Artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren wrestles with questions of mortality
Artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren in front of work from her show "Journey."
Artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren, right, in front of work from her show "Journey ... Most Recent Works," with longtime friend and owner of Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside, Ellen Chisdes Neuberg.
Artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren's "Journey of Life." Oil on canvas.
Donna Hollen Bolmgren's "Spiritual Currents." Oil on canvas.
Artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren's "Seeking the Light." Oil on canvas.
Artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren's "Seeking Peace." Oil on canvas.
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On facing gallery walls, Donna Hollen Bolmgren faces herself -- as she was eight years ago, a caregiver for fellow artist and companion Jerry Caplan, and as she will be: pure creative energy seeking ... what?
She's not really sure.
"We won't know what happens until it happens," she says matter-of-factly.
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer more than two years ago, wrestles with the universal questions of mortality and what comes next in "Journey ... Most Recent Works," a two-part, one-woman show extended through Aug. 11 at Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside.
On the first wall a visitor sees five luminous paintings with titles that reveal the questions she's trying to answer -- "Journey of Life," "Spiritual Currents," "Seeking Peace," "Energy Seeking Light" and "Seeking the Light."
On the opposite wall are 14 canvases, all self-portraits painted between 2002-06 as Ms. Hollen Bolmgren cared for, then mourned, Mr. Caplan, who died on Jan. 15, 2004, from a heart attack.
Ellen Chisdes Neuberg, Gallerie Chiz's owner and the artist's longtime friend, selected the 14 paintings from 59 exhibited in 2006 at Chatham University as "Faces: Self-Portraits of Caring." In them, the artist slowly transforms from an idealized younger woman to a harried caregiver to a somber mourner. Caplan appears in two paintings, peering over her weary shoulder, his pain both mirrored and amplified in her face.
In Ms. Chisdes Neuberg's 17 years in the business, she has never hung two series by the same artist at one time, or used the front gallery space this way. She wanted her friend of 42 years to be able to look at both series at the same time. During the opening reception July 6, the 77-year-old Shadyside woman sat between the walls of her work, visiting with friends and fellow artists.
No longer able to paint, she smiles as she describes her emotions while working on "Journey": "I was amused, elated, joyful, hopeful."
Her habit is to thoroughly research the subjects of her paintings. This time, she studied various religious teachings about the afterlife. Though she was raised Lutheran in Willmar, Minn., she considers herself "now more of a spiritualist." Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Native Americans all envision some sort of paradise. Her idea of the hereafter is a little different:
"Great music, great art, beautiful flowers -- and pain-free."
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren also researched universal symbols of self and found one -- a circle. It appears distinctly in only two of the five paintings but indistinctly in all of them, as the bright destination described countless times by people nearing death. The artist chose her own symbols for the soul -- a boat, a feather and, finally, a human figure. In "Seeking Peace," a tiny figure is suspended in an aquamarine void, surrounded by starlike points of light. In the first two paintings in the series, she avoided giving the human essence its typical shape.
"The human figure kept pulling at me. I thought I might as well get rid of it."
And so she placed it on canvas.
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren has no illusions about her craft, or her weakening body.
"It's just a painting, just a piece of canvas. Don't be afraid of it," she says.
"Only when you are not fearful anymore do you have the capacity to paint what is in your heart and mind."
Conquering the fear of what people will say -- or that someone won't like what you have to say -- is a lesson she learned from Caplan in the 30-plus years they were friends. A sculptor, he immortalized her and himself in "Pittsburgh People," a series of clay figures and panels he cast in 1985 for a fountain in the Wood-Allies Garage. He started as her teacher (he taught at Chatham for 29 years) but became her mentor. When he was too weak to sculpt, he would join her in her adjoining studio.
"I would put on classical music -- he loved classical music. He would fall asleep, wake up and give a [critique].
"For both of us, art was our life. He didn't have the energy to do it at the end. I couldn't understand that then. I do now."
Ms. Chisdes Neuberg calls Ms. Hollen Bolmgren her mentor. They met in 1970 at a Ladies Day Out art class at Westminster Presbyterian Church when both were married and living in the South Hills. The artist was the teacher, exhibiting her work at banks, malls, libraries -- wherever she could. She taught at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts for 30 years.
"I followed you like a shadow as you critiqued other people's work. You had a way of hitting it on the head. You really started me," Ms. Chisdes Neuberg says, looking fondly at her friend.
Years later, Ms. Hollen Bolmgren encouraged her to open her first gallery. Her work has been a staple there ever since.
"I don't carry her work because we're friends. I carry her work because it's wonderful," Ms. Chisdes Neuberg says.
A casual observer might mistake these paintings as merely decorative because of their pretty colors, but a longer look reveals much more.
"Donna has the ability to make things look beautiful, and yet her tough message is there," says the gallery owner.
In her artist's statement for "Olio," a 2001 show by 16 women artists at Penn Gallery, Ms. Hollen Bolmgren said: "I strive for a single intense image that will demonstrate the human condition of pain, fear, anger, good versus evil."
Her statements for these two series are simpler, less ambitious: "These self-portraits represent the journey I took when it was my best friend's time to cross over. ... A journey with a terminal illness into an unknown experience."
Her conclusion is the same for both -- "These journeys have raised more questions than they have answered."
And what beautiful questions they are.
Gallerie Chiz, 5831 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside, is open 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; other times by appointment. 412-441-6005 or www.galleriechiz.com.
First Published July 29, 2012 12:00 am