Before opening the mActivity fitness center in East Rock last February, co-owners Burch Valldejuli and Pablo Perez envisioned a holistic, community-oriented approach to wellness that would go far beyond the offerings of most gyms.
This past Sunday, the health club hosted its first official art exhibition, entitled “Pairings,” featuring the work of painters Heidi Coutu and Barbara Hawes, who met at the gym and who both explore the beauty, drama, and expressive qualities of flowers. The show runs until the end of the month.
In an interesting juxtaposition, enthusiastic gallery goers filled a long corridor within view of gym members going about their fitness routines.
Some of those members also took some time for a cultural workout as they perused paintings in a gallery space bedecked with spectacular floral arrangements by Lucian’s Greenhouse & Florist of Hamden, providers of the gym’s permanent collection of plants and flowers.
Several months in the planning, Valledejuli said the show’s floral theme was designed to coincide with spring and Mother’s Day. A small, pop-up clothing display featured some of the floral-patterned spring couture by fashion designer and manufacturer Neville Wisdom, who launched his new spring line at a mActivity fashion show in early April.
In keeping with mActivity’s mission of community inclusion, gallery attendees were asked to bring an “early-reader book” to donate to New Haven Reads. Its executive director, Kirsten Levinsohn, was on hand to share information and sign up volunteers and tutors.
“Every event we do connects with a non-profit organization” said Valldejuli, noting that mActivity’s spacious conference room is available for free to non-profits and their event fundraisers. “This is what community is all about. We don’t want to just be a partner to the community — we want to be the community,” she said.
Judging by the flourish of red dots denoting sales that quickly appeared next to works of art on display Sunday, the pairing of fine art and alternative exhibiting spaces like the fitness center, seems an idea whose time has come.
The work of the two exceptional painters, with different approaches to color and paint application, is compatible, allowing the viewer a smooth transition from one body of work to the next.
Both artists celebrate the symphony of color, shape, and form of flower groupings, but also express a story about the life cycle of flowers and an embodiment of emotional content that also speaks to the artists’ state of mind and capacity to convey the transcendent qualities of a time-honored subject.
Heidi Coutu describes her work as “painterly realism.” Her facility with paint allows a broad range of image creation and a portfolio that includes Yale master’s portraits, but also boasts a mind-numbing facility with other subjects, ranging from landscape to figurative painting to abstract work. No matter the subject, the conceptual intelligence and artistic maturity of this prolific painter cannot be contained, though it does present to a greater degree in some subjects more than others.
Coutus’ work is at times, lush and fluid …
… but can also manifest a more frenetic mark-making style that is as tantalizing as it is impressionistic.
The influence of great masters like Cezanne and Matisse is never far from the viewer’s mind in viewing the work of Barbara Hawes, whose intense, saturated color would have spoken to Matisse’s Fauvist predilections.
A small mixed-media collage in the exhibit points to another area of interest for Hawes who sites the collage work of German Constuctivist/Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, as particularly influential.
Hawes’ vocabulary of paint application includes both transparent and translucent idioms, skillfully combined to render not the flower, but the soul of the flower.
Her works exude a spontaneous, fresh quality of gestural expression that breathes life into every image and often breaks with pictorial conventions, in support of her luminous compositions.
Of note are Hawes’s affordable prices. She said she dislikes seeing stacks of unsold paintings when visiting artists’ studios: “I want my babies to have good homes,” she said, in reference to the affordability of her pieces. Based on the success of mActivity’s inaugural art exhibit, that is not going to be a problem.
The show runs through the month of May and can be seen at mActivity Fitness Center, at 285 Nicoll St. in the East Rock section of New Haven.