CLIFTON FORGE — “Intersections” the new exhibit at the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center, features work by Joni Pienkowski and Nancy Newhard.

The two artists’ lives have crossed paths and intersected for more than 40 years. 

“Sometimes ... our work interacts, ideas will travel in tandem for a while, sometimes our images or entire conversations send one another in new directions,” commented Pienkowski.

Pienkowski’s life and work are filled with intersections — with the natural world, friends, studio materials and a curious mind.

Although she has visited many beaches, a recent visit sparked her first “beach picture,” the triptych “Sea, Sky, Sand,” one of the new directions Pienkowski has taken.

Her delight with the textural qualities of the scene are evident, “but give me the beauty of the mountains any day, they are much more interesting.”

Intersections circle back around, too. The exhibit includes several older self-portraits images “because people like to interact with faces — particularly in these days of masks and social distancing.”

The work is certainly about the daily world, but her ability to connect what she sees into good design gives the design a universality and excitement, no matter what appeals to viewers or artists.  

Pienkowski works with a range of materials on a wide variety of surfaces — canvas, watercolor paper, printmaking paper, and handmade papers. She is especially delighted with working on wood.

Many of the pieces in this exhibit are done on specially-prepared hollow core birch doors. Any given piece might find her applying gesso, woodburning into the surface, oil paint, watercolor paint, or inks, Prisma color pencils, inks, even sand and shells straight from the source.

One of her latest finds was a three-inch-wide ink marking tool given to her by a friend who was cleaning out her own space and thought Pienkowski might enjoy trying it out.

Her fascination and excitement to investigate what sort of marks it would make have led down new avenues of investigation. 

Pienkowski is serious about her work but has managed to retain her delight in the act of creation. Her works often reflect a deep knowledge of other artists and art history; her drawing skills are as solid as the doors she works on.

Along the way Pienkowski has become a mentor and friend to artists of many styles, ages and interests. She often identifies directions in the work of other artists that they may not have considered.

Whether telling stories or exploring metaphorical worlds, she continues to find intersections between the natural world and her studio materials. The only question is, “what direction comes next?” 

Pienkowski has been telling stories and responding to the world around her since she was a small child in Stoughton, Wis. Early on she created traditional Scandinavian designs painted on wood (rosemaling) — to which she, of course, added her own twist.

Other early projects included lettering on truck doors, church posters and painted store windows, often for the holidays.

The family lived above their small grocery store, so of course those were part of the small town’s decorations. Childhood then included a lot of rambling around in nearby woods; those adventures would spark her curiosity about everything and a lifelong attention to the natural world.

Maturing as an artist, she continued to refine her technical understanding of design, form and color. She studied art from a radio program and would later become an assistant to the same instructor.

Pienkowski received her BS degree in art education from the University of Wisconsin, then added an MS in fine art graphics and painting from UW.

Along the way she married Bob Pienkowski, a handsome young entomologist whose attention to the natural world  echoed her own. He had a profound impact on her exploration of insects of all types, but especially those that fly. They easily moved into her metaphorical worlds and still make tracks or flight patterns there today.

Eventually the couple moved to Blacksburg where Bob became a professor of entomology, and Joni taught art privately and briefly at VPI.

Together they raised three children and became an integral part of the Blacksburg community. Joni vigorously pursued her personal art-making activities with travel and exhibitions. 

Her hard work and creative energies have earned her national and international recognition from public and private galleries, as well as public museums across the country.

Her work is included in several traveling exhibitions sponsored by schools, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others. 

“Malissia of Tom’s Creeks and Brush Mountain,” funded by the National Endowment for the Arts as an official event of the Bicentennial Commission, was circulated for two years by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It was also the opening exhibit at the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center.

In 1991 the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center produced “Paradox at Ono Elbow,” an exhibit and catalog of 28 of her works from 1950-1990. 
Copies are currently available in the center’s gallery and include a longer list of the first four decades of art making.

Of course, she is still at it today, and additional work can be found at Miller Off Main Gallery in Blacksburg and Lin-Dor Gallery in Roanoke.

“Joni Pienkowski has been an artistic mentor and friend for many years; I was thrilled (if a bit intimidated) at her suggestion that we show together,” said co-exhibitor Nancy Newhard. “These pieces are a sort of free-flowing visual call and response that reflects a friendship rich with ideas and images.

“Her work challenges me to investigate and respond to many of the same things that call to her, but in my own way. I admire her ability to move between ‘abstraction’ and reality, her love of metaphor and envy her drawing skills,” Newhard continued. “Diving into her work is a sure way to get my own ideas flowing.

Newhard said that while working on the exhibit and catalog for ‘Paradox at One Elbow,’ she discovered that Pienkowski and her shared a love of stories, and Newhard “relished her catalog of visual images to accompany those stories. 

“I am interested in a sense of place and time, rather than a snapshot rendering. I want people to feel the air, think about weather conditions, or how fast things change,” Newhard said. “I want to investigate the interaction between hard and soft edges, the challenge of value, the energy of diagonals, the potential of texture and color —always color.

“Painting offers an unending range of materials and techniques, all of which can be very seductive,” Newhard added. “The challenge is putting it together so that a viewer’s eye and mind moves around the image rather than having to untangle a big jumble. 

“Working abstractly — and looking at those who have mastered abstraction like Joni — reminds me to think about basic elements and principles of design. This leads to better representational work or pushes me into more experimental things. I always want to go beyond reproducing what is before me.

“When I began painting, I felt way behind anyone who had art making experiences in high school,” Newhard continued. “All I had was a Home Economics class that did not encourage creativity. Fortunately, my family fed my interests in other ways.

“When I got to graduate school and started actual art classes, I felt like I had to make up for lost time (and timidity) by using every color and technique I came across — sometimes all in one work. I still struggle to accept the idea that less can be more and work to curb those often-unrestrained desires.

Discipline can be a real challenge. 

Newhard said she hopes viewers will connect to a sense of place, event, or mood, rather than a snapshot image rendering. “Feel the air, think about weather conditions, think about what is happening,” she said. 

Newhard also explained how working abstractly teaches her about the basic elements and principles of design. “That informs representational work or pushes me on to more experimental things.  At the same time, my brush and I dance between what should happen and what does. 

“When things fall apart, how do you move on? How can I explore ‘The Great What If?’ but maintain some objectivity and control? Isn’t that where creativity comes in? There are many times when a brush in motion says things I cannot verbalize.

“I love trying new techniques and materials, but I can be just as pleased with the basics of painting — tool, surface, and paint. If I keep an open mind I can often ‘fix’ what seems wrong,” Newhard said. “There’s always another side to the paper, gesso to start over, or even an “oops drawer” for collage bits when I can’t fix it any other way.” 

Newhard has a BS in English from Longwood College and an MS in art education from Radford College.

Working as arts administrator allowed her use both skill sets. Working with local high schools on the annual Artist in Residency program for the AHACC has expanded her knowledge as much as any of the students or art teachers.

Newhard also takes classes regularly at the Studio School in Roanoke. Vera Dickerson, Jane Winders Frank, Gina Louthian-Stanley, and Robin Poteet keep her up on her brush tips workshops with other nationally known artists suggest new techniques and approaches.

Newhard is a Signature Member of the Virginia and Baltimore Watercolor Societies and belongs to the League of Roanoke Artists. She exhibits work in juried art shows and outdoor art festivals, winning prizes and finding new patrons to encourage her.

“Few things are as satisfying as good discussion with someone, with all the questions, comments and pointing that can go on,” Newhard said. “This is what comes of intersections with others — old roads and new directions.” 

“Intersections” will continue through Friday, Aug. 28. Admission is free.

When visiting the gallery, please wear a mask and maintain social distance, but do sign the guest book. 

The Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center is supported by its members, contributors, the town of Clifton Forge, city of Covington, Alleghany County, The Alleghany Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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A new exhibit titled “Intersections,” featuring the works of artists Nancy Newhard and Joni Pienkowski, is now on display at the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center in Clifton Forge. Included in the exhibit is this piece by Newhard titled “Carnival Sky Fireworks.” The exhibit will be on display through Friday, Aug. 28. (Gavin Dressler Photo)