A Talk with the Artists of ‘Thursdays with Leslie’

(front, l-r) Karen Corrado, Judy Cohen, Marlene Brill, Jean Novales, Leslie Hirshfield, Maribeth Gibbs. (back, l-r) Tracy Hodgson, Sandi Lawrence-Brogen, Rima Lockwood.

Thursdays with Leslie is an impressive collaborative exhibition by ten talented painters from the Noyes Cultural Art Center and the latest show in our popular Local Art @ EPL series.  Currently on display through February 28th on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Branch, Thursdays with Leslie features an ecclectic mix of watercolor, oil, and pastel works created by the skilled students of instructor Leslie Hirshfield.  I recently spoke with many of the Thursdays with Leslie artists via email about their artistic backgrounds, experiences at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, and impressions of the Chicagoland art scene.

Evanston Public Library:  Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist?  How did you get started in art?  Was there something specific in your life that sparked a need to create?  What drove you to create in the beginning?  What drives you now?

Noel Barnes:  I first started painting in oils when in graduate school.  I always loved art and painting and even remember painting art projects back when I was in 3rd grade and made an Easter basket.  I always seem to enjoy expressing myself whether it is in making jewelry, sewing, knitting, etc.

Marlene Brill:  My background as an artist began when I was in kindergarten.  I can still remember a picture I did of several buildings that, to my youthful, amateurish eyes, looked like buildings.  I loved playing with color and design.  I drew pictures for recreation.  I was a voracious doodler, much to the chagrin of my teachers.

Those interests stuck through elementary and high schools.  I can remember being jealous of a high school classmate who enrolled in Art Institute classes.  I took a drawing class in college and one or two afterward, but I never pursued anything more serious, although I kept a strong interest and love of art appreciation and drawing.  Nothing stuck until 2002, when I found the current class with Leslie Hirshfield.  The teaching style of taking everyone where they’re at and moving them forward.  The safe place to experiment.  The camaraderie.  All these things kept me returning to class year after year.  Heck!  It’s cheaper than therapy!

Judith Cohen:  Generally, I see myself less as an artist than as someone who enjoys the process and has a lot of fun with the whole experience.  In my work life, I have been a literacy/English teacher for many years.  I started taking watercolor classes from Leslie about 15 years ago, after an experience on a vacation in Yosemite, where I signed up for a one session art workshop which I really enjoyed.  I really like the challenge of painting, and I really like that I keep finding new things to learn.

"Moon Bear/Sun Bear" by Tracy Hodgson

Karen Corrado:  I started doing art when I was quite young.  There was always a good supply of paints, brushes, paper and clay at my house.  Our neighbor was an art teacher and enjoyed spending time with us.

Maribeth Gibbs:  I got started in art when in high school.  As a senior, I finally was able to take an elective course.  I chose art.  It was thrilling to let go and create.  I already had a good background in attending museums to see the masterworks and had always noticed artistic designs in nature and commercially.  My first great project in the art class was to design my own “Mondrian” piece on a shoebox.  What drives me to create now is life experiences with the same eye for beauty in created and natural design and color.

Sandi Lawrence-Brogen:  I’ve been drawing since I was in elementary school.  I was a shy kid in a house full of somewhat rowdy siblings and I loved that drawing was something I could do in a quiet little space… by myself.  I earned a B.S. in Art from Illinois State University and I was a graphic designer for a few years after college.  That experience sort of sucked the “joy” of art from me for quite awhile.  Now the joy is back and I can’t imagine not painting each week.

EPL:  How do you describe your art?  Do you see yourself as fitting in with any specific artistic movements or styles?  Do you work in any other mediums?

Noel Barnes:  My paintings tend toward less usual topics in terms of watercolor.  Recently I have been painting in acrylic, watercolor and pastels.  I have tended toward all kinds of animals since my daughter is a zookeeper at Lincoln Park Zoo and before that was at Brookfield Zoo.  So I have done lots of paintings of dolphins, seals, etc.  She is currently working with birds of prey and penguins so I have been painting those.  This works out very well since I am a pretty avid birder.

Marlene Brill:  I generally work in watercolor and pastels.  My work tends to be realistic.  Much of the subject matter I use comes from photographs I take or others give me.  Everyone in our class has a drawing specialty, although we all can paint different subjects.  My favorite involves trees, which interestingly, has been a subject I’ve drawn repeatedly since childhood.

Judith Cohen:  My art is quite traditional.  However, sometimes I experiment with color and form to see what different kinds of things I can do.

Maribeth Gibbs:  I describe my art as my own style, influenced by many famous artists, but along the lines of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.  I work now in pastels but have studied working in watercolor, ceramics and clay sculpting.  In the Thursday classes with Leslie, I bring along any project that I am working on at home, including paper mache and cardboard toy making.  I also work in pencil, charcoal and pen and ink.

Sandi Lawrence-Brogen:  I’m still learning.  I start with my photographs – then I draw and translate them into watercolor.  I strive for a more controlled style; often … does not work that way.  In my past, I had successfully worked with pastels and charcoal.  When I came back to art – the plan was to learn something that I was really bad at.  Watercolor was the perfect choice; it can be a very unforgiving mistress.  I love travelling and photography.  Painting has become the perfect way to marry my interests together.

Noyes Cultural Arts Center

EPL:  Can you describe your experiences as a student at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center?  Why did you decide to start taking classes?  How has the classroom setting influenced you artistically?

Marlene Brill:  The classroom setting has been a huge influence in my drawing.  Besides Leslie’s teaching skills, she creates a supportive atmosphere that influences how classmates encourage each other.  The setting fuels my creative juices by affording me the comfort to expand my techniques, mediums, and subject matter.  And as with anything we do, the more practice we get the better.  Having a structured time and place each week to paint ensures that I make the time to produce what I want to create.

Judith Cohen:  Taking classes with Leslie at Noyes has been a very positive experience.  Leslie is a very encouraging teacher.  Her suggestions and ideas come from her many years of experience and artistic eye and are quite helpful.  Class members have also learned to critique each other’s work, and that can be quite helpful also.

Karen Corrado:  I was looking for something extra to do and always wanted to get back to painting after my children were grown.  The class – particularly Leslie – is very accepting of any level of ability and always encourages you to continue and “make it darker” as she very often comments after looking at your almost finished painting.  The company of my classsmates, soft music, and a fresh pot of tea punctuated with a quick jab of giggles about someone’s story of the day is the perfect ending to an exhausting day.

Maribeth Gibbs:  I first heard the raves of enthusiasm for the teacher, Leslie Hirshfield, from friends who were currently taking a class with her.  I then lived in the city and worked in downtown Chicago.  As I outgrew my studio condo, I looked for more space in Evanston in order to be conveniently located near the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.  I quickly signed up for an evening class on Thursday nights with Leslie.  The group of students could not have been more welcoming, and Leslie more than lived up to her reputation as a wonderful teacher and guide.  With such enthusiasm, the atmosphere was and is always very stimulating.

Sandi Lawrence-Brogen:  I had been away from creating art for more than a decade, but I had always planned to get back into it.  There never seemed to be any free time; it was always “someday … one day … maybe next year.”  My dad passed away suddenly in 2000 and suddenly “one day” was NOW.  I signed up for classes a few months later and have never stopped. Leslie (our energetic teacher) is the most patient person I’ve ever met.  She is full of encouraging tips and techniques to tackle any obstacles that come up.  She would have been an amazing kindergarten teacher.  The setting is very safe and warm – very much like clubhouse.  We paint, draw, chat, snack and share.

"At the Farm" by Karen Corrado

EPL:  What are your future goals and plans as an artist?

Noel Barnes:  My future goal is to continue with painting as a hobby — for example, I recently painted both a panther and leopard for friends after the animals that they worked with passed away.  I enjoy being able to share my painting in this way.

Marlene Brill:  I’m just enjoying myself and my class.  I get a kick out of exhibiting – me being an amateur – but it’s not the end-all, as with a professional artist.  Once the class stops being fun, which I don’t anticipate, it will be time to pack my art supplies in the basement.  Right now, art class is an important part of my week.

Judith Cohen:  My artistic goals are to keep learning and to keep having fun.

Karen Corrado:  I would like to concentrate more on figure and face drawing.  I hope to continue as long as I live in the area.

Maribeth Gibbs:  My future goals and plans as an artist are to continue along the same path, possibly putting more time into the process.  I hope to move into oil painting soon.

Sandi Lawrence-Brogen:  I’d like to continue painting.  I still have a long way to go.  It would be great to continue showing my work in the area and have them sold in a gallery (when the economy is better).

EPL:  How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist?  What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?

Marlene Brill:  I think the Chicagoland area is an amazing place to work and exhibit art.  Besides having the world-class Chicago Art Institute, I’ve never seen another city that displays so much art.  Think of the Skokie Sculpture Garden along McCormick Avenue.  Think of NU’s Block Gallery in Evanston and the traveling shows in the NU library.  Think of art-under-glass that hasadorned so many downtown windows.  Art is everywhere.  How lucky are we to live in such a culturally rich environment?  What better way to improve one’s skills than to view different types and forms of art?

Karen Corrado:  There seems to always be a place to exhibit, and everyone is very accepting of new talent.  I have lived in Evanston for many, many years and it becomes more fun and interesting every year.

Maribeth Gibbs:  I have applied and been accepted into the juried art shows at Wilmette Library the last few years and have won a single show at the library a few years ago.  I do have my work hanging in commercial settings in Chicago.  I am not aggressive in submitting to more juried shows as I find them too time consuming at this time.  I continue to view all the artwork I can at summer outdoor art fairs and attend museums and gallery open houses in the various art communities around the city and suburbs.  All of these inspire me.

Sandi Lawrence-Brogen:  I’ve live in the area for more than 20 years now, and I love it.  It’s very receptive to art shows and exhibits.  I love the diversity that the area has – not just the art, but the people and their cultures.  It’s always changing and evolving; it keeps everything fresh and exciting.

Interview by Russell J.

(Note: Quotations erroneously attributed to Tracy Hodgson were removed from the article on 2/21.  We apologize for the mistake.)

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