Vermont in New Jersey

It’s that time of year again, when the burst of autumnal color lures you down country roads. To pop open the sun roof and  experience it en plein air, you don’t have to go all the way to Vermont. Rolling hills, crisp breezes, early American architecture and a fine array of restaurants serving the season’s best can be had right here in Hopewell.

To supplement this experience, the Hopewell Economic Betterment Committee has put together the third annual Hopewell Tour Des Arts. Nearly 20 artists will open their studios for tours Oct. 9 and 10, including Ruth Morpeth Gallery on Broad Street and the Hopewell Train Station.

The hamlet attracts artists with its many charms, and they, in turn, add to the charm by producing regionally inspired artwork: ceramic lamps with carvings that evoke ancient mysteries by Jim Webb; textural patterned clay paintings by Patricia Lange; glass quilts by Chuck Katzenbach; ornate metalwork by Francois Guillemin; ceramic bowls and jewelry by Connie Bracci-McIndoe; the weavings of Armando Sosa; the jewelry of Beth Judge; the stone work of Ayami Aoyama; and many more.

The world of Janet Keller Laughlin is one of fantasy and magic, and it’s hard to imagine she could do this kind of artwork any place but Hopewell. Her studio, built in the former garage of her house, is surrounded by gardens that stand out even on a fall day. In addition to producing fine art, decorative art, illustration and graphic design, she is also a clinical aromatherapist, and plants herbal gardens for beauty, culinary, aromatic and therapeutic applications, as well as reference for botanical studies and landscape scenes.

Inside, her studio is filled with fine antiques, such as Federal-style fluted columns and a hand-carved cupboard. In fact, the space looks more like an intimate gallery than a studio, although Ms. Laughlin really does work here, with art supplies organized on casters to be moved around the studio.

There are large paintings from her Side View Mirror Series, exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2002, such as one of her dearly departed dog Molly. Molly’s brown face and sage eyes are seen in a side view mirror as she hangs her head out the window to examine the magnificent autumnal landscape.

“Molly loved to go for a ride, it gave her such great joy, and inspired this series,” says Ms. Laughlin, describing her car as a studio on wheels, filled with art supplies. She would drive her children – now 25 and 22 – to their ballet and piano lessons, and draw in the car while waiting.

“The interior of the car gives you a different perspective on life,” she says. “The side view mirror encapsulates the season and the time of day.”

Ms. Laughlin, who studied at Moore College of Art & Design and at PAFA, found the extra convex mirror in the side view mirror of her ’95 Ford Explorer produces a scene within a scene. “I consider a car a metaphor for past, present and future,” she says. “The mirror is past, the interior of the car is the present and the road ahead is the future.”

Nestled in the Sourland Mountains, Ms. Laughlin finds the flora and fauna of the natural world to be the core of her inspiration. An antique typesetter’s box has been filled with dried hickories, splitting open, still evolving. When a visitor expresses fascination, Ms. Laughlin brings out a jeweler’s box filled with “gems.” These jewels are made from plant material, such as the hickory nuts or osage orange — and painted to look like precious metals. They were created for the Philadelphia Flower Show, as well as a handbag made from a painted gourd and other plant material: mustard, dogwood, eucalyptus, corn, cover and coriander. It looks like a small Moroccan dwelling.

The table on which Ms. Laughlin has opened this box of treasures is itself painted with fanciful shapes suggested by nature, floating like planets in the universe.

Ms. Laughlin used to do floor cloths in the early 90s – room-sized canvases painted with fairytales and stories. She still paints the occasional floor cloth on commission, but these days she is working more on hand-hooked rugs. She recycles fiber from old clothing, enriching her palette. “I love fabrics and textiles,” says Ms. Laughlin.

Several years ago, Ms. Laughlin found herself spending time outside at night, painting moonscapes en plein air. And so she began tracking the moon and created an installation, “Thirty-Five Days of Lunar and Solar Phases.” Comprised of 35 individual paintings, it documents the 35 days of the lunar and solar phases from Feb. 25 to March 31, 2001, and was exhibited at Educational Testing Service a few years ago.

Each painting is on wood that has been painstakingly hand-carved, then built up paint, scraped away, and built up, encrusted to suggest slabs of earth.

Approaching Ellie Wyeth’s studio in Skillman, just a stone’s throw from Hopewell, one first notices the two Jack Russells, Emma and Otto. The dogs are a frequent presence in Ms. Wyeth’s paintings, and she is writing and illustrating a children’s book about them.

On a shed is a steer head and, next to it, a primitive clay mask made by her son Luke when he was in grade school. Ms. Wyeth’s sons, now 29 (Sam), 27 (Luke) and 23 (Avery),  feature in her paintings as well.

Ms. Wyeth’s studio was also a former garage, and she also paints floor cloths – in fact, she cites Ms. Laughlin as original inspiration for the floor cloths back in the early ‘90s. Ms. Wyeth paints rug-sized pieces of canvas with everything from animals to vegetables, coats them to a rich sheen, secures them with a rubber backing, and sells them to her many fans at such shows as Transformations (Hopewell Train Station, Nov. 12, noon to 8 p.m.).

This is a more traditional studio, where paints can be seen and smelled, and artwork in progress is pinned to the wall. In order to see the diminutive Italian landscapes, one must walk over the floor cloths, and while both Ms. Laughlin and Ms. Wyeth vouch for the durability of these floor cloths, one nevertheless is reluctant to step on the art.

Ms. Wyeth has just returned from a month in Umbria, Italy, where she works for two months a year at the International School of Painting and Drawing. She attended the school as a resident five years ago, and the director invited her to work as an assistant as soon as she learned Italian, which she wasted no time doing.

“It’s in a medieval village and it’s a little bit like ‘Eat, Pray, Love,'” she says, making the comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book.

At the same time, Ms. Wyeth went back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine art from a low-residency program. And during this time she produced two bodies of work: the plein air landscapes from Italy, in earth tones; and interior scenes in her New Jersey home, often in wilder primary colors.

She studied still life, portraiture and the Renaissance, and created a series in which she sees herself in her space, but not in her true form. She has kept a dream journal to help with the images. So there are paintings of animals in bed, sleeping – foxes, raccoon, wolves, rabbits. “The wolf is the only one awake, and that’s me,” she says.

In another painting, “Everyone I’ve had to let go of is floating in the sky,” she says. A wolf under the table represents her childhood nightmares.

Birds, too, appear in her interiors. A crow is a protector, a guardian, and has knowledge. Sometimes the birds are only shadows.

“Twilight” comes after the animals have gone to bed; it’s later at night, the covers are askew, and a striped tail comes out from under the covers.  A wolf is peering out from under the bed, and the night sky through the window beckons.

In “The Visitor,” an interior with an open doorway, a robin enters with a long shadow, symbolic of rebirth.

In Italy, Ms. Wyeth has learned to paint from observation and learned to see. In Hopewell, she is working more from her imagination.

The Third Annual Hopewell Tour des Arts begins at the Historic Hopewell Train Station in Hopewell Borough, Oct. 9, 10 a.m. -5 p.m. and Oct.10, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Maps for the self guided tour can be picked up here and at The Brothers Moon or at www.hopewellarts.com.

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