Stepping into the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie’s new exhibit, Painting the Moon and Beyond: Lois Dodd & Friends Explore the Night Sky, is truly a treat. It’s the first time that Dodd and her former students and friends Jeff Epstein, Dan Findaldi, and Elizabeth O’Reilly have appeared in the same show. And it comes on the 25-year anniversary of a retrospective of Dodd’s work at The Trenton City Museum.
As noted in the exhibit catalog, Dodd and her friends would converge in her enclave in the woods and paint by the moonlight. Visitors feel privy to bear witness to this special moment of time amongst a group of friends, and can’t help but to compare and contrast the various techniques used to portray images reflected in the moonlight and at portraits the artists have made of each other — including one by Trenton’s own nationally-known painter Mel Leipzig.
“This exhibition is dedicated to my friend and mentor Mel Leipzig. Mel’s environmental portrait of Lois Dodd – hanging in the foyer gallery – was my introduction to her,” explained Ilene Dube, Painting the Moon and Beyond curator. “He often says he considers Dodd one of the greatest American painters of our era. I began seeing her work in museums, and became a fan of her work.”
It was Leipzig who introduced Epstein to Dodd, and Dodd who introduced Finaldi to Leipzig. As soon as you set foot in the museum, you see Leipzig’s portrait of Dodd sitting in her New York apartment with her hands raised above her head.
“I think that Ellarslie’s Painting the Moon and Beyond exhibit was absolutely fabulous. The works presented were very amazing; there are so many talented people in our midst and we should definitely take the time to recognize and celebrate them,” said Trenton City Council candidate Crystal Feliciano. “Little did I know, years ago when I was a girl in high school frequenting the home of my childhood friend Francesca, walking past the room where her father would be painting, that he was — and still is — the talented and highly celebrated Mel Leipzig! I look forward to more exciting opportunities from the museum, which is why I purchased a family membership for my daughter and me to experience them all.”
The story behind the exhibit’s curation is that Dodd and her friends would frequently escape to Dodd’s enclave in the woods to paint by moonlight. “When I learned through Dan (Findaldi) that there was a whole group of painters who would go out to paint the night sky with Lois, I knew I wanted to do something,” said Dube. “It started with the short film about Lois and her community of night painters, which is being screened on a loop during the exhibition.”
“Mel Under the Full Moon” by Dan Finaldi
A trailblazing artist, Dodd has been the subject of more than 50 solo exhibitions since 1954, a time when female artists didn’t receive the opportunities and recognition of their male counterparts. Dodd, 94, a co-founder of the legendary artist-run Tanager Gallery, has painted her surroundings for more than 70 years —New York’s Lower East Side, rural Mid-Coast Maine, and the Delaware Water Gap. Dodd’s work has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, The National Portrait Gallery, and other high profile museums throughout the country. Among her favorite subjects, and the focus of the exhibition, is the moonlight.
Stepping into the first gallery, visitors get a chance to see all of the paintings that were done at night (called nocturnes) from the perspective of sitting on a porch. The work in the second gallery has a daytime feel in comparison, with light colors, blue skies, and lush greenery.
“These artists share an affinity for subject matter, if not style, and feed off each other's creativity,” stated Dube in the exhibit catalog. “In addition to the nocturns, Painting the Moon & Beyond looks through windows and doors, and at portraits the arts have made.”
It’s interesting to see how much influence the group of friends had on each other as they were surrounded by the same beautiful landscapes and provided a safe space for encouragement, nourishment, artistic inspiration, and support for one another.
“The fun fact I think about Ellarslie is that the place is historic, and we are talking about Trenton and an exhibit like this gives us local residents a chance to collect art that is made by local people, these artists are of a very [high caliber],” said Megan Innes, Assistant to the Board at the Ellarslie. “Since I’ve been back in Trenton, collecting local Trenton things from history from the past and preserving it, I think it’s not just a museum’s responsibility. It’s an opportunity for anyone who lives here to say, ‘Even if I got that tiny Elizabeth O’Reilly nocturne and hung it in my house, I’m not going to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and getting a piece of work. I [own] a piece that has a story behind it.’”
For many years, Dodd has expressed her independent spirit through her work, and the way she has lived her life. This current exhibition shows that at the center of Dodd lies a love for community.
Painting the Moon and Beyond: Lois Dodd and Friends is running through April 29, 2022 at The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion. More exhibition-related programs are being planned, contingent on COVID precautions, such as a panel discussion with the artists; a concert of night music; a screening of a documentary about Peter Cooper (Dodd went to Cooper Union, and Peter Cooper's Trenton Iron Works played an important role in the industrialization of the city), and a plein air painting session. For more information, visit ellarslie.org.
Editor’s note: Ilene Dube is one of JerseyArts.com’s feature writers and shared a few words with editor Koren Rife, which were added to this piece. Images in header include “Thomaston Night” by Lois Dodd, “Lois Dodd” by Mel Leipzig, and “Night Ladders” by Jeff Epstein.