To the passing motorists humming along Deer Park Road in Dix Hills, the Art League of Long Island’s arching white edifice and paned glass exterior resembles a church.
It could indeed double as a cathedral because to the nearly 100 art instructors, students and artists-in-residence who call the spacious gallery home, it’s almost just as holy—a creative sanctum where art in its purest form transcends imaginative divinity and takes shape, becomes tangible to the senses, real.
As its two front glass doors swing open and the sun bounces bright slivers of light off the canvas-soaked walls of a vestibule, creating a tidal wave of immaculate hues dancing through the echoing notes of a woman in a shiny blue dress singing Adele, visitors surely know they’ve stumbled onto something magical, unexpected, though not a typical house of worship.
“I knew this was a very special place to learn and develop my skills,” says Charlee Miller, the group’s executive director. “I could see from the instructors and the students that it was a place where you just felt very nurtured.”
Miller was but one of dozens of artists, art aficionados and fans meandering about Art League’s vast museum and Jeanie Tengelsen Gallery during the group’s recent annual open house and Instructors’ Exhibition—a scene characterized by what appeared to be a haphazard sea of hundreds of artistic creations, yet was in actuality a meticulously choreographed painting in itself. She’s been at the Art League’s helm since January and speaks passionately of its stated mission of “enhancing Long Island’s cultural life by promoting the appreciation, practice and enjoyment of the visual arts,” a commitment the nonprofit’s been fulfilling since its inception in 1954. A banking industry executive for nearly 40 years, Miller has been an active artist since 2004 and took ceramics classes at the Art League for two years prior to her appointment to its top.
Instructors stand proudly alongside their work—paintings and sculptures too numerous to count adorning the walls and halls of the Art League’s spacious two-story gallery—while answering questions and trading tips with curious visitors. The annual open house and exhibition offers each teacher the chance to showcases their work and styles, demonstrating in the process that they are all still student-lovers of the art they dedicate their lives to. Each has his or her own unique story to tell about how art came to command their lives.
“There’s a real gutsy quality to it,” says Irene Vitale, one of the Art League’s more than 70 fine art instructors, of why she loves oil painting. “The different layers, thick paint, thin paint, and the range, I think, and the luminosity with oil—it’s just a different sensibility.”
Vitale, wearing a sleek red dress, says she began her career at the League in the ‘80s as a student. She gazes at one of her creations, “Rende Family Seascape”—a framed, oil-on-canvas of four young children, two girls and two boys, lazily playing among the waves of a vast blue-green ocean. The painting is for a client who “didn’t want a traditional suit-and-tie family portrait.”
Patrons gather around the piece, reflecting on Vitale’s attention to detail—her use of light and shadows transforming the wall of the gallery into a portal into that light-hearted summer day she dreamed up for the family.
“We collaborated together, and I said, ‘I want to do something different,’ so she was all in agreement, and she gave me several photographs of all different positions,” she says, explaining that the childrens’ positioning was entirely her decision.
That’s something about art Vitale says she truly identifies with: freedom.
“One of the things I love about art is you edit it. It’s knowing what to leave out, what to put in, how to manage the colors, how to have it be blue, yet cut it with pinks and greens,” she beams. “If you can have someone respond emotionally to your art,” Vitale muses, “there’s no money number to that; it’s a response.”
Tiny sparkling gems project miniature glimmering rainbows from a small cabinet nearby, housing local jeweler Peter Messina’s unique piece, “Unchain My Heart”—a sterling silver, 14k- and 18k-gold diamond ring—along with the works of two other jewelers. Messina has been honing his craft—fashioning perfection from precious metals and gemstones, ranging from gem-studded earrings, bracelets, pendants and engagement rings, among other creations—since 1974.
Though Messina sells his creations, he confesses a strong attachment to the pieces, which over time, he explains, has evolved into a genuine fondness for both the artwork and their new owners.
“In the beginning, when you make a piece that you fall in love with, it’s hard to part with,” he explains while scratching his salt-and-pepper beard. “But as you get into it, the more you start to enjoy presenting and handing it over to the new owner and see how much they enjoy and how much they react to it, it’s a good feeling.”
One of these new owners includes Tim Allen, star of the hit ’90s television sitcom Home Improvement. Messina’s brother is Allen’s manager.
“I had an ‘in’ there,” he jokes.
It takes dedication to one’s vision and commitment to one’s craft to establish oneself as an artist and since that path also means constant evolution and growth, that journey can last a lifetime. And exactly what art means to the individual artists who work toward those visions can be as varying as the limitless colors a painter can conjure from his or her palette.
“It means poor,” laughs Carol Jay, the former curator of the gallery, standing beside her work, “Seed XXX”—a transfer oil pastel with pencil on handmade paper. “You wake up in the morning thinking about art. You see things every day that could potentially be art. Art is your life.”
And it is art that awakens something inside the human soul, that moves a person to tears at its very sight, that flips a switch in the recesses of their mind whereby, in a split instant, the viewer immediately forms a relationship with what is being conveyed and sometimes also knows just as quickly that they must have that piece, no matter what. As Jay explains, it’s that reaction—positive or negative—that makes it all worthwhile.
“It gives me pleasure,” she says. ”It’s more about: if they enjoy, that’s good. If they don’t enjoy, that’s good too, because you’re getting a reaction. A reactionary interaction to me is more important than just looking at it.
“I don’t think you can ever be satisfied,” Jay adds. “Few artists ever are. You’re never satisfied with your work but you send it to bed, and you can revisit it if you want or not, and you go on to the next piece. I don’t think anyone is totally satisfied. There’s always room for change.”
And Long Island is home to so many talented and successful artists, says Miller. Many of whom, she explains, began their fantastical journey into the arts right here, within the Art League’s painting-laden walls and halls. The League’s more than 70 fine art instructors host workshops for aspiring artists of all ages—boasting students ranging in age from 5 to 95, she adds.
“They grow and develop their skills under the supervision of some great teachers,” says Miller. “We have students here who have been coming here for over 40 years.
“It’s a very special place.”
Art League of Long Island’s Instructors’ Exhibition runs through Sept. 22. For more information about the League, including future exhibits, visit artleagueli.org