CHAMBERSBURG – The Council for the Arts (103 N. Main St.) describes its latest exhibit “Tourist in My Town” as “an artistic exploration of Chambersburg featuring the colorful, nostalgic works that capture the charm and beauty of our town.”
The 40-piece exhibit definitely succeeds there, but it manages to achieve something even more impressive: it gives Chambersburgers a rare opportunity to see their town through someone else’s eyes – a chance to become reawakened to the townscapes, landscapes and architecture that people have a way of tuning out over time.
“What we aimed to do was provide viewers with an artistic exploration of our town and see the personality and charm of Chambersburg beyond what they see every day,” said Tarryne West, executive director of the Council for the Arts.
West explained that the beauty of the collection is that each piece offers a completely different perspective of Chambersburg – even the ones that are of the same building or subject matter – because “they’re imbued with the artists’ experience of living here.”
The inspiration behind the exhibit came to West when she learned that the majority of Americans have never experienced the tourist destinations in their own towns.
West said that we become so numbed to our immediate environment because we’re so busy and so focused on what’s coming that we develop a form of tunnel vision. Seeing something we essentially ignore every day treated as fine art in a painting or photograph causes us to see its beauty and what makes it special.
“Because you see it all the time, you become accustomed to seeing it and it fades into the background,” she said. “Take another look at what’s there from a different perspective and celebrate it in a way that you don’t see every day.”
West was impressed with the sheer vibrancy of the submitted pieces.
“When you think about Chambersburg, you don’t usually think about this brightly-colored, vivid little town,” she said. “When I really started looking at it, I realized that the colors were true-to-life and the artists had captured something that I had basically stopped seeing because I see them every day.”
Artist Jean Frey is the “founding mother” of the Mountain Valley Plein Air Painters, which paints in a different location every week (plein air means “in the outdoors”). The group primarily paints fields and bucolic country sides, but Frey tries to squeeze at least one town setting per year. Some of the members claim that they don’t want to do buildings, but Frey points out that they paint barns just fine.
“When I heard that Tarryne was launching the show, I had the group paint in town,” said Frey. The plein air painters had an extra pop-up session at the GearHouse Brewing Company (253 Grant St.). Several of those pieces found their way into “Tourist in My Town.”
“When you live in a town, you see these things all the time, and you go by these things and forget to look at them,” she said. “Painting them wakes you up to them.”
Frey recalled a time when she heard a friend from out of town, a literal tourist in Chambersburg, complimenting how cute the town is.
“I had to have somebody else tell me that,” she said. “Painting in town helps you see that it is a neat town. It has a lot to offer.”
Whether it’s a sunflower field or a downtown alley, Frey is looking for the same qualities in a subject.
“I’m looking for strong lights and darks,” she said. “I’m looking for a story – because that’s what I’m trying to convey – or a feeling. I’m looking for good, strong shapes.”
She added: “Once you learn to look at color and value and light and shadow, you just see everything a little differently, a little sharper. You interpret it differently.”
This combination is most apparent in her “Back of Main Street” series, which features brightly colored angular stairways.
Her piece “Conversations in the Alley” depicts a view from the walkway between Northwood Books (59 N. Main St.) and Brussel’s Cafe (55 N. Main St.). People are sitting and talking at tables – which can still be found today – but the building in the painting has been demolished and replaced with the newly built courthouse addition.
“They were just places that called out to me,” said Frey of her downtown scenes.
As with the building that is no longer there, paintings offer a unique opportunity to preserve local history. Frey cites pastel artist Richard McKinley who says that artists should approach their work as “historic documents” and include things that might not be beautiful in the moment.
“As an artist, I like to put in some flavor of the time,” said Frey of the joy – and challenge – of trying to work something like telephone poles and wires into the composition.
Frey also suggested that paintings might be more effective (and durable) than photographs in preserving the history of a place – particularly for the artists themselves.
“I can look at a painting, and I’ll know exactly where I was standing and what was going on around me when I was painting it,” she said. “I can look at a photograph that I took somewhere and think, ‘Where was that?’”
While the exhibit focuses on learning (or re-learning) how to fully perceive our surroundings, the works in the exhibit also serve a personal history of the community. As an example, West looks to pieces by Doretta Wisler. She points out the baby plants on the porch and the mop hanging over the railing. The person who had lived in this apartment passed away recently. The painting isn’t about the architecture. It’s about the person who lived.
West also spoke of a couple that had come into the gallery and bought two pieces: one that was a view of their apartment and one that was a view of from their apartment. And they had more at home. They were assembling a collection of artistic representations around the window containing the actual view. In one of the pieces they bought from the exhibit, the artist had included a pair of jeans draped over the railing to dry. The couple remembered that day. They remembered leaving those jeans out.
“It captures a moment of life rather than a moment of history,” said West.
[Main image caption: A detailed photograph of “South Main Street,” an acrylic painting by Jane Offner. This piece is one of the 40 works comprising “Tourist in My Town.”]