By Melissa Arnold
For decades, Carmela Kolman labored over canvas and paper to capture the world through her eyes. Painting was her greatest passion, and coupled with great talent, it carried her work to galleries across the United States.
But it wasn’t always easy. Kolman also had Marfan syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder that can affect the entire body. In daily life, she struggled with her eyesight, and ultimately died from complications of the condition in 2018. She was 57.
In recognition of Kolman’s extensive career and her contributions to the local art community on Long Island, Gallery North in Setauket is hosting a retrospective exhibition titled Visions. The solo exhibit features 17 pieces that reflect much of Kolman’s career, from her early days as a student to the final years of her life.
Painting was Kolman’s first love from an early age, even though she was blind in one eye and her vision was severely impaired in the other. In an artist statement from Aug. 2016, she wrote: “I painted constantly, with my face pressed close to the canvas. I would have to really look and study things to make them out … I could not recognize something more than three feet from me — Blue eyes? I didn’t even know what blue eyes were … My vision was blurry, and I painted what I saw.”
Despite her difficulties, Kolman pressed on. She received a bachelor’s degree in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), then attended Yale for a master’s degree in painting. Her cloudy painting style earned her high praise, even as she dealt with constant self-criticism and frustration.
It was during her time at RISD that Kolman met John Rizzo, who attended nearby Brown University. The pair wouldn’t get acquainted until much later at a party hosted by a mutual friend in Chicago, but Rizzo called the experience a work of fate. They married in 1989.
“I’m a professor and economist with zero artistic talent,” joked Rizzo, who shared 28 years of marriage with Kolman. “We were an unlikely couple, for sure. I think our friends were surprised at how we took an interest in one another. But she was an incredibly tender-hearted person, very open and empathetic.”
At 22, Kolman had cataract surgery, catapulting her vision from a cloudy haze to an overwhelming perfection she didn’t know how to process. She stopped painting for several years, only starting again while recovering from a cardiac incident. From then on, she sought to integrate the impressionistic blur of her early work with the realism that came along after her eye surgery.
Gallery North’s Executive Director Ned Puchner didn’t have the chance to meet Kolman, but worked closely with Rizzo to choose work that reflected every season of her life and artistic style.
“These paintings capture something about reality that goes deeper than what we see,” Puchner said. “[Carmela] was influenced by the impressionists and the Fauvists, and would focus on singular objects over and over again in an almost meditative way. I’m really impressed by the attention to detail. Her work is breathtaking.”
Rizzo noted that Kolman preferred still life portraits, especially of fruit and flowers. Today, one of the rooms in his Port Jefferson home has rose-themed decor, with her rose paintings hung all around.
“She liked to play with different kinds of light, shading and shadow, and still life allowed her to control those elements carefully,” he explained. “It’s hard to choose a favorite painting, but I love all of the rose portraits. How many people can say their wife left beautiful oil paintings to remember her by? They help me to feel close to her.”
After her death, Gallery North approached Rizzo with an idea: Why not establish a fellowship in Carmela’s name, allowing other artists the time to create while sharing their expertise with others?
The Carmela Kolman Fellowship in Fine Art program will award one artist per year 10 weeks of studio time at the gallery. In addition to pursuing their artistic practice, the fellows will also teach workshops, help to organize community programming, or assist with classes as needed. The first fellow, Meagan Flaherty, will exhibit her work in 2021.
Carmela Kolman: Visions will be on view at Gallery North, 90 North Country Road, Setauket from Oct. 8 to Nov. 8. Admission is free. The gallery is currently open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. A virtual reception will be held via Zoom on Oct. 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call 631-751-2676 or visit www.gallerynorth.org.
Images courtesy of Gallery North