Natural inspiration, abstract expression

PHOTO provided BY STEVEN SCHLUSSELArtist Dona Mara works in her Rupert studio. The natural environment around her home is a source of Mara's inspiration.

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MANCHESTER — In the summer of 1964, while pursuing a degree in studio arts at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rupert artist Dona Mara gathered with a group of her creative high school friends to show their art at a seasonal gallery they had established in an old boathouse on the Niagara River.

Although the venture was a commercial failure, one of her former classmates, Charles Bonenti, now the retired features editor of The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Mass., remembered her vision - and her ability to put together an exhibition and see the potential of the space it would fill.

Last week, Bonenti, of Williamstown, Mass., an artist in his own right and now a freelance art and architecture critic and writer, seemed to have come full circle as he stood in the vast confines of stART Space in Manchester, the gallery housing Mara's new solo exhibition, "Reflections: The Intangible Things."

"I was impressed at the amount of work [Dona] produced in such a short period," Bonenti said. "It looked different more mixed media with complex, intersecting patterns and colors than I'd seen in her earlier encaustic paintings. She seems to be pushing in a new direction."

A new direction

Mara agreed with her childhood friend Bonenti, that "Reflections," which consists of 29 original paintings ranging in size from 8 by 10 inches to 48 by 60 inches, "originated as the answer to the gallery stART Space presenting me with the consideration of a solo exhibition."

"Without much thought I said yes," Mara said, while awash in a stream of sunlight in her Rupert studio. "I grabbed at the idea of my work in that powerful space. What developed are my own inner reflections on my outer world, in this time in history that I am living."

Surrounded daily by the beauty of her Vermont setting, Mara added that at the same time she felt "assaulted with the recognition that man is being careless in the stewardship of the land, water and air." This conflict has helped drive her creative evolution in the last years, and served her in creating works targeted for stART Space.

"When I believe the earth deserves respect, it brought me to conflicts that I have attempted to put on a two-dimensional surface," Mara said. "Working on this single theme month after winter month produced many variations as my work is process oriented. I gravitated to warm colors wanting light in the midst of darkness that was not only from the sky."

This process of pursuing color and form, to both contrast and complement the exhibition's venue, still didn't deter Mara from a key element which has driven her art for decades: choosing materials on a given day which she said then "dictated the flow of head, heart and hand."

It also keeps her outlook and practice fresh.

"A fascination with the exploration of materials keeps me experimenting," Mara said. "The term 'Reflections' has many meanings, from light playing on a surface to thoughts that linger after living circumstances, as one considers possibilities. Each of these are not concrete things to touch, they are intangible, however a part of our everyday life."

The vastness of venue

This representation of everyday life, on which Mara speaks in simple, muted tones but paints with complex, bright colors, is much of what prompted Michael and Carolina Ellenbogen to open the stART Space gallery in late 2017.

While managing the Village Picture Shows Cinema in the Manchester Shopping Center for a number of years, the husband-wife team - he's a photographer and movie producer, she's a painter — saw great potential in the 7000 square feet of immense commercial space available at the plaza's opposite end.

"The vibe is warehouse industrial, and the space itself has these tall 14-foot ceilings," Michael Ellenbogen said the day before "Reflections" opened as preparations for the show reached the final details stage. "StART Space lends itself well to pursuing our vision of creating a place to show the work of many artists at once. You can fit a football field in here."

Yet since its opening, stART Space had not yet tackled a solo exhibition, added Carolina Ellenbogen. She explained that from six artists in 2017, the gallery has grown to exhibiting 20 at present.

"Dona is our first solo show, and we had very specific aesthetics in mind when inviting her," she said.

Michael Ellenbogen, in response to his wife, said that the needs of a solo show are different than group exhibitions.

"What we did when we asked Dona to be the first artist to have a solo exhibition here was create a space just for her work," he said. "We took an area that is between two to three thousand square feet and made it her own. Now there are partition walls in one area of the greater gallery that has the feeling of being the solo salon in the midst of all this other art."

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Spatial influence on art

The potential of a solo show in a vast space with an exclusive area set aside for her helped drive Mara's

creative process.

Mara said she considered the venue considerably and that her "response to the space and "open interest in abstraction by the Ellenbogens" gave her "reign to do larger work" than she was previously creating.

The vantage point and perspective, she quickly noted, meant everything.

"The ability to stand back and view work from afar is a luxury," Mara said. "As I worked on these paintings, my studio didn't have space enough to view them from a distance so I was anxious to see them hung so one could stand back, walk away and view them from an angle."

To be able to offer such room, Mara called stART Space an arts venue "like nothing else in the community, but it's also more than that."

"An atmosphere of interest, curiosity and belief that the arts are an integral part of a successful society is being fostered by [the Ellenbogens] at stART Space, as they understand that artists need audience," she said.

Bonenti concurred with his friend Mara, impressed that the area sectioned off for her solo show, "was about the size of many smaller

commercial galleries."

"I told [the Ellenbogens] they were brave to start such a venture when so many other brick and mortar galleries are closing because of the market, consolidations, [and] art fairs," Bonenti said. "They say they are the only gallery of their kind in the Northshire."

And galleries need sales to exist, a point not lost on Mara. She concluded that it "remained a thrill" for her to share her passion of a soundly protected earth, though the sale of her new paintings is a mutually beneficial endeavor of all involved: artist, gallery, and the eventual future owners of her art.

"An artist works for the most part in a solitary environment with many hours of thought, experimentation, purchasing of materials, and questioning," Mara said. "The desire to be heard, seen and understood is universal. How to communicate your own very personal thoughts is the challenge. My intention is to provide an object that sparks thought using color, composition, forms and texture. If it also pleases the eye I call it finished."

Artist Dona Mara's solo exhibition "Reflections: The Intangible Things" is showing at stART Space, 263 Depot St., Manchester Center, through July 20. Contact stART Space: or 802-768-8498.

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