Art Review: Group presents inspired work at Panza Gallery

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The exhibit “In Good Company” brings together the work of six good friends: Zivi Aviraz, Joel Kranich, Lilli Nieland, Kathy Sickels and Susan Sparks, selected by Lila Hirsch Brody herself for the exhibit.

“Each and every artist, I thought, was absolutely wonderful,” says Hirsch Brody, an art instructor for more than 30 years, whose work is on display at Panza Gallery in Millvale among her contemporaries as well as a few students.

“I feel I've found my voice,” the Fox Chapel-based artist says about her pieces in the show. “I feel so good about how each piece communicates with me.”

The half-dozen pieces are mixed-media works that have been “reworked” from digital photographs of previous works. In “Whispering Trees,” for example, white acrylic paint and resin have been applied atop a colorful digital print of a painting of trees Hirsch Brody had created previously.

“I rework them until it pleases me,” Hirsch Brody says of her process. “Once you start a painting, it should never end up like what you had in your mind when you started.”

Every painting starts with an idea. For Sickels of Plum, the idea for her watercolor portrait “Royal Rooney” came to her after reading an article about the late Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes.”

“Until about five years before he died, he typed all of his monologues on an ancient Royal typewriter,” Sickels says. “He also refused to ever have his eyebrows trimmed.”

From those two factoids, Sickels says “Royal Rooney” was born. “I did some Internet surfing and found several photographs of him for reference,” she says. “His eyebrows fascinated me — an explosion of white, wiry hairs above his nice blue eyes.”

After several sketches, Sickels started painting his eyes and eyebrows and worked more abstractly after that. “I came back to this painting a few days later and thought about his Royal typewriter and added some typewriter keys in his eyebrows,” she says.

The result is a whimsical work that is sure to please. “Just having fun,” Sickels says. “That's what watercolor painting is for me, having fun.”

Color and texture are central to the work of Aviraz, whose vibrantly colored mixed-media triptych “Red, Yellow, Green” sold the night of the exhibit's opening reception.

Whether depicting a subject or working on an abstract painting, the Oakland-based artist says she aims for viewers of her work to be able to “enter into the depths of these works with their imaginations.”

“For these pieces, I began by focusing on color first,” Aviraz says. “I let their boldness set the direction for the work, which then took the shape of images. In these paintings, I found my figures to symbolize the cycle of life. I then outlined how each figure depicts a different stage in life.”

A real showstopper is the large oil painting “10th Street Bridge” by Nieland, which is an overwhelmingly realistic view of the South Side painted from the vantage point of Duquesne University.

A resident of Squirrel Hill, Nieland works in oil and watercolor and specializes in portraits and cityscapes like this one. She says she has always been inspired by the diversity of scenery in and around Pittsburgh, including its bridges.

“In this particular painting, I was intrigued by the shadows that were cast by the clouds on the South Side beyond the bridge and by the movement of the barge and tug boat on the Monongahela River,” Nieland says.

She has captured it all perfectly in oil paint on canvas.

Sparks is also a painter, but for the past four years has been working on a series in a mixed medium she calls “ink, tape and magic.” A dozen pieces by her on display in one corner of the gallery are all made with this material.

Though they look to be entirely abstract, Sparks says this current series is all based on “visual representations of patterns and textures of sound.”

“Music has always been a strong influence on my work,” says the artist, who currently lives in Dunlevy, Washington County. “There is always music playing when I am in the studio. ... After listening to (a song) one day in the car, it got me to thinking about pattern, rhythm and texture in sound and how best to represent that visually.”

To create this series of works, Sparks says she spent many hours just listening to different songs and types of music, everything from classical to jazz, to new age, to funk and classic rock, “and anything else that I could get my hands and ears on,” she says. “And, while I listened, I paid close attention to the ‘visual' patterns that the music created. This process has culminated in this, my ‘Art of Noise' series.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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