Curator Eva Mantell on art, wellness and nature

When Eva Mantell discovered Mary Delany, the 18th century woman who devoted life after 72 to creating paper mosaics, she uncovered the missing link to an exhibit she’d been assigned to curate. The goal was to design a show incorporating works from the Arts Council of Princeton’s Arts in Healthcare program with a series of professional art.

For five years, Mantell and other teachers from the Arts Council have visited hospitals, senior centers and alternative schools to enable healing and wellness through art. Mantell says the program brings energy, smiles and new knowledge to its participants, as well as actual improvement to various physical and mental ailments.

“The nurses are aware of research that says if you’re working on art projects, patients may actually need less pain meds, have better cognition, as well as a chance to explore some wonderful culture and activities,” Mantell said.

It was one of Mantell’s 72-year-old students who directed her to an “aging gracefully” website which provided Delany’s story.

“To me it’s very mysterious how that happened,” Mantell said in awe of the 72-year-old who suddenly transitioned into being an artist, “having the ambition to do about 1,000 pieces of art over 10 years, and they’re actually beautiful, brilliant pieces. It’s not just, ‘Oh, she did a lot to keep herself busy.’ It’s a compulsion that strikes her at this age.”

According to Mantell, Delany’s floral works were cut and painted paper collages – a process that, particularly in the late 1700s, was slow and rigorous.

“In those days, (you) couldn’t go buy paper. Mary Delany probably collected paper and maybe even made some of her own, then cutting it with small scissors or scalpels or knives, layering it with some kind of paste and painting it,” she said.

Mantell was most fascinated by Delany’s ability to capture 16th century or 17th century sensibilities in her work – “bathed in humanism.”

This humanism, the idea of energy and nature, is what culminates into the exhibit Mantell created. “Start Fresh,” in the Taplin Gallery of the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, features six professional local artists.

“Start fresh. It’s that moment when you feel kindled and connected – when it kinda’ wakes you up,” Mantell said. “Another element is the bridge between professional artists and artists from arts and health program.”

In a representation of Delany’s paper collages are collections of collages from approximately 80 participants in the program.

“The flowers have memories in them,” Mantell said. “They’re telling lots of stories.”

The professional area artists in the show include Polly Apfelbaum, Lindsay Feuer, Susan Hockaday, Natalie Jeremijenko, Melissa Marks and Scott Wright.

“The artists in the show are so deeply engaged in the process of how they make their work. It speaks to being incredibly well crafted, deeply beautiful and very emotional, too. Their work is engaging. I just think they’re all fantastic artists, which has to do with how well they use the language of their medium to express themselves and they all use that language incredibly well,” Mantell said. “For example, Scott Wright’s process is connected to his thinking and his worldview. Pick any other artist in there and it’s the same – their work is distinct. It’s what connects them to Mary Delany’s work, as well as their use of or study of nature.”

“Start Fresh” is on view in the Taplin Gallery of the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts through June 24.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida