Returning for our 50th reunion was a real high! All of us have lived parallel—though of course very different—lives. In common, we seem to have a confidence born of long lives with more successes than failures and a philosophical attitude towards the latter. Did Bennington contribute to our self-confidence? I would say probably yes.
My personal life since Bennington has consisted of pretty traditional stuff: friends, marriage, children, a move from city to country, a house, dogs, cats, a vegetable garden, and—sigh!—grandchildren. I’ve pursued my work in pretty UNtraditional ways, though, at least according to the way I thought it would go from my youthful perspective at college.
I was, in my own mind (and probably in the minds of my excellent teachers, Paul Feeley, George Holt and Dan Shapiro) expected to continue painting and making woodcuts. (Well, actually I DID continue with the woodcuts—I carved our holiday cards for many years while the children were young.)
Painting as a “career” I abandoned pretty early. At Bennington during the ’50s, an unspoken, but definite message was communicated that “fine” art was superior to anything that might be considered practical or“commercial.” For example, in Herta Moselsio’s basic ceramic class we were instructed to make a “tile,” but not anything that could be presumed “useful.”After four years as an abstract expressionist painter, I had a strong need to spend hours simply studying and drawing an onion—or the human body. Immediately after graduation and a summer at Yale Norfolk, I enrolled in the Art Students’ League to study anatomy withRobert Beverly Hale. We drew for five hours a day for eight months! I have loved drawing—primarily the human figure or face—to this day. It is, for me, the equivalent of playing scales or exercises for a musician.
Several years ago, I had a show in my home village entitled “Across the Table, selected sketches from eleven years of board & other meetings.” It consisted of more than 60 simple line drawings of mostly recognizable local people done with a fine felt pen on ordinary letter-size paper. I continue drawing every chance I get (and, as I serve on a number of area boards, there’s no lack of opportunity). My other work is still mostly abstract, but my drawing is not.
I have worked as a photographer, graphic designer and textile artist. For ten years I concentrated on dyeing fabrics adapting the traditional Japanese techniques of Shibori. The silk scarves produced by this method ere sold at the Gallery Shop at the Textile Museum in Washington, DC, among other places, but I preferred the works I made from silk pieces patched together and hung from poles.
The most fun I’ve had, though, was curating and designing two Close But Not Art? installations held at Time & Space Limited (TSL) in Hudson NY during October ’98 and ’99 (Close, But Not Art? and Close, But Not Art ll.) The reviewer in the Albany Times Union called the ’98 show “unique and important” and
Metroland, an alternative monthly, named it the third of that year’s ten best. These two shows, consisting of collections of ordinary “junk” presented in a manner more appropriate to “art” objects, were my way of investigating the importance of context and the effects of considerations of intrinsic values versus “marketability.” One critic wrote that the gallery space exuded “the quiet reverence one might expect in a holy place.”
I have trained myself to be, I think, a pretty good graphic designer. For example, as the owner of the Blue Plate, an informal restaurant in my local village, I design the menus, cards and ads. I design posters and fliers for local events and organizations. There is something deeply satisfying about using one’s skills for such humble and practical purposes. I don’t see such a big difference. You just have to make the work fit the purpose and not get carried away because you’re an “artist.”
The “discovery” of the computer, about 15 years ago, was responsible for big changes in the way I work. Unlike some of my contemporaries, including several of my dearest friends, I had no problem embracing the new technology. As far as my design work went, I felt totally liberated: a three-year-old’s first adventure with crayons! I continue to be amazed at the possibilities. (Most of my drawing, however, continues to be with a simple pen.)
One of my current involvements includes a challenging project: to construct a small, environmentally sound performance space for music and dance (PS/21) on 100 acres of preserved orchard-farmland which I own near Chatham Village.
(Dance is still a strong interest—I regret that I didn’t take advantage of my years at Bennington to pursue it.) The architects are my youngest son and his
partner. (The theater designer is the one who worked with Frank Gehry on the Fisher Center at Bard.) The planning and application process (we were required
to do a complete environmental review under NY’s SEQR law) has so far taken six years, but, finally, we have been approved, and will start, next summer, with Phase I, which consists of a large, seasonal tent to be used until funds can be raised for the permanent structure. We have recently opened a resale clothing shop, Rewraps, on Chatham’s Main Street to benefit the project. (This
The real joys of my life, though, have more to do with family and friends. My wonderful husband died in 1997 (after 37 years of being together) but left me with our extraordinary sons and their children. My dearest friend, Toby Carr Rafelson, with whom I lived for three-and-a-half years in an upstairs corner room of Canfield House, has remained in my life for 54 years of infrequent but joyous reunions, letters, postcards and rambling cross-country late-night phone conversations. I cannot imagine life without her, and I thank Bennington for having brought us together.
Other Class of ’55 friends that I have enjoyed a continuing relationship with (although we don’t see each other as often as we’d like) are Sue Humbert Zuch, Grace Bakst Wapner and Jenny Van Horne Greenberg.
Through a totally serendipitous occasion, my “twin,” Barbara “Babs” Henkin Rothenberg (listed with the grads of Bennington class of ’54) and I were invited, along with our architect husbands, to the same dinner party about 20 years ago and, as a consequence, our “re-ignited friendship” (as Barbara wrote in the 1954
50th Reunion booklet) has continued to grow and deepen. We discovered that both our personal and work lives contained numerous fascinating and uncanny parallels. (Barbara’s career as an artist, however, has been much more purposeful and focused than mine.) We have even been invited to combine our work in a dual retrospective to be held at the aforementioned TSL Warehouse in September of next year. We are both Gemini women, so the show will probably have a thematic connection to that fact.
I’m not sure I’ve actually answered all those questions we were given. But I do still, after all these years, very much consider myself, for better or worse, a “Bennington Girl.”
1. Judy Backer (Grunberg) and her roommate and friend for life, Toby Carr (Rafelson) at Bennington, circa 1951-1955
2. Toby and Judy at Bennington
3. Judy’s Bennington yearbook picture, Class of 1955
4. Judy’s Bennington graduation picture. Toby and Judy in the front row, 2nd and 3rd from the left
5. Bennington Class of ’55 40th Reunion: Judy and Toby kneeling in front
6. Bennington Class of ’55 50th Reunion: Toby and Judy