Seeing the Light

"Solitude" by Meg Brinster Michael

Meg Brinster Michael has lived her life in Princeton, and her paintings and photography are steeped in an emotional reverence for her home town. Whether painting a still life of pears, a landscape with a white barn, or a photograph of a tree at Tusculum Park, her artwork is focused on light and reflection. Seeing the Light, on view at the Present Day Club through Feb. 24, includes landscapes and still lifes in oil and oil pastel as well as digital photographs that focus on light, color and the simple beauty of our everyday surroundings.

The Present Day Club was founded in 1898 by Ellen Axson Wilson (the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, herself the subject of an exhibit at the Historical Society of Princeton’s Updike Farmstead in spring), to “create an intellectual and social center of thought and action among the women of Princeton and to stimulate an interest in science, literature, art, and social and ethical culture.”

The building, at 72 Stockton St., was originally a home designed and built by noted Princeton architect/builder Charles Steadman in 1835, and when the club purchased the building in 1930, another noted Princeton architect — Rolf Bauhan — designed a kitchen and ballroom addition.

Today, the club offers guest speakers and exhibits that rotate every two months. Ms. Michael’s mother, Doris Brinster, is a long-time member of the club, and Ms. Michael has fond memories of attending events here since childhood, such as Barclay Dancing School.

As a studio art major at Skidmore College, Ms. Michael studied photography but after raising three daughters (now 19, 29 and 32), she studied botanical illustration with Pat Kay in Princeton and Louisa Tine from the New York Botanical Garden. She studied oil painting with Gregory Perkel and Ray Brown at the Arts Council of Princeton and has attended workshops at Nelson Shanks’ Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia and at Robert Beck’s studio in Lambertville (with Tricia Vergis).  She has exhibited in student shows at Arts Council of Princeton and at the Princeton Brain and Spine Institute Art Times Two Gallery, but this is her first solo show.

A member of the Garden Club of Princeton, Ms. Michael is a passionate gardener. “I bought my house from a former Garden Club member and am trying to carry on the gardens,” she says.

All the photos are grouped in a grid on one wall. They are small and all the same size, and it reads as a single installation. Ms. Michael credits artist and curator Madelaine Shellaby for help in hanging the show. “I like little windows into what I see and feel,” she says. The photos are “windows into my world.” Again, that world is centered in Princeton, with zinnias from Terhune Orchards in bright magenta, yellow and fuschia, a stucco wall at Grounds For Sculpture with a vine that has turned an autumnal red.

Although the still lifes may be painted from a classroom set up alla prima (all at once), Ms. Michael looks within the setup for what interests her – reflections on a silver bowl and clear glass, for instance – and makes that her focus.

While her still lifes are almost photorealistic, a figure is more suggestive and mysterious. “I’m learning to simplify and create form through color,” says the artist. “Different shapes of color next to each other create form.” She loves to find the color in flesh tones.

In addition to making photographs as final works of art, she also uses photographs as reference material for her landscapes, although she paints en plein air as well. There are nearby farms in Lambertville and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “I like to go with a group and talk about how we see things, how to solve an artistic problem, or just find a friend to go and paint at Coventry Farm or Carnegie Lake.”

When Ms. Michael leaves Princeton, she doesn’t go far. There are seascapes from Mantiloking, where she summers. These are the largest paintings in the show, and you can almost hear the surf crashing as your stare into these blue and white ocean waves, gently folding. “The sea speaks to me. It’s always changing,” she says. One can imagine an entire series of these magnificent seascapes. With paintings like these, who needs a beach house?

Ms. Michael tells a story about naming a painting of a bowl of figs. She was traveling to the California wine region, staying with friends, when her host set out a bowl of purple figs in a ceramic bowl onto a stone counter. Ms. Michael climbed up onto a stool and photographed down at the bowl, making the photograph from which she painted. The figs have that frosty white fluorescence of being just picked and chilled. A nearby wine country restaurant, The Girl and the Figs, suggested the painting’s title.

From sensuous paintings of cherries and fruit, we go to paintings of boats, also large in size. When traveling on the Greek Island Corfu in 2009, she made a photograph from a bus window that served as reference, but looking back, she admits she’s been quite creative with the original image. Here we see a yellow boat in the hot sun on a bright turquoise water. It is titled “Solitude.” Yet another image captured from an Amtrak window while taking the train to Boston yielded another scene. Ms. Michael may travel to the Amalfi Coast or Nevis for inspiration, but she works in a studio over her garage. And while the inspiration may have come from places far off, the painting, made in Princeton, is at home here.

Ms. Michael has lavished love on a painting of the “Barn at Updike Farm,” home to the Historical Society Princeton. Another story: To get that painting, she parked in a field of dried corn stalks and punctured her car’s condenser and got a flat tire. It was worth it.

Seeing the Light: Paintings and Photographs by Meg Brinster Michael is on view at The Present Day Club, 72 Stockton St., Princeton, through February 24.  Gallery hours Mon.-Tues., Thurs.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Wed. 2:30-4 p.m.

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