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Friday, April 19, 2024

Natural Artist

Pat Brentano’s passion for art and the environment is evident in her voice. The moment she begins speaking on the subject, it’s hard not to be entranced by the Evansville native as she describes her work.

“What I’m trying to do with my work is to communicate how important that understory and trees are for the birds, who can’t really speak for themselves,” says Brentano.

Brentano, who has been an artist all her life, currently lives in New Jersey with her husband Jon Bramnick, an attorney and New Jersey assemblyman. She completed her undergraduate studies in St. Louis and then went to Philadelphia for graduate school. Recently she was awarded the Richard Kane Conservation Award by the New Jersey Audubon Society. She was the 2011 Martha and Merritt DeJong Artist-In-Residence at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science and was a finalist in the Keep Evansville Beautiful Airport Gateway Project last year. Though the focus of her art has changed over the years, she says drawing remains at the root of all her works.

“I’m classically trained, which is something from the 1970s,” she explains. “I try to keep the work tied to skillful drawing and an understanding of the two-dimensional art.”

Nature always has been a part of her work, but it was six years ago when the message of her art changed. Brentano and her husband live in a New Jersey suburb named Indian Forest, which she says showcases beautiful, mature, native trees. Her neighbors down the street decided to clear out 21 of the trees to make room for a new house. The action angered her.

“That just tore my heart,” she says. “I’ve said in a few interviews that I wanted to kill them, but I decided to use it as an inspiration for a new series of work.”

The first work born from this reformation was a set of wood panels. She first took large pieces of wood and drew the destroyed trees on the 4-foot by 5-foot panels. Then she cut the trees away to symbolize they were now missing. She tries different ways to address the environmental crisis with her art, she says. Other commission works have centered around water, habitat, oxygen, climate change, and even the Gulf Oil Crisis.

How did growing up in Southern Indiana influence your art?
What really stayed with me … is this great connection I had to nature by living there. I was in Evansville, but then we could get to the country. You could go to the river and swim, you could go to the stripper pits and swim. You could go right out into the cornfields. And I did those things.

I grew up much more attached or integrated in those spaces. Where as you come out to the Northeast, it’s very congested. I live 35 to 40 minutes west of New York City. I’m in a suburb, but there’s no nature. You have to really travel to go find it, because it’s different.

Can you tell us about the project you did for the Keep Evansville Beautiful Airport Gateway project?
The piece for the Gateway Airport project was really like my habitat project. It was panels. It was called “Shadows of Generations” and it was about people who had been on that land. The layers and the light changes were supposed to represent that. They didn’t want birds, so I didn’t do my birds. But I would have liked to do that. Anyway, it was a good project to have and I tried.

Why do you feel art in general, including yours, can help make the public more conscious of nature?
I think art is a universal language. Everyone can understand and interpret it for themselves by using their eyes. For me that’s a huge way to communicate.

The problem is because it is not taught properly in elementary school, we lose the ability to think that way. I think it’s extremely important and should be incorporated in every discipline for children so they grow up being more sophisticated, visual people. It kind of connects all the senses. Art is a great way to communicate with everyone but because people have not been exposed to it, it’s very foreign. They don’t use that part of their brain really; they don’t really see it all. At least through art you can open that up a little bit, in many ways. That’s my hope.

I was a professor for many years. I taught painting and drawing at the University of Wisconsin in Kenosha and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. Education is important to me too. The lack of good art education is one of the root causes of the environmental crisis that we’re in now. That’s how I feel. If it were taught properly and it had the same weight as any other discipline, maybe those people wouldn’t have torn down those trees. Because they would have appreciated them for their beauty alone or they would have worked with them somehow. We wouldn’t just keep consuming and owning without respecting or sharing.

I just think art has real powers that haven’t been used in our education system in this country. It is considered a secondary discipline and it shouldn’t be. I think that’s the root cause of a lot of our problems. It’s just a shame that it’s been put aside and secondary. I’m big on education, that’s why I do my work. I want to educate and inspire, hopefully.

What was it like being named artist-in-residence in your hometown?
That was fabulous! I loved it. I stayed for two weeks and I taught a class at the museum. I had the show and I gave two talks. I gave a talk to the Nature Conservancy and then they invited me to come to Indianapolis and do a show there. I got two big commissions. Actually, if you go on my website, under commissions, you’ll see the big bird panel that’s in the Efroymson Conservation Center in downtown Indianapolis. That was really exciting.

It just really reminded me of home and my whole growing up experience. When I was a kid I took classes at the museum and did workshops that they did with the artists they brought in as visiting artists. It’s such a circle. It was very nostalgic, very cozy, very homey, and it was great.

For more information about Pat Brentano and her art, visit patbrentano.com.

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