In ‘painting and potting’ artist aims to uplift
By KATHRYN FLAGG
CORNWALL — Klara Calitri is exactly the sort of woman you will, upon meeting, immediately wish were your own grandmother, or your own standing date for Sunday coffee and cake.
The 86-year-old Cornwall artist is compact and ebullient — and as full of stories as her house, which is packed to the gills with the results of her “painting and potting.” In places, the paintings are stacked three or four deep, leaning precariously against tables piled high with half-finished pots and brightly decorated fountains.
It’s something of a rotating collection — pieces of art are forever jumping in and out of the house for display. Calitri’s work is on display at the Brandon Artists’ Gallery, the Southern Vermont Arts Center and as far a field as California — and most recently, several of her paintings went up in the gallery space at the Bristol Dental Group on Exchange Street in Middlebury.
“I like to have people enjoy my pictures. I am not of the Ashcan School,” Calitri said, referring to artists creating work in the early 20th century that was serious and often dark in tone. “That’s not me. I want people to feel uplifted by what I’ve done.”
Remarkably enough, she’s produced the majority of this art in the 30 years since her retirement. She’s always been interested in art, Calitri said — but she certainly hasn’t always been an artist.
She emigrated from Austria in 1939 — “Hitler time,” Calitri notes. Her father was Jewish, her mother Catholic, and by 1939 she said it was “high time” for her family to leave. The affidavit — the $3,000 document required for emigration — came by way of a distant cousin the family had never known, who Calitri’s grandfather had helped during the First World War.
“So if you do a good thing to someone, your children or your grandchildren may get the benefit,” Calitri said. “Isn’t that some story?”
Her family landed in New York. Calitri was 17 at the time, and struggling with English, but she earned a scholarship first to a Catholic school in Connecticut, then to Trinity College of Vermont, a Catholic women’s college that has since closed.
While attending Trinity, Calitri met her future husband, Junius, in New York. (“He was a champion swimmer at the time, and I was trying to get a life-saving certificate,” she laughed, “so that’s one way to do it!”) After she and “Junie” married, Calitri transferred to the University of Vermont, where she finished her studies. She later earned her master’s degree in languages at Cornell University, and worked toward her doctorate in comparative literature at Columbia University.
“I had always wanted to study art, but my parents — they were kind of ahead of time, and they felt that I should be able to support myself,” Calitri said. She wanted to teach social studies originally, but given her fluency in French and German, she was almost immediately hired as a language teacher.
During her many years as a teacher, Calitri worked on her art occasionally — primarily in her spare time on weekends and vacations, she said.
“That’s why I’m multimedia,” Calitri said, gesturing to the riot of genres competing for space in her home — a bit of porcelain here, an oil painting there. “I had a chance to do a little bit of everything.”
She always said that when she retired she would “paint and pot” — and she has. She works in ceramics — primarily porcelain, which is tricky, she said, but “takes color so beautifully” — and paints in oil, pastel, and aquarelle. Lately she’s taken a few courses in monotype.
“You have to work quickly,” Calitri said, gesturing to a few framed monotypes hanging in her dining room that she’s modified with oil paint. “That is in my case an advantage because it is always hard to leave a painting. You always want to do something else with it. You have to work quickly, and it makes you work much freer and looser.”
Calitri said that, like all artists, she’s been influenced by her childhood — she mentions Impressionism, of course, and the Wiener Werkstätte, or Viennese Workshops. Here and there, international influences crop up — Calitri pointed out a set of Asian-inspired wall panels, and a ceramic mosaic inspired by vacations in Mexico.
Even her simplest bowls have a touch of international flair; she dislikes working on the wheel — “I get sea sick,” she laughed — and instead hand shapes her bowls around smooth, curved stones, a technique used by Peruvian Indians.
But just as visible in her work is her own garden, hemmed in by a sloping yard, vast views of the Adirondacks and a gaggle of fruit trees.
“Vermont is such a beautiful state,” she said, “and I love the garden and the outdoors. It’s been really a good life here, I must say.”
It shows — Calitri’s work is defined primarily by its celebration of color. And in her oil paintings and ceramics alike, the viewer finds signs of the Calitri home in Cornwall: vegetables fresh off the vine, flowers from the gardens, and frogs and chickadees.
“I’m always doing birds,” she said. “They really make the winter pass much faster.”
Her fountains are especially charming — small frogs or birds huddle around the ceramic bases among a riot of colors and flowers. When asked why she enjoys making fountains, Calitri confessed that she loves the sound of running water.
“I think in my former life I may have been a fish,” she said.
Calitri and her husband returned to Vermont frequently during their adulthood, often to ski, and they settled in Cornwall permanently in 1980. She said she loves living in Vermont — particularly near a college town that offers so many cultural benefits. And though Calitri said that selling art in Vermont can be difficult, she’s enjoyed building a circle of friends who are also working artists.
She missed teaching at first, after retirement, but is glad her art has had time to “take over.”
“I’m lucky,” she said, “I’ve had a long life so far, and a productive one, which to me is the most important thing.”
And her art is a cheerful as her demeanor.
“I want to pass on my joy to other people, and they may not feel exactly the same way — but I think they feel a little uplifted anyway,” she said.