From the October/November 2013 Issue:

Pat Witt and The Barn Studio of Art

    Columnist: John Zeaman |

A Millville artist devotes a lifetime to capturing the “magic hour” and inspiring others

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enlarge | Darkness gathers over the marshes in this late-twilight scene painted by Pat Witt. Photo: ArtC
It’s a Sunday afternoon in July and Pat Witt is on her patio talking about light. The sky is clear cerulean, soft reflections waver on the surface of the lily pond, but this isn’t the light that animates the 86-year-old painter.

This is all prelude. Witt’s light, the one she’s devoted a lifetime to capturing, will come later, when the sun disappears below the horizon. Most people call it twilight and leave it at that, but to Witt, it’s a “magic hour” with three or four acts.

Her favorite moments occur about 15 minutes after sunset. “That’s the after-glow,” she says, sitting up straight and gesturing as if she were painting a picture in the air. “That’s when the color gets very intense. It’s there only briefly, then it’s gone.”

To capture such fleeting effects, Witt used to do quick studies on small canvases that she would later develop into full-scale paintings. The studies, which the French call pouchades, are executed with loose, almost expressionistic brushstrokes, but the overall effect is meteorologically accurate enough to earn the praise of astronomers and duck hunters. “They tell me they know exactly what light I’m painting,” she says. “They’re watching the sky at those times, just like I am.”

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enlarge | Pat Witt Photo: ArtC
Creating a Legacy
Witt is a beloved figure in the South Jersey art scene, and the school she runs out of her rambling red house in Millville, The Barn Studio of Art, is a cherished institution. She opened it in 1962 and has taught thousands of children and adults, many of whom have gone on to be artists and teachers themselves. She starts them at age 4. Parents who were students bring their children, who in turn bring their children.

“I recently had a child tell me that I taught his great-grandmother,” she says. “That’s four generations.”

Witt suffers from macular degeneration, which has punched out the center of her visual field, but she continues to paint and teach, and she still picks up the phone when you call the school. However, her daughter, Nancy Witt Mulick, oversees the administration and is among the teachers who now help with the classes.

On this day, students are arriving for an intensive weeklong outdoor painting workshop that has come to be known as The Maurice River School. It takes its name from its primary motif, the nearby Maurice (pronounced Morris) River, which runs from the Pine Barrens to Delaware Bay. The name is also a bit of a play on the Hudson River School, that homegrown movement that redefined landscape painting in the nineteenth century.

The connection is the light. Although the Hudson River School was known for its dramatic, primeval landscapes, it also fostered a movement—Luminism —that focused on the subtle effects of light. The flat, watery landscape around the Maurice River with its big skies and shimmering reflections is just the sort of place the Luminists loved.

And just the kind of place that Witt—sometimes known as the “Wetlands Painter”—loves. She has painted just about every scene along its 34 miles. Another favorite place is Dyer Cove near Fairton, on the Delaware. She still talks about the time, years ago, when she rented a shack near the water and did nothing but paint and ride her bike for a month. “I would go out with six or eight small canvases taped to a board, and I would limit myself to 15 minutes on each one,” she recalls. “I had a stopwatch.” She goes through a stack of these unframed pouchades, each roughly five or six inches tall by eight to 12 inches wide. They have just come back from the Noyes Museum in Oceanville, which gave her a one-woman show that ran from February to May of this year. They capture various moments around sunrise or sunset and look like finished paintings.

Witt picks up one of many journals she has kept. They are filled with quick sketches and brief, excited observations of land and sky. A well-thumbed field guide to weather sits on a nearby table.

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enlarge | Students carry artwork they created during a class at The Barn Studio of Art. Photo: ArtC
Studio for Living
Witt has deep roots in Millville. She grew up on a farm just three miles from where she lives now. Her mother and her aunts were all teachers. The building was originally a nineteenth century barn from another farm that was disassembled and erected on its present site around 1900. It nestles into the land, sprouting additions in every direction. The grounds are beautiful, with flowers everywhere, a manmade lily pond inspired by Claude Monet’s pond at Giverny, and a stand of bamboo adding an exotic touch.

The house has grown to 25 rooms, many with plank walls and low, timbered ceilings. Some are for living, some for painting, some for teaching and all are packed to overflowing with the products, materials, props and books of a lifetime in art. Paintings hang on the walls and lean in stacks against each other. Giving a tour, Witt stops and pulls one out to illustrate some point. One shows a “light pillar,” an unusual atmospheric phenomenon in which ice crystals make a vertical bar of light between the sun and the horizon.

The tallest and brightest of the rooms is the teaching studio, which has about 16 easels and stools. Sign-up sheets and schedules attest to a busy summer session in which four teachers handle day and night classes for young children, teenagers and adults. Given the caliber of the teaching and the school’s record of turning out real artists, classes are an incredible bargain. For $185, students can attend six-weeks of two-hour classes, five days a week. And that includes all materials.

The school is Witt’s chief source of income now. She doesn’t sell much anymore. Despite that, and her limited vision, she continues to make new pictures, working in an outbuilding studio permeated with the smell of turpentine and oils. She used to mix colors on a gray palette to match the gray ground she uses as an under-painting, but now uses white plastic plates because the colors are easier to see.

She has studied enough skies that she doesn’t need to make a study before starting a picture anymore. She looks inside of her head instead.

“I’m a memory painter now,” she says.

All afternoon, adult students have been arriving for the Maurice River School session starting tomorrow. All 20 of them are now gathered for orientation on the lawn, seated on folding chairs in a circle. As Witt slowly approaches with the aid of two forearm crutches, they all look up, smile and break into applause.

The effect is spontaneous, warm and a little dazzling—like the sun breaking out from behind the clouds.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Pro­fessional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.