'Mixed Messages' is appropriately titled

July 31, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

The Washington County Arts Council Gallery nailed the title of its latest exhibit, "Mixed Messages."

The messages and the artwork are indeed mixed. Two artists whose artistic paths have crossed before diverge, one skirting the edges of realism, the other painting fantastic images.

The show by Washington County artists Tom Renner and Todd Yeager opens Saturday, Aug. 2, with a reception and a chance to meet them at the gallery. The exhibit will be on display through Saturday, Aug. 30.

Renner, 55, says his work is hard to categorize. People might call it "neo-expressionism" or postmodern, he says.

He doesn't label it, though.

"I just create images," Renner says.

Those images are realistically painted and fantastic at the same time.

"I'm really into symbolism," he says.

Renner usually works in acrylic, but the biggest work in the exhibit is a 4-by-6-foot oil painting, "Vision at Patmos." Like many of Renner's paintings, the work has biblical references.


"Search for Truth," with its woman and snake, refers to Eve. Renner likes taking things out of their original context. He adapted the image of the plane in the painting from a National Geographic photograph. He learned after he completed it that a hummingbird in "Search for Truth" is a "Lucifer" hummingbird.

Although elements of his work may have particular meaning for him, Renner says he likes people to draw their own conclusions.

Renner has one sculpture in the exhibit: a terra cotta image of Jonah and the whale. There also is a mixed-media piece - a shadow box with a poem; the idea came to Renner while he was taking a bath.

"I get my best inspiration sitting in a tub of water," he says.

Another atypical work in the exhibit is "Peace Offering," a painting of two sheep in a field. He painted it for his wife, Patty.

"She doesn't like my weird stuff," he laughs.

Other inspiration comes from almost anywhere. He's interested in the mysteries of science and archaeology. Petroglyphs - ancient images on stone - are the same in Australia as in the United States, he says. A South American coca leaf has been found with an Egyptian mummy, he says.

"That stuff fascinates me, regardless of what the answers are. It's the real fun stuff."

Although he would love to paint full time and eventually will retire from a teaching career that now spans 28 years, Renner says he loves teaching - "especially the little ones." He's an art teacher at Greenbrier and Fountain Rock elementary schools.

Children's images are so fresh and free, he says. "They don't have any idea of what art should look like."

One of Renner's former middle school art students, Todd Yeager, knows what his art should look like.

Ninety percent of his subjects are people - some portraits, some figurative, he says.

His work leans toward realism, he says. It's been described as magic realism. "It's kind of idealized," he adds.

But by that, he doesn't mean that he would change people's features to make them more attractive.

Yeager always liked to draw as a child. He sold his first portraits - $2 each - in middle school. Students needed to include a picture of themselves with autobiographies they were assigned in an English class. After selling five, Yeager turned down other students.

Other than public school art classes and a single sculpture class at Hagerstown Community College, Yeager hasn't had formal art training. He worked as a graphic artist for a while at an advertising agency in Hagerstown.

In 1985, a Bethesda, Md., gallery owner spotted Yeager's work in a Winchester, Va., show, and encouraged the artist's work in pencil.

His former teacher Renner recalls a charcoal pencil nude by Yeager as one of the "most exquisite" things he's ever seen.

Chosen for the 1992 Cumberland Valley Artists Exhibition at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, that work, "Gracefully Resting," won the popular vote of people viewing the exhibit. Two of his paintings were selected for this year's Cumberland Valley Artists Exhibition.

Yeager has had commissions, including the portrait of Dr. John R. Marsh, for whom the cancer center at Robinwood Medical Center is named.

Many of the works in the show were painted in a house on The Terrace in Hagerstown awaiting renovation. Some of the house's architecture influenced Yeager's paintings, including "Mandy and Fallon, Summer Portrait."

The 38-year-old artist is back in his Hagerstown home studio, which he describes as cluttered and small. But its high ceilings allow him to extend his easels and paint comfortably. He's a night owl. "I love the solitude of the nighttime," he says.

The exhibit includes a rare still life as well as a portrait of his sister. Painting family members is unusual for Yeager.

He says painting people is a challenge. If something is off by a quarter of an inch in a painting of a tree, it doesn't matter.

"But with a face," Yeager says, "you can't make any mistakes at all."

If you go...

"Mixed Messages," new paintings by Tom Renner and Todd Yeager

Saturday, Aug. 2, through Saturday, Aug. 30

Washington County Arts Council Gallery

41 S. Potomac St.


Opening reception 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2

Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays

For information, call 301-791-3132.

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