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Karene Infranco

By Melissa Arnold

Over the past few generations, hardworking and determined women from all walks of life have fought to be heard and seen. Their efforts laid the groundwork for today’s women to break all sorts of glass ceilings.

In the late 19th century, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe was the richest woman around thanks to her family’s inheritance of the famed Lorillard Tobacco Company. Wolfe was generous with her fortune, doing whatever she could to support education, the arts and museums.

Portrait of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1876,
by Alexandre Cabanel

One major recipient of that generosity was Grace Church on Broadway in New York, where Wolfe was a parishioner. Among her final wishes was a request that the church use her financial gift for some sort of “women’s work.”

In response, the church founded the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club (CLWAC) in 1896 to provide counsel and support for female art students in the city. This year, the club is marking its 125th anniversary with a series of special exhibits around the tri-state area, including a juried satellite exhibit at Deepwells Mansion in Saint James. from April 10 to 30, and will culminate with a national juried exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in Manhattan from June 20 to July 1.

“The goal was always to support women artists in particular. Cooper Union [a college focused on arts, architecture and engineering] was in the area, so there were plenty of women who needed a place to go to relax, have lunch, and exhibit their work,” said Karene Infranco, president of the CLWAC. 

The club has boasted a number of famous artists in its lifetime, including sculptors Anna Hyatt Huntington and Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, to name a few. By paying modest dues, any woman can become an Associate Member and participate in select shows and events, but the requirements for full membership are rigorous.

“In order to become a Juried Member, you have to be selected to exhibit your work in at least two of our open shows within a five-year period — shows that are just for Associates don’t count, as the competition for the open shows is on a much higher level, with many more people entering,” Infranco explained. 

Entrants can exhibit in five categories: pastel, oil and acrylic, watercolor, graphics (pencil and printmaking), and sculpture. Selections are made by a committee of five artists, and then each competition is judged for prizes by a three-person jury of curators, critics and fellow artists that are well-known in their field. A computerized system allows jurors to score each piece by objective criteria. Those who make the cut twice are then invited to join the club as a full, lifetime member.

Member artists range in age from their 20s to their 80s, with wide-ranging careers and art interests. Infranco owned a healthcare advertising agency and, in 2013, decided to sharpen her skills in drawing and painting by taking classes at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. She eventually began exhibiting her work at the national level with numerous groups, including CLWAC, and currently serves as a docent for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

“When the Met was incorporated in 1870, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe contributed $2500 of her funds and became the only woman founder,” Infranco said. “The club stands out to me because of its long history, that unique relationship with the museum, and the fact that it caters specifically to women. While there are other women-focused organizations out there, Catharine was such a savvy, interesting and influential person with spot-on taste for art and the ability to carve her own path in life. That’s a big attraction for all of us.”

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe ultimately bequeathed her personal collection of 140 paintings, along with an endowment for its maintenance, to the Met. Her endowment was the Museum’s first, and her donated paintings formed the beginning of the museum’s European painting collection.

Today, the club still meets in person at Grace Church, and its ranks are growing with 410 club members located throughout the country. There is a sizable Long Island contingent in the group, and many of the local women have known each other for years.

Flo Kemp of Setauket and Eleanor Meier of Centerport became friends after spending time together at many of the area’s drawing clubs and classes. Kemp has devoted herself to marketing her oil paintings and etchings for years, and Meier pursued her own art style after a long career as a high school art teacher.

“I entered shows with CLWAC intermittently over the years until I was eventually invited to become a member,” Kemp said. “It’s a great encouragement and inspiration to be around so many excellent artists through the club. It has deep roots, and it’s an honor to be a part of that history.”

While she works with oils, Kemp specializes in soft ground etchings that have a “painterly” effect. Her inspirations are land and sea scapes which she enjoys for the calming, serene way they draw the viewer in, she said. Her submissions for the exhibit are two etchings: one of Flax Pond, and another of West Meadow Beach.

Meier first heard about the club at a luncheon for the National League of American Pen Women, a professional organization for female writers, artists and composers. She was intrigued by the club’s mission as well as the opportunity to learn from others, and was invited to join them around 1990.

“Being a member of the club has given me an opportunity to meet artists from all over, people I never would have met otherwise, which is always exciting,” she said.

Meier prefers to focus on detailed still life drawings of simple items she finds around the house, saying that they’re easy to set up and fun to create. Her two submissions to the exhibit are watercolor paintings: one of stacked cups, and the other of a Mason jar filled with hydrangeas. 

“For all the years I was teaching, the art projects that I did were for the classroom. It wasn’t until after retirement that I had the chance to work on and develop my own personal style,” Meier said. “I’ve been showing at Deepwells with [a local group] for several years now … it’s a classic building and Suffolk County has put a lot of work into it. There’s so much history and gravitas there.”

Indeed, Deepwells Mansion, located at 2 Taylor Lane in St. James, is the perfect venue for such a prestigious show. Dating back to 1845, it is in the Greek revival style built for Joel L.G. Smith — one of the family for whom the Smithtown Township is named. Its most famous owner was W.J. Gaynor, mayor of New York City from 1910 to 1913. In 1989 the house became the property of the Town of Smithtown and is now managed by the Deepwells Farm Historical Society.

The Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club exhibit will be on display at Deepwells from April 10 to 30. Gallery hours are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (closed April 17).

The exhibit will feature 45 works of art from 41 artists, including a small collection of oil and pastel pieces by the late Jeanette Dick of Belle Terre, a past president of the CLWAC who passed away in January of this year. Many of the included artists will act as docents for the exhibit, guiding guests through the gallery and sharing their personal insights.  All artwork on display is available for sale. An awards ceremony will be held on April 30 at 2 p.m. For more information about the CLWAC, visit www.clwac.org.