LITCHFIELD >> Gardening brings together many crafts. So it came as no surprise when the exhibition space at Litchfield’s Oliver Wolcott Library was teeming with talent for Elizabeth Wolff’s exhibition “Penciled Tails.” In fact, if you never strayed beyond her immediate family, you would still be star struck by the artists loitering around. From the strings being plucked on the banjo, music is clearly a common denominator. But from the art on the wall to the audience gathered, gardening is a major rallying cry for the Wolff clan.
Wandering around the library’s exhibition room, you cannot fail to be struck by Elizabeth Wolff’s artistic ability, love of country life, and familiarity with all things horticultural. The young artist has already produced a prodigious volume of deft and witty colored pencil illustrations depicting critters (with an emphasis on mice) doing all sorts of stunts, especially garden-related endeavors. In fact, Ms. Wolff is so comfortable with all aspects of gardening that her characters harvest lavender, prune topiary, tap trees, pose proudly with spades, grow houseplants, mow lawns, and various other down-and-dirty activities with the greatest of ease. Although a tongue-in-cheek take is usually the punchline, the details are all botanically accurate. This is someone who knows her way around the beds.
Elizabeth Wolff traces her first rustlings of interest in art to the fact that she grew up in a rural neighborhood without a close network of nearby kids to preoccupy her time. As a result, she became self-motivated, pursuing her own interests and delving within. Simultaneously, because her family is artistic (more about them in a minute), she was given plenty of art supplies. Meanwhile, the family has a tradition of reading aloud — and picture books were a favorite source of entertainment when “Lizzy” was growing up. Great illustrations were part of the program. At age 7, she began drawing with a skill far beyond the typical stick figures. By high school, she was taking classes at the Washington Art Association as well as enrolling in continuing education classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She went to museum exhibits; she soaked in the subtle beauty of her country surroundings; and she gathered inspiration from the gardeners who frequent her family’s potteries.
For Elizabeth, it’s really about taking her surroundings and embroidering on their subtext. “If you think of it as theatre,” she explains, “it’s about the setting. Sometimes you focus on the movement, and how it plays out. But I also enjoy giving my characters the courage and opportunity to do something you don’t think of as possible.” Elizabeth most often draws single frame illustrations with a humorous twist, frequently enlisting mice as her cast of characters (“I love their size and proportion”) but she has also depicted everything from goats, sheep, rabbits, foxes, cats, cows, porcupines, turtles, you name it, giving them expressions that capture the inner essence of whatever beast she’s parodying. Her work has levity, depth, character, and is staged in wonderful retrospective settings. Famed children’s illustrator Tomie dePaola has served as a mentor, inviting Elizabeth to a show at the Wenham Museum in Massachusetts. Undoubtedly he recognized that few other contemporary artists pull from the breadth of tradition that is Elizabeth’s heritage. She takes her influences from a maternal grandfather who crafted early musical instruments such as lutes and viols. Although Elizabeth is not a musician, her characters clearly sing. And the fact that she grew up watching her father, Guy Wolff, etch sgraffito in flower pots is reflected in her work.
Guy Wolff might be the most high profile family member. A memorable presence with an unforgettable laugh (remember Mozart’s giggle in the movie Amadeus? They stole that from Guy), he elevated the flower pot to a lofty level of art, while still preserving the integrity of its utilitarian roots.
In other words, he makes flower pots that are incredibly appealing, but not so pricey that they are too precious to be coupled with plants. The son of famed abstract artist Robert Jay Wolff of the Bauhaus school, Guy grew up among the great artists of his father’s generation. But rather than going contemporary, his direction went toward traditional crafts with roots. He apprenticed in Britain before moving back to throw pottery in horticulturally-rife Litchfield County. A friend urged him to produce English-inspired flower pots, and he (literally) put his own stamp on the look. His pots are deeply influenced by his research into their early American predecessors. Anyone who wanders into Guy’s Bantam-based pottery studio (www.guywolff.com) should be prepared to step back in time. And to set the mood, Guy often takes breaks from throwing pots to pick up a banjo or mandolin. He is also proficient in concertina, claw-hammer banjo, dulcimer, guitar, drums, bagpipes, and spoons.
Along that same tangent, Erica Warnock, Guy’s wife, is a professional musician playing viola da gamba (a stringed instrument descended from the guitar) and recorder. She spends a great deal of time rehearsing for early music recitals — either alone to prepare her part or with other musicians. Although the viola da gamba had its heyday in the mid-1400s, Erica brings its voice into the present with her quiet, low-key, glowing and absolutely contagious delight in the early music she creates. When Erica Warnock is playing, the music enters into the room to become very much a part of the joy of life in a very present tense. Her sound serves as a touchstone for the family as well as intermingling with the scene in the local arts community. Erica is the gardener in the family and the one most likely to fill a container with something growing. Not surprisingly, Erica also throws some of the smaller flower pots available at Guy Wolff Pottery. Her work is similar, but distinctly different. It is subtly more intricate than her husband and stepson’s work with fluted or pie-crust edges and ridges incorporated and a whimsical note.
Ben Wolff, Guy’s son, is also a musician as well as a potter; he plays electric and acoustic guitar, keyboard, drums, mandolin, and 8-string guitar in primarily jazz and rock groups. He particularly enjoys embarking on riffs. “I feel safest in the unknown,” he points out, “and pottery is improvisation.” Thus he adopted flower pots as his venue. His lines are more of a fusion between modern influences, Japanese design, and traditional lines. His pots are sleek and more uniform than his father’s. Interestingly, he learned the craft independently, almost by osmosis. As a one-year-old, Ben was playing in the pottery, fiddling with clay candlesticks and whatnot so that, by age three, he was creating self-taught pottery. “I love the relaxation of it,” he says.
He tried many other jobs — working at a concession stand, dairy farm, as a mason, carpenter, and for a shipping company, “But I always made time to do a little pottery,” he says. He never actually apprenticed. Instead, pottery came to him through practice. Uniformity is more of a goal for Ben. “Moving that clay in an elegant, straightforward path comes from moving clay a thousand times.” His work has an inherent simplicity to detail and sparseness of design that is almost minimalist and works beautifully to partner with plants. In his search for framing plants and merging with décor, Ben has experimented with many different colors for his work, “I have no bias in colors,” he claims. Clients seek out his slate grays, dark browns, and taupe clay pots that marry sleek design with contemporary hues. Ben Wolff’s work — www.benwolffpottery.com — is available at Pergola in New Preston as well as several other venues.
It all came together at Elizabeth Wolff’s art opening where the room was buzzing with compliments and accompanied by music. In addition to her works on paper, which run the gamut of subjects from a Pride & Prejudice collection to other framed works, she also displayed a series of punched tin lamps — with critters illuminated in the metal. With her typical good humor, she describes her work in one all-encompassing pun. “A pencil in paw makes for a tail worth telling,” she proclaims on her website. “Penciled Tails,” the Elizabeth Wolff Exhibition will be at the Oliver Wolcott Library at 160 South Street in Litchfield until Dec. 30. For more information on Elizabeth, go to www.elizabethwolffillustrations.com.