Art Appreciation

Five creative dynamos who deserve our applause.



Poet Daniel G. Hoffman

Daniel G. Hoffman

In his vast libraries, Daniel G. Hoffman is surrounded by literature and poetry’s greatest names—to the point where he swears the books are literally pushing him out of his Swarthmore mansion. Then there are the black-and-white photographs that feature him and his late wife, Elizabeth McFarland—Liz with Robert Frost; Dan with Robert Penn Warren; both posing with W.H. Auden.

And while Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and William Faulkner may be alone in their portraits, it’s only because they predated Hoffman and McFarland, who may have done more for poetry than any other American couple. Hoffman’s birthday even falls in April, deemed National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets, where he’s chancellor emeritus. “It was pre-ordained then that I’d be a poet,” jokes Hoffman, who turned 85 last April 3.

Maybe as significant as any poet in this country’s history, Hoffman remains largely uncelebrated—nor is he anthologized. Maybe that’s because he’s among us. He hasn’t slowed or faded. He hasn’t died. When he does, this past consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (a post now called U.S. Poet Laureate) will be eulogized as a treasure.

Earlier this year, Hoffman published a selection of his wife’s poems, Over the Summer Water: Poems by Elizabeth McFarland. Since her death in 2005, he’s lamented his loss. “As long as I last, I think I’ll be among the walking wounded,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing her.”

There was no greater love than the one he and Liz shared. A love for poetry, Hoffman says, begins with a love of the language. His first awareness was in nursery rhymes. He was enchanted with the rhyme, and with nonsense verse (the “hey diddle-diddles”).

“It’s a mockery of the adult world, but that was helpful as a child,” he says. “It’s a combination of language and movement, and that’s the origin of poetry. The riddles were ever childish, yet they were also emblems of the mysteries of life. The pleasure is in the rhyme, the riddling, the senselessness.”

Once in school, Hoffman read poetry in anthologies. By junior high and high school, he imitated what he liked. A teacher encouraged him. His mother, too, had written verse. He came from a “literate family.”

“I never worried that it wasn’t something boys were supposed to do,” Hoffman says. “On the other hand, I wasn’t very good at baseball. I just always had a love of the language—what you could do with it, and what it could do for you. Still, I had no idea I’d end up as I have.”

Hoffman entered Columbia University as an engineering major, but it took four tries to pass calculus and he soon switched to English. He eventually earned a B.A. (1947), an M.A. (1949) and a doctorate (1956). In 1954, Hoffman published his first collection of poetry, An Armada of Thirty Whales. It provided “a new direction for nature poetry in the post-Wordsworthian world,” wrote Auden, who chose it for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Looking back, Hoffman says he neither basked in the glow nor felt pressure to live up to Auden’s accolades. “It was a great encouragement,” he says. “But his initial reaction was critical. He told me to drop 12 poems because they were made of ideas [and not words]. [The recognition] helped. From then on, when I sent my poems to magazines, they didn’t become part of the slush pile.”

Hoffman served as poet in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City from 1988 to 1999. He also became an editor, scholar, translator, essayist, memoirist, professor and jazz enthusiast. After a decade at Swarthmore College, he founded the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he retired in 1993 as the Felix Schelling Professor of English Emeritus. He’s the author, editor or translator of 23 books.

Besides such poetry collections as Hang-Gliding from Helicon: New and Selected Poems, 1948-1988 (winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize) and Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems, 1948-2003, there have been scholarly tomes, including the 1971 National Book Award nominee Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Hoffman’s 1981 poem, “Brotherly Love,” was nominated for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. About William Penn and the role of spirituality in American history, it’s been called an epic akin to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Hoffman shows no signs of slowing down. Due in January, The Whole Nine Yards is a collection of narrative poems and other suites (poems grouped by theme). Also in the works, Shards compiles 50 “little poems” of less than 10 lines, another memoir, a collection of essays on poets, and a translation of Hungarian poetry he’s labored over for a quarter century.

“Poetry is either dead or reviving, but all I know is that it goes on and we poets do what we do,” says Hoffman. “I don’t believe in an obituary for the arts. They’ll live forever.”
 


Photo by Jared Castaldi

Bruce Graham

If there was ever a movie made about Bruce Graham’s life, he’d likely call it “No Heavy Lifting.”

“Growing up, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” says the Media-based playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. “But watching my father (Al, a retired 82-year-old plumber), I knew it wasn’t going to be anything like that.”
Far from it. Graham’s work has been nominated for two Drama Desk Awards, four Jefferson Awards (winning once) and seven Barrymores. He’s won Pew Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation honors. He’s claimed the Princess Grace Foundation’s Statuette Award and grand prize in the 2006 “Set in Philadelphia” Screenwriting Competition of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.

His Hollywood screenwriting credits include Dunston Checks In (1996), Anastasia (1997) and Steal this Movie (2000). For network TV, he penned one episode of Roseanne in 1989, the 1999 mini-series Hunt for the Unicorn Killer, 2000’s The Christmas Secret, and more. His Ring of Endless Light for the Disney Channel was the 2003 Humanitas Prize winner for Best Children’s Teleplay.

Graham has worked with the likes of Meg Ryan, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, Jason Alexander, Faye Dunaway and Beau Bridges. He’s completed production rewrites for Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own and Martin Sheen in Hear No Evil.

Back on the live stage, the upcoming That Intangible Something opens at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre in 2009. Graham wrote the first act while salmon fishing in Alaska. “You’re only allowed to catch one per day, so at 6:15 a.m., I was done,” he says. “I put my rod down, then picked up my pen.”

The play centers on two brothers—one artistic, the other businesslike—who brazenly take on Hollywood in the 1940s. It marks the first time Graham has stepped so far back in time. “It came easily, really,” he says. “My wife [Stephanie] read it twice and said, ‘You’re both [of the brothers].’”

Graham made his official debut as a playwright with Burkie in 1984, and aside from the Arden and other Philly venues, his work has found the stage at Cincinnati Playhouse, Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, New York’s Circle Theatre and Florida Stage. His Coyote on a Fence—a 1998 Rosenthal Prize winner that also received two Drama Desk nominations—played in London’s West End. Graham’s 2004 one-man show, The Philly Fan, was recently revived a fourth time.

When it comes to dealing with Hollywood types, having an ego helps. “One time Richard Dreyfuss called the house,” he says. “Stephanie asked who was calling, then came running—‘It’s Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Dreyfuss!’ I picked up and said, ‘Hey, Richard. How are you?’”

Though he did have a one-act play performed at Ridley High School before graduating, he left as an actor. Energetic, he was also “short, bald and couldn’t sing.”

So Graham kept writing and tried stand-up comedy, creating characters for club consumption. “Forget the reviews in the New York Times,” he says. “I had beer bottles thrown at me.”

Graham taught five years in the local public schools before giving full-time writing a go. Last year, he began teaching playwriting and film courses full time at Drexel University. He’s also taught part time at the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova and Rutgers, and he’s co-author of The Collaborative Playwright textbook.

As it turns out, Graham’s Drexel gig helped ease a slow-down in work due to the well-publicized writer’s strike. The cutback, Graham says, began a year prior. No one was buying—or writing. He was on strike, too, and took shifts picketing like he remembers his father doing as a union member. Graham brought him a holiday dinner on the picket line.

For his turn, Graham could’ve cleverly created his own sign, but he raised a pre-made one, instead. “If I’m not getting paid, I’m not getting creative,” he says.
 


Leslie Fenton's "Rilke Sunset"

Leslie Fenton

Amidst a diverse professional career, art has been a constant in Leslie Fenton’s adult life. Her varied experiences—teaching children with learning disabilities, working as a technical writer, managing an editorial services department where she currently works as a medical manuscript editor—have all factored into the uniqueness of her art.

At once poetic—especially when talking about color and light—and esoteric when relating her art, the Devon resident alludes to herself simply as “someone who paints in paper.” More specifically, she creates mixed-media collages that “connote artists of a former time” and are “visual punnings made with bits of newspapers and magazines.”

After taking drawing and painting classes at the Philadelphia College of Art and the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, Fenton studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on a full-tuition grant. Upon receiving a four-year certificate in painting, she was awarded the Quaker Prize for outstanding achievement and the Scheidt Scholarship for European Travel (which she devoted primarily to travel through Wales in search of prehistoric stone monuments).

Fenton has mounted solo exhibitions at Texas A&M University’s Muse Gallery and the University Arts League in Philadelphia. Her work has also been a part of exhibitions at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Woodmere Museum, Paley Design Center of the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, Chester Springs Art Studio, and Pleiades Gallery in New York. Her work is represented in various private collections, and she’s appeared in solo and group exhibitions at Old City’s Rosenfeld Gallery (where she’s represented). Many of Fenton’s compilations rely on the impact of hidden layers wherein, at first glance, the eye sees a specific object, but once adjusted to the image, another image is revealed. Such is the case with the Fenton piece on display at Lankenau Hospital’s Institute for Medical Research: “Granitic Night” looks like a rock while suggesting a night landscape.

Because they refer to the rhythms and textures in the organic world—natural phenomena like the colors of the beach at dusk or the sky at night—Fenton’s work evokes a feeling of infiniteness and an energy that ebbs and flows in relation to the different images that catch the viewer’s eye. For Fenton, the thrill is getting to play with paper, working it into an abraded and distressed state to emulate the organic rhythms and textures of the natural world. “I love the tactile quality of paper; it’s so malleable,” she says. “I’ll beat it up to represent air, wind and water currents—and to reflect my emotional response to the images I see around me. My goal is to create images that are contemplative and have a very active surface, and to recreate these heightened moments of natural power and nuance—the liquid and visionary experience of natural phenomena.”

To learn more about Leslie Fenton, visit therosenfeldgallery.com.
 


Photo by Jared Castaldi

Cheryl Harper

Politicians have always been fair game for analysts and comedians, who essentially rehash sound bites, gaffs and mudslinging, with the occasional character study thrown in for good measure. Paoli-based artist Cheryl Harper, however, prefers her government leaders with a dash of whimsy and satire, which she deftly conveys in her provocative ceramic sculptures.

Inspired by the work of Richard Notkin, the pre-eminent American artist who focused on political ceramic art, and Viola Frey, an internationally respected artist and leading figure in contemporary ceramics, Harper began translating her political musings into vivid, potentially jarring work three years ago. And to her pleasant surprise, her depictions of such modern-day icons as Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Al Gore sparked considerable intrigue among peers and art professionals.

“I’ve always been interested in politics,” she says. “I worked on the John Kerry campaign, running phone banks, and my brother was in Christie Whitman and Harris Wofford’s administrations.”

Harper’s alternately profound and playful 3-D retellings of current political issues all carry her unique point of view. “I love to stand around at exhibits and eavesdrop on the crowd to hear their comments,” she says. “It’s fun to hear their perspective. But I’m really not making an enormous statement; I’m just observing.”

Her keen “observations” of Al Gore as a “teaching Christ” figure earned her the highly desirable first prize in sculpture at Pennsylvania’s 41st annual Art of the State: Pennsylvania 2008 exhibition, which runs through Sept. 21. Based in Harrisburg at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, it showcases the talent, creativity and diversity of established and emerging Pennsylvania artists—160 from 28 counties—and features 166 works chosen from more than 2,400 entries.

Crafted with clay and acrylic paint, “The Teaching Gore” depicts the public crucifixion of the presidential candidate after the 2000 election, and his subsequent rebirth as a superstar environmentalist. There he stands, barefoot and dignified, holding his version of the New Testament, An Inconvenient Truth.

Along with recent local exhibits at the Wayne and Main Line arts centers and West Chester University, Harper’s resume also includes teaching stints at Delaware County Community College and Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Her work as both an artist and curator is widely recognized in the Philadelphia art community, earning her coveted showings at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, the prestigious teaching wing of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Oct. 11-Nov. 22, she’ll have a one-woman show as part of the Fleisher’s Challenge Exhibition. The event features the work of “underexposed” regional artists chosen from more than 300 entries. With only nine accepted each year, landing a spot is a major coup.

“It’s a very nerve-wracking process,” says Harper. “First you have to face a jury of artists; then there’s a second round of critiques by a group of curators. It’s a feather in your cap to make the final cut.”

Also this fall, look for Harper at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, where she’ll be part of Party Headquarters: Voting Is Just the Beginning Sept. 25-Nov. 2, organized by well-known critic Eleanor Heartney and performance artist Larry Litt.

To learn more about Cheryl Harper, visit cherylharper.com.
 


Photo by Jared Castaldi

Bernie McManus

Like most painters, Bernie McManus presents a perplexing paradox. The Villanova University graduate says he’s “off the map,” yet he’s traveled the globe.

When he landed in the French Riviera, where he’d spend 25 years living and painting in several seaport towns between Nice and Monaco, he didn’t know the language. It was 1976, and he’d fled Philadelphia just as everyone else flocked there for the Bicentennial. At 25, he was a single guy in “a pretty place,” but he quickly ran out of money.

Then necessity kicked in. “I could have lived 20 lives and done something different in every one of them,” says McManus, now 58.

He’s been a stonemason and an insurance inspector. He’s worked at advertising agencies and a machine shop. He’s had at least “100 jobs,” even playing lead guitar and harmonica long ago in a Philly rock band. “I’ve done other things when I’ve had to eat, but I always came back to my art,” he says.

In January 2002, he and his wife, Sheila, returned to a rural setting in Coopersburg, Lehigh County, which allows him access to Philadelphia and New York. He’s busy reinventing himself stateside at galleries in Bethlehem and Lambertville, N.J. He has exhibited with the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Wayne Art Center. Jenkins Arboretum in Devon has purchased two of his pieces.

His oil pastel medium is unusual itself, but so is the breadth and diversity of his work, which is overwhelmingly classical and impressionistic in influence. It’s also split between what he calls modern or figurative. Influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Frank Stella, his modern work “tells a story.” “The Invasion of Chance” features three gaming wheels orbiting like flying saucers above a serene lake. Then there’s “Night Clubbing,” his interpretation of London’s “almost riotess” milieu. He has also painted a series of “zombies.”

In the south of France, McManus mixed with celebrities—mostly when they’d emerge in the winter, the least touristy season. He’s sold to them, too.

He met his wife on Laurence Olivier’s yacht. He socialized with famed British actor Oliver Reed before his death. A notoriously heavy drinker, he appears in McManus’ “The Big Spill.” In it, Reed is dumping grapes from a large chalice. “It just represents his debauchery,” McManus says.

His most rewarding and painstaking piece is “Monaco at the Millennium,” an incredibly detailed pen and ink. McManus owns the original, but one of 200 limited-edition lithographs was a gift to Prince Rainier on the 50th anniversary of his reign; it remains in the Monaco National Collection. Another was recently auctioned off at an Allentown Symphony fundraiser.

When McManus first arrived in France, after a year of painting on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, the region wasn’t so perfect for painting. Even 30 years after World War II had ended, reconstruction hadn’t begun. Bullet holes were everywhere.

“Nobody had the money,” McManus says. “People [in America] don’t appreciate money. The poor here live like the middle class in France on many levels—except in spirit.”

There’s a clear water motif that flows through his work, which also includes paintings of the Delaware River at Easton. “I sleep like this,” he says, swaying his shoulders from side to side and explaining his seaman’s training—another odd job in France.

McManus’ career is like the tide. There’s the ebb and flow of creativity, and the financial fluctuations. Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, McManus attended a Philadelphia Museum of Art youth program every Saturday morning. He made “clay dinosaurs” for every kid on his block, but then his talent laid dormant until he rekindled it in college.

Once he’d exhausted Villanova’s art courses, he fit in 18 credits in painting and drawing at Rosemont College, and then took night classes at Temple’s Tyler School of Art.

“Life has a lot to it,” McManus says. “It depends on if you’re curious or not. Painting has always offered me a way to focus in or focus out.”

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