanked by two smaller abstract works of thick, dark cross-hatched lines. In another room — a dining room — there are several smaller abstracts carefully lit by owner Van Haute and gallery director Kate Hughes that gives her already luminous paintings an otherworldly light, as if lit from the very interior of the work itself.
Whistler doesn't title her works. She finds it beside the point. The painting tells the whole story; no further embellishment is needed she will tell you.
"I work in different styles," she says "Symbolism, abstract, semi-abstract, figurative, still life, traditional. Whatever the style, there are no titles for my paintings and sculptures beyond their identification numbers because I want to prod the viewer's mind to discern its own patterns, images, and emotional associations.
"To engage directly with the work of art and through this interaction to experience something unique seems to me much better than submitting to the guidance of a label."
There is always an element of the expressive in Whistler's work as well, whether one is viewing one of her colorful paintings or her graphic work. Through all of her styles there is a certain acknowledgement of her mastery of different mediums that brings everything together into a unique Whistler style.
"Just as I do not want to lock in the viewer's experience of my work, so I do not want to be locked in myself as an artist by conformity to a single identifying style," she says.
That shock is due to Whistler's narrative as she presents the human condition to the viewer, warts and all. "I always put a message in my work. The message is hidden. It's up to the viewer to find it."
"I never do anything sweet," she says with a smile. And because she's not afraid to paint the nude in all of its glory, her work seems even more honest and real.
Her figures are often iconic, the female form in particular. Her nude figures are strong; they stare back at the viewer, unafraid, unashamed. Like the artist, they are what they are, no excuses.
Whistler is a classical artist in many ways. Her desire to document the human condition means there are no overt political motives to her work, no outright statements on issues, such as the feminine role in this world, for example.
"I am not a feminist artist," she says, clarifying that while she is a feminist, she just doesn't believe it should be manifested in art.
She is also very accommodating to the wishes of her clients. Whistler tells a humorous story of one commission where the client asked her to paint him nude as a gift to a lover. He loved the painting she eventually did — he only had one problem with it. He wasn't as endowed as he wished to be. Not to worry she told the client. "With one quick stroke of my brush, I fixed that problem."