Marta Whistler – News and Events
Easton artist Marta Whistler: A rebel at heart
by Tim Higgins
Fourteen years ago artist Marta Whistler and her husband were planning to move from California to New York City. They found the city of Easton instead.
“We couldn’t afford New York,” says Whistler. “We had a friend teaching at Lafayette who invited us to visit the Lehigh Valley.”
They visited and, attracted by the cheaper housing, the area’s proximity to New York and the fact that they just loved the town (“I’m a city girl,” she says) they bought a home on Northampton Street in Easton.
Whistler’s husband, Dudley Knight, a well-known stage, television and film actor, passed away in 2013 of a heart attack at the age of 73. Marta won’t tell you her age. Make the mistake of asking and you will be immediately rebuked. “Oh, you don’t ask a woman that,” she says with a smile.
Whistler, one of the original artists in the current Easton renaissance, has become a beloved fixture on the city’s art scene. She is easily recognized by her trademark beret and her slim, petite stature as she takes her customary walks through the downtown and greets people with her equally customary friendly smile and warm embrace.
But it is her art work for which she is primarily known. Well, that and her unafraid attitude. Whistler will tell you exactly what she thinks, whether it’s about you, or your art … but always in the kindest and most helpful way. She is, like her paintings, bold and direct.”I’m not afraid of life,” says the Amsterdam native, who was educated in Europe, Canada, Latin America and the United States. “I’m not afraid of death either. I was born a rebel and I will die a rebel.”
That attitude is reflected in art that often challenges with bold, expressive color, a clear line (she loves to draw) and the unique ability to define her forms in direct ways that may be best described as European Modern. But that is not to say her work is somehow stuck in the past. Whistler’s work is contemporary in the truest sense, born out of a complete understanding of art history. Her work can bring to mind the color of a Henri Matisse just as easily as it brings to mind the graphic line of a Keith Haring.
Whistler’s work contains elements of the abstract as well as the figurative, with narratives that are often told through a visual language that brings to mind cultures from around the world.
Within her paintings and drawings one finds influences from Native American art motifs to Slavic iconography to Central American costumes, cultures that Whistler has spent time not only studying but actively interacting with.
“In my life I have probably done 1,500 to 2,000 pieces of art,” she says. “You love them all equally but in a different way.”
Whistler’s work can be seen in the summer exhibition at the Bethlehem House Contemporary Art Gallery in Bethlehem along with the work of Rigo Peralta, Darrell George, Ward Van Haute, Yevette Hendler and Bob Hakun.
A large painting of Whistler’s greets you as you walk in the front doors of the gallery, which presents works in rooms that represent a home, so customers can see how they would fit into their space. A stylized nude with a field of blue as the backdrop is flanked by two smaller abstract works of thick, dark cross-hatched lines. In another room ? a dining room ? there are several smaller abstracts carefully lit by owner Van Haute and gallery director Kate Hughes that gives her already luminous paintings an otherworldly light, as if lit from the very interior of the work itself.
Whistler doesn’t title her works. She finds it beside the point. The painting tells the whole story; no further embellishment is needed she will tell you.
“I work in different styles,” she says “Symbolism, abstract, semi-abstract, figurative, still life, traditional. Whatever the style, there are no titles for my paintings and sculptures beyond their identification numbers because I want to prod the viewer’s mind to discern its own patterns, images, and emotional associations.
“To engage directly with the work of art and through this interaction to experience something unique seems to me much better than submitting to the guidance of a label.”
There is always an element of the expressive in Whistler’s work as well, whether one is viewing one of her colorful paintings or her graphic work. Through all of her styles there is a certain acknowledgement of her mastery of different mediums that brings everything together into a unique Whistler style.
Marta Whistler, of Easton is one of the artists showing at the Contemporary House Gallery in Bethlehem. Her Easton home studio is filled with 1,000s of her works of art. She loves the use of color, creates everyday, and feels that she always is inspired.
“Just as I do not want to lock in the viewer’s experience of my work, so I do not want to be locked in myself as an artist by conformity to a single identifying style,” she says.
“My work features bold colors combined with intense layered and textured forms. The statement my art makes usually is seen to be powerful and emotionally evocative. My styles may change, but color and activity of line always exert their influence on my work.”
A visit to her home/studio reveals the sheer number of works she has produced and the diversity in styles and approaches she takes to painting. It’s everywhere, covering all the walls and floor space. Whistler’s work can be monumental. She has produced paintings for corporations and hospitals ? one large painting is on permanent display in the main lobby of the?Shriners’ Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. Or it can be small and intimate for the private collector’s home. Her work can be found in major collections throughout the United States.
Whistler’s studio is a well lit third floor of her home that, like the rest of her house, is filled with art. She often works 14 hours a day producing paintings, sculpture and drawings. Her inspiration, she says, is constant and she is never wanting for it… “When I paint I feel almost like a missionary.”
Her work can be controversial. Her candid depictions of male and female figures can unnerve. “I have been condemned,” she says. “My work is often too shocking with the nudity and so on.”
That shock is due to Whistler’s narrative as she presents the human condition to the viewer, warts and all. “I always put a message in my work. The message is hidden. It’s up to the viewer to find it.”
“I never do anything sweet,” she says with a smile. And because she’s not afraid to paint the nude in all of its glory, her work seems even more honest and real.
Her figures are often iconic, the female form in particular. Her nude figures are strong; they stare back at the viewer, unafraid, unashamed. Like the artist, they are what they are, no excuses.
Whistler is a classical artist in many ways. Her desire to document the human condition means there are no overt political motives to her work, no outright statements on issues, such as the feminine role in this world, for example.
“I am not a feminist artist,” she says, clarifying that while she is a feminist, she just doesn’t believe it should be manifested in art.
She is also very accommodating to the wishes of her clients. Whistler tells a humorous story of one commission where the client asked her to paint him nude as a gift to a lover. He loved the painting she eventually did ? he only had one problem with it. He wasn’t as endowed as he wished to be. Not to worry she told the client. “With one quick stroke of my brush, I fixed that problem.”