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Ned Puchner

Above, a painting of Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket by artist John Koch at a previous Wet Paint Festival. Photo courtesy of Gallery North

By Melissa Arnold

It’s been a tough season for the plethora of local events that have either been canceled, postponed or restructured. Thankfully, technology like livestreaming and video chat have made it possible for some events to go on as scheduled, albeit a bit differently.

For the past 16 years, the Wet Paint Festival has given Three Village residents and visitors an up close look at the creative process of local artists as they work. The event was founded to honor the memory of beloved Long Island painter Joe Reboli, who died in 2004.

But inviting artists and community members to gather for creative fun and conversation doesn’t exactly fit in this quarantined, socially distant time. So what to do?

It’s been a baptism by fire of sorts for Ned Puchner of Gallery North in Setauket, which has sponsored the event from its beginnings. Puchner, who became the gallery’s executive director in December, was looking forward to his first Wet Paint Festival. Now, he’s been called upon to dream up an alternative.

“It’s been one of those unique experiences where you get to know people really fast,” Puchner joked. “But I’ve also learned very quickly how much support there is here for the arts and the art community, even despite the pandemic and its challenges. It’s been very encouraging for me to see that outpouring.”

Originally founded by former Gallery North director Colleen Hanson and the Reboli family, the Wet Paint Festival invites artists from Long Island and beyond for a relaxed weekend of plein air (outdoor) painting. The artists paint at the same location from vantage points of their choosing, allowing each put their own spin on well-known scenes and landmarks.

In the past, the festival has been held at West Meadow Beach and the adjoining Old Field Farm, Frank Melville Memorial Park, the Stony Brook railroad, the Thompson House, and Avalon Park & Preserve, among other places.

This year’s event will celebrate each artist’s originality as Wet Paint goes virtual. Painting sessions will be either livestreamed online or pre-recorded from a location the artist selects, whether it’s their own backyard or a public spot. During each session, the artist will talk about their creative process and take questions from viewers, just as they would in person.

To accommodate for the new format, the artists will paint for an entire week, from July 18 through July 25. The completed artwork will then be on display on the Gallery North website throughout the month of August.

The virtual festival is the latest in Gallery North’s ongoing effort to provide engaging online experiences during the pandemic.

“We had the Wet Paint Festival completely planned and were starting to gather sponsors and registrants when we had to close the gallery on March 14. When we closed, we decided to postpone the event, not realizing how long we would be unable to function and be outside,” Puchner explained.

“As time went on, we took it as an opportunity to get creative not only with Wet Paint, but with everything we do,” he said. The gallery began to share daily art activities, host “virtual open studio” events, film screenings, lectures, and opportunities to give and receive feedback on work in progress. As the staff grew more comfortable with video chat platforms such as Zoom, they knew they had to find a way to present the Wet Paint Festival, too.

Angela Stratton of Selden has enjoyed painting at the festival for the past 15 years, and while she’ll miss the connection and camaraderie of the typical event, she’s excited to see what comes of the online version.

“I’m the kind of person that likes to be outside anyway, so getting to paint at the same time is really a double treasure,” said Stratton, an oil painter. “Of course, there can be issues with painting outdoors ­— the sun goes in and out, it can be windy, it can rain — but it gives you the real depth of color you just can’t get from a photo.”

Stratton is still up in the air about where she’ll be painting, but she enjoys the challenge provided by the Old Field lighthouse.

Annette Napolitano, a realist painter who works in both watercolor and oil, would normally go out once a week to paint with a group of friends. She’s participated in Wet Paint for several years now.

“The first time I did the festival, I was so excited to be with the other artists, all of us working in the same place. The world is so big, and it can be a challenge to grab just a piece of it,” said Napolitano, of Rocky Point.

“I think bringing the festival online is a good solution because it’s like a pop-up event — people can come and go as they please. It’s also nice that we have a whole week to work, and it’s going to be fun to see people share their work from different parts of Long Island,” she said.

Puchner hopes that the event will inspire creativity not only in the participating artists, but people at home as well.

“At the center of the arts is expression. Everyone has had different experiences during the pandemic, but it has been significant for all of us,” he said. “There’s a fundamental need to discuss how we’re feeling, and the arts are a safe space for expression of all kinds.”

Livestreamed and recorded artist visits will be available for public viewing the week of July 27 at www.gallerynorth.org. Then, all completed works will be on the site for viewing and purchase throughout the month of August, with commissions split equally between the artist and the gallery. A virtual reception will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 8 via Zoom; registration is free but required.

For further information, visit www.gallerynorth.org or call 631-751-2676.

*Article from TBR News Media’s Summer Times 2020, free on newstands today.

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Ned Puchner stands in Gallery North’s gift shop. Photo by Rita J. Egan

For 2020, Setauket’s Gallery North trustees have set their sights on featuring more Long Island artists and making art appreciation even more accessible to the community. They plan to forge ahead with these resolutions with a new executive director.

With more than 20 years of experience in the arts as curator, manager and administrator for galleries, nonprofits and museums, Ned Puchner took over the role of executive director of Gallery North Dec. 1. The position was previously held by Judith Levy, who recently retired.

“He’s got the whole package, and we’re really excited to have him on board.”

— Nancy Goroff

Nancy Goroff, president of Gallery North’s board of trustees, said a search committee was formed to find a new executive director and dozens of applicants were narrowed down to three for the board to choose from.

She said Puchner had what the board was looking for, with experience producing high-quality art exhibitions and an understanding of running the business of a nonprofit. She described him as personable and community minded, which she believes will help to strengthen connections in the area.

“He’s got the whole package, and we’re really excited to have him on board,” she said.

Puchner said he discovered the nonprofit while job searching online and saw Gallery North possesses some of the same elements as his last place of employment, the Greenville Museum of Art in North Carolina. He said while the staff there was smaller, like the Setauket gallery they would organize various fundraisers throughout the year and worked with the local art community. The North Carolina museum also has other similarities to Gallery North as it has been around since the 1960s and has a university in town.

“It’s really uncanny how I came across Gallery North,” he said. “There were so many various similarities between what I saw in Greenville and what I see in Setauket and the Three Village area.”

Once he visited Gallery North, the new executive director said he was impressed with how casual it was inside with a community feel among the staff and people who visit, where everyone seems to know each other. He added it’s an ideal place to present art in a nonintimidating way as an educational and fun-based gallery.

“I don’t want people to be scared away from the notion of being in an art gallery,” he said.

Puchner said a bonus was that he heard how wonderful the Three Village community was and his research confirmed that. A few weeks after his arrival, his wife, Nancy, and two children, aged 4 and 6, joined him in their new home in Stony Brook. Another plus with moving to New York, he said, is being closer to his family that lives in Piermont, Rockland County. He said his children were excited to hear they would live closer to their cousins and grandparents. His wife, who teaches art history at UNC Pembroke, has been able to continue working for the school by transitioning to online teaching until the end of this year.

As for his first few weeks in the Three Village area, Puchner said he’s been busy helping with Gallery North’s holiday pop-up store and lining up exhibits for the new year. The first exhibit he has helped with is for Paton Miller, an artist from Southampton, which will run from Jan. 17 to Feb. 23. The gallery will host an opening reception for Miller’s exhibit Jan. 16 at 6-8 p.m.

“I don’t want people to be scared away from the notion of being in an art gallery.”

— Ned Puchner

In the future, he hopes to organize a committee to help review work that is submitted to Gallery North. He has been putting together the suggestions of board members and others about artists so that he can review the list and see if the gallery can present the work and if the exhibits will be equitable.

He respects the gallery’s reputation for featuring local artists, and Puchner said he hopes to broaden its vision to also show artists from the East End, Brooklyn and Long Island at large.

“One of the great things about Gallery North is that it’s so rooted in the local area, it’s so community based, it has a very strong history with that and with the artists that it has shown and promoted over the years, and I certainly want to continue that dynamic to something to be really nourished, because there’s a lot of great talent in this region,” the director said.

In addition to his work in Greenville, Puchner earlier in his career worked at the former Luise Ross Gallery in SoHo, where they also trained artists. His interests include folk/self-taught/outsider art, and he said his experience at Luise Ross was one of the things that inspired him to focus on the community-oriented aspect of folk art and self-taught artists.

Goroff said after talking to the president of the board of the Greenville museum, she was impressed to hear about different ways Puchner got the community more involved by reaching out to artists in the area. To complement the museum’s permanent collection, he brought in the work of local artists who produced work that was related to the permanent collection.

“It was something he chose to do when there were other ways that he could have enlivened his exhibitions down there, but he chose to do it by reaching out to the members of the art community so that really spoke to how committed he is to that and how much he values it,” she said. 

Puchner has spent much of his first weeks here by visiting local art centers such as the Wang and Staller centers at Stony Brook University as well as the Reboli Center and Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. He is looking forward to visiting The Brick Clay Studio & Gallery and The Atelier at Flowerfield, both in St. James, in the near future and working with all of them “to try to build on some of the work that all these organizations are doing to create a really vital
and important art community here.”

“I think that’s something that is really vital to helping to create a very family oriented community,” he said. “I want to play a role because I have a family of my own so I want to do what I can to nourish that art community here in the Three Village area.”