by Ozzie Nogg
The purpose of an artist statement is to help viewers understand the message conveyed in the work and to describe the motivation behind the artist’s creative impulse. In the process, many an artist statement becomes opaque as raw umber. Example: ‘My current body of work evolved from a serious pursuit to gain access to the impetus behind all life. These paintings take a critical view of cultural issues, and elicit an uneasy feeling in the viewers while inviting them to move into a space of speculation and become charged with life-force energy.’
In contrast, Connie Stilwell’s artist statement is clear and direct. “I approach my life and my art with humor. I want to entertain, make viewers feel happy. Seeing my paintings may not change lives in any way, but the work is funny and makes people feel good.” Stilwell’s exhibit — The Road to Humor — will hang at the JCC Gallery from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31. This exhibit is Stillwell’s twenty-fifth show in Omaha, and the sixty-seven abstract pieces include still-life renderings, portraits, landscapes and nature imagery. The public is invited to attend the opening reception on Sunday, Aug. 4 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the JCC Gallery.
Lincoln-born Stilwell (née Connie Platt, to those of us who knew her at Central High School), grew up in the 1950s. “I think those times influenced my perspective on life,” she said. “Everything in the 50s had a ‘happy ending’ and that feeling gave me an optimistic outlook. I have a tremendous passion for life.”
Stilwell’s optimism shows in her colorful multiple media work. An accomplished artist who has exhibited nationally, Stilwell’s paintings, sculpture and assemblages are typically done in oil, acrylic or watercolor paints, pastels, crayons, chalk and graphite resins. “In this past year I’ve done five commissions that the client wanted to look realistic. I consider myself an experimental abstract artist, so I hate renderings that the camera can do a better job with. My heros are Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, Picasso and Hans Hofmann — whom I consider the father of American abstract art. Hofmann believed that abstract art was a way to get at the important reality, and famously said that, ‘the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.’ His philosophy has guided me for the past fifty years.”
Before deciding to spend her life at the easel, Stilwell earned a teaching certificate from UNL, as well as an RN degree from Methodist Hospital. “In the 1960s I was a Methodist charge nurse in the bones and burns unit. Then I transferred to UNMC to work part time with Dr. Richard Young’s daughter, Rosie Reynolds, in the medical illustration department doing drawings used in professional journals.”
Stilwell’s natural talent was nurtured by several local artists. “At Central High, Zenaide Luhr became a good friend. We used to buy one another’s work. I studied with Marie Christensen, Isabella Threlkeld, and also with Augustus Dunbier who was a long-time resident of Omaha, but who traveled and painted throughout the world. In 1958, I shared my very first show with Miriam Cooperman at Duchesne Academy. All these teachers and colleagues are gone now.”
Marriage to Dr. Daniel Stilwell took Connie to Alexandria, Virginia, where she found major inspiration for her work. “In 1987 and 1988 I served as President of the Vienna VA Art Society. It had eight hundred members and is one of largest art groups in the area. During those years I also served as a Consultant to the Arts for two Virginia Governors — Gerald L. Baliles and Lawrence Douglas Wilder.” She returned to Omaha in 1991 to help care for one of the Stilwell family farms. Though she doesn’t paint every day, Connie says, “I’m hard at it all the time.”
Flash back. After her graduation from Central High, Connie Platt enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “One day I wandered into a classroom where an artist-in-residence was giving a demonstration. I tried my hand at the exercise and the guy told me I had flair. Turned out the visiting artist was Willem de Kooning.”
This August, at the JCC Gallery, come see Connie Stilwell’s ‘flair’ for yourself.