Backstage: Music and Art Unite through Art Strings

Oct 24, 2012
By Victoria McCabe
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TheArt Strings concept is rather simple. For each of the past 12 seasons, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has given unfinished violins to New Jersey-based artists with a single directive—to create a work of art using the instrument itself as a canvas. NJSO volunteers then display the instruments at select concerts and art galleries throughout the state, giving NJSO and gallery patrons the opportunity to purchase raffle tickets for a chance to win a violin at the annual drawing in June.

The impact these painted violins can have extends beyond the beauty of the artwork. Since its inception, Art Strings has raised more than $125,000 in support of the NJSO’s lauded education programs like the Greater Newark Youth Orchestras and the NJSO Early Strings Program. Art Strings has also helped fulfill a key part of the Orchestra’s mission—to reach communities throughout the state of New Jersey.

Art Strings will hold its 2012–13 season kickoff at the NJSO’s “A Mozart Duo” concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark on Sunday, November 4. The violins will be on display in the lobby before the concert and at intermission, and the artists will be on hand as patrons view their creations for the first time. From there, the NJSO Ambassadors volunteers will show the Art Strings at approximately 15 additional NJSO concerts, as well as at a number of art galleries across the state.

NJSO Ambassador Rita Kessler, the volunteer who chairs the Art Strings committee, has been involved with the project since the beginning. She recalls that in the first year, the artists didn’t receive any guidelines about what the finished pieces should entail: “We had one artist [from Newark] do a violin in a telephone booth—the big kind just like you see on the street. It was incredible. But we couldn’t take it and show it anywhere!”

Since 2008, the Orchestra has invited the artists to use a single piece or program from the NJSO’s season as their inspiration. This season’s artists have drawn on subjects as diverse as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Mozart’s Requiem and Ravel’s Bolero. Several artists have offered insight into their creative process as they selected a theme and created their work.

Artist Irmari Nacht writes: “I chose Rhapsody in Blue as my violin’s theme because of my love of 1920s literature, art, social milieu and, of course, the music of George Gershwin. The front of the violin represents the history and story of Gershwin’s writing of Rhapsody in Blue with reviews, scattered words and a copy of the original concert poster [for the work’s premiere]. The back has visuals that seem to be slapped on, like the luggage labels of the 20s, which brings us full circle to the train ride that inspired Gershwin to write Rhapsody in Blue. The little book [Nacht attached to the violin’s scroll] tells more of the story through pictures of people who lived in the Roaring 20s. The checkerboard pattern is reminiscent of 1920’s floor tiles and Art Deco borders. Finally, the gold is a symbol of the solid gold popularity this piece has had for almost 100 years.”

Artist Jack Quinn responded to the NJSO’s description of Brahms’ Third Symphony: “[It] included phrases like ‘brilliantly colored,’ ‘moods of autumn’ and ‘rich burnished sounds.’ In short, my kind of palette!”

“Indeed,” he writes, “when listening to each movement, I recorded at least one visual reference to then include in this challenging project. I didn’t realize how challenging it would be until I tried to use traditional wet-in-wet painting methods on a surface of rolling hills. The fun was trying to figure out how to get those desired ‘flat surface’ results on a curved violin. The first movement of the symphony gave me the light-to-dark value gradations; the second, soothing color transitions, and lastly—and most significantly—the third movement, [when] I applied those fall colors atop a rich burnished base. Using black flecks of leaf stems (applied with a wood burner) was an attempt to capture some of the short chirps of violins and flutes that recur throughout the piece. These also provided a design element in the painting to tie things together and to relate back to the black components of the violin. Lastly, [I added] a little flash with some brass screws.”

Artist Constance Seuling found that the Orchestra’s first 2013 Winter Festival program, which contrasts the infinite in Holst’s The Planets with the intimate human breath in Tippett’s Symphony No. 4, fit perfectly with her artistic philosophy: “I chose [this program] because of my affinity for the idea of creation and the connection between life and death, love and war, harmony and discord. I have long sought to express artistically my interest in life and the dependence upon mankind to maintain it. Much of my work expresses the idea of survival and the interdependence of nature. I seek to remind people of the importance of your relationship with the universe around us.”

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Art Strings reflects the NJSO’s mission as a true state orchestra in the diversity of the artists and the locations in which the violins appear. Kessler says: “In selecting the artists each year, we try for a geographic distribution [across New Jersey]. We’ve found new galleries by speaking to artists and reading newspapers to discover new artists. Because the symphony plays throughout the state, we should cover the state.”

The NJSO always looks for ways to bring Art Strings to new audiences. Two weeks ago, the violins were displayed at a special fundraising afternoon of music for the Jewish Family Service of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties. In recent seasons, the ambassadors have brought the violins to galleries in Livingston, Summit, Trenton, Cranford, Clark, Rahway, Bernardsville and Westfield.

The Art Strings volunteers come from all over the state as well. One is an old high-school friend of Kessler’s; another met her about 10 years ago while each was waiting for a rental car. One is an NJPAC volunteer who wanted to get involved after seeing the violins in the concert hall.

“Some of the artists will come to concerts and talk about [the project] ,” Kessler says. “It’s really a terrific thing. And the ladies who volunteer with me now are wonderful in their energy and the time they give.”

The joy extends from the artists who paint the violins to the volunteers who display them all season to the patrons who win a violin in the end-of-season raffle, she says. “There’s one gentleman who won a violin about four years ago, and he comes up to me at every concert with a picture of that violin he won in his pocket to show me—and he’s still buying raffle tickets.”

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Seven years ago, Kessler walked into the Main Avenue Galleria in Ocean Grove and forged a connection with gallery owner and artist Norma Tolliver. Tolliver accepted the invitation to paint a violin for that year’s Art Strings (“Mine was all flowers and butterflies—I just took the piece home and it spoke to me. My favorite subject as an artist is flowers, and the violin just lends itself to it”), and her connection with the program has grown in the years since that meeting.

Tolliver says the artists from her gallery who have created Art Strings have found it rewarding in several ways: “If we can lend our talents to a good cause, we are happy to do it. And it’s a wonderful experience [for an artist]—the violin is a very interesting canvas to work with. It lends itself to creativity, and the artists have done some amazing things. [The artists] all lend their own artistic style to it, so it creates such a nice diverse assortment of violins, and we’re so excited and honored to do it.”

Tolliver hosts an annual Art Strings event at Main Avenue Galleria. What began as a smaller wine-and-cheese event inside the gallery has turned into the program’s annual June gallery showing—an outdoor event displaying the violins that features musical performances from students at the local Ocean Grove Violin Academy.

“We realized we could have the event outside in front of the gallery because we’re in a town that has tremendous foot traffic. By moving the violins outside in front of the store and having children performing right opposite the tables where we’re showing the violins, we’ve increased the amount of people we reach and our raffle sales,” she says.

The key for the event, Tolliver says, is the local students’ participation and what it represents. Since money raised through Art Strings goes to the NJSO’s education programs, “it’s children helping children,” she says. “The kids [who perform at the event] love it—they know exactly what they’re doing. They know that they’re donating their talents to help other children have the exposure to music that they have.”

That visual reminder of the power of music education underscores the importance of the NJSO programs for which Art Strings raises funds, says Kessler: “[Music education] matters. And if you go to the concerts and [see something like the NJSO Early Strings Program’s annual FiddleFest performance], when the kids stand on the steps and play, you know that you’ve had something to do with it.”

What makes Art Strings a unique and fitting fundraiser, Tolliver says, is that “the whole concept is about artists—artists who perform music, artists who create art and artists in the making—the children who are inspired by being surrounded by that. Tying it all together is the way to go. It’s all about investing emotion and creativity to create something beautiful and lasting.”

Current Art Strings artist Stephanie Amato decided “to have the violin actually assembled and strung so it can be played, if desired. Sean of Sam Ash [music store] in Springfield generously donated his time and expertise in putting the violin together.”

She kept Art Strings’ ultimate purpose in her head as she created: “It was an honor to be selected to paint one of the violins for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s music education programs.”

To learn more about Art Strings, view all the 2012–13 violins and purchase raffle tickets, click here.