WESTFIELD - As long as there have been human beings, they have been fascinated by rivers.
The movement of the water, the ability of the stream to quickly grow into a raging torrent or to shrink and leave people without a drop to drink - these things have inspired a long list of river gods, Rhine maidens, nymphs, Norns and other attempts by the human mind to understand and to learn to live with streams.
The Octagon Gallery of Patterson Library is showing an exhibit of paintings of small streams in our own area. They are the work of artist Alberto Rey, a member of the faculty at the State University of New York at Fredonia. There are six large paintings, each 33 inches high by 48 inches wide, and each shows a different waterfall in northern Chautauqua County.
Artist Alberto Rey of Fredonia is offering an exhibit of his paintings in the Octogon Gallery of Patterson Library, on Portage St., in Westfield.
In this week's column, I'd like to give you the specifics of the Westfield exhibit, then share with you what I learned in an interview with the artist. Finally, I'll do a brief review of the Westfield show.
JUST THE FACTS
The Octagon Gallery shares the basement floor of the Patterson Library with the library's room dedicated to children's materials.
They are located at 40 S. Portage St., not far from the intersection with Main Street, which is also Route 20. Portage Street is the same road which passes directly in front of the Chautauqua County Court House, and also past the front doors of Chautauqua Lake Central School.
Admission to the gallery is free of charge, although there is a discreet opportunity to make a freewill offering, if you're willing to do so.
The library and the gallery are open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, you can visit from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They are not open on Sundays.
All six of the paintings are done in oils. Five are painted on plaster, and the sixth is painted on paper.
The exhibit opened March 2, and Rey gave a lecture about his work last Thursday. The exhibit is available to be viewed through March 30.
Artist Alberto Rey lives in what has to be one of the most beautiful homes in Chautauqua County. Located in the village of Fredonia, his home perches high on a steep bank of Canadaway Creek. Every window on that side of the house, and every window in the former barn behind the house, which now houses his studios, has a dramatic view of rushing white waters, crashing around and over massive boulders.
Rey was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1960. The revolution which brought Communist leader Fidel Castro to power had taken place only one year before his birth and was still struggling to achieve the total control of the country which they later achieved. In 1963, Rey's parents were able to obtain political sanctuary in Mexico. From there, they were able to move to the United States.
''I arrived in Western New York about 20 years ago, and by that time, I had moved more than 20 times,'' he told me. ''Coming in from the outside, and having lived in so many, very different places, it made it possible for me to notice things about this area that people who have lived here all their lives may not notice, or may take for granted. These are the kinds of things I try to demonstrate with my most recent paintings. Until 2000, much of my artwork was made up of nostalgic ideas about Cuba and was an attempt to relate myself both to this area, and to my native country.''
In 2000, Rey was able to return to Cuba for a visit, and to replace his earliest memories and the impressions and understandings gained from tales told him by his parents and by others, with adult impressions of realities in the island nation.
''Once I accomplished that,'' he said, ''I no longer felt the need to explore the subject in my paintings. In that year, I began my 'Biological Regionalism' series, which has been the focus of most of my artwork, since. The full name of the Westfield exhibit is ''Biological Regionalism: Selected Streams of Northern Chautauqua County, New York, U.S.A.''
Rey is a member of the faculty of the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he is a full professor. In 1996, he was named a Distinguished Professor for Research and Creative Activity, which is the highest honor given by New York state to university faculty members.
''I've been very lucky, because I can earn my living through my teaching,'' he said recently. ''Artists who need to sell their paintings in order to live and support their families, often feel pressure to shape their artworks toward what the public likes, or is willing to purchase. I can paint what I think is useful and important, and if other people don't like it, it isn't a crisis.''
Rey told me that he has been focused upon art since high school, but he also has done extensive study in biology and ecology. In addition to landscape paintings such as the ones on display in Westfield, he has made a number of intricate portraits of various species of fish.
In 2010, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute featured an exhibit of his paintings of fish.
Indeed, fish have played an important role in Rey's life, as well as his art. He has become a licensed fishing guide, and his fascination with the migration of trout from Lake Erie, up the small streams along the lake's southern shore, was one of the principal inspirations for the paintings of those streams.
Rey has started a fly fishing organization for young fishermen, called S.A.R.E.P., and often leads groups to good fishing spots and teaches about making successful lures, and other such lore.
Indeed, he admits that he enjoys waking very early and dashing to the stream behind his house, to get in some fishing, before he heads off to work in the mornings.
He says that in addition to having fulfilled his curiosity and interest in Cuba, his change to nature art was inspired by reading about and examining the paintings of the Hudson River School of Artists, which thrived in our country in the middle of the 1800s.
Inspired by the nature paintings of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, and encouraged by the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church created paintings which existed in opposition to the majority of American culture, which was largely focused upon moving from rural to urban areas. ''Many people refuse to think of landscape art as 'high art,' but it is both beautiful and spiritually important,'' Rey said.
The former barn in which he does nearly all of his work is divided into three distinct areas. On the ground floor, there is a studio, with two walls specifically set aside to hold paintings which are in progress.
A smaller room off the studio is where he creates his canvasses, and other mediums onto which he paints his images. There are woodworking machines, a collection of resins and surfacing materials, and everything needed to create something upon which to paint.
Up a very steep set of stairs, there is a third room, which is dedicated to the business element of being an artist. There are packing materials for sending art works off to be exhibited, or to the possession of individuals or institutions who have purchased them. There are also research materials, business machinery, and all the practical requirements.
The artist admitted that now that he has reached his 50s, he has become more aware of how precious time is. He refuses to rule out any kind of art work, and sometimes refreshes himself from intense focusing on oil painting, which makes up the majority of his oeuvre, to do a water color work, or to create a video feature, for example.
At this time, Rey is ambitiously working away at creating a series of paintings for an upcoming 2014 exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery in Buffalo. ''The exhibit doesn't open until then, but the paintings will have to be done much sooner, so that a catalogue can be written and photographed, and so that posters and other advertising can be created,'' he said.
I hope you can find your way to Patterson Library, before the end of this month, so see and experience the artwork of Alberto Rey. It would be an effort well worth making.
It takes a small burst of courage to visit the Octagon Gallery. The beautiful, nearly-round room is equipped with lights which operate on a motion sensor. You have to stride into a totally dark room, and in my experience, the moment you're inside, the lights will spring to life. I have watched visitors eagerly pressing the switches on the wall, outside the gallery, which means, of course, that they are turning the switches off, and when they finally gather up their courage, they actually do end up in a very dark place.
The six large paintings are done in very dense, heavy oils, using short, usually horizontal brush strokes.
The result is very evocative of the sensation which must be created by the locations which have been painted. If you can imagine emerging from a deep, cool shade, onto a sunny stream bank with light sparkling on the spray from a waterfall, you can grasp the effect of the paintings.
One of the paintings represents the mouth of Corelli Creek, in the town of Portland, near Brocton. The majority of the image is Lake Erie, stretching like the ocean into the distance. In the foreground, the shallow, very clear stream works its way through massive stone boulders to find rest in the lake. The vivid blue of sky and deep water dominate the image.
Another image shows the largest of the represented waterfalls. Laona Falls, located just off Route 60 in Laona, has been painted in winter, with snow coating the stone cliffs, through which the water is grinding its way. The bridge, which serves as something of a visual cap on the image is probably driven across by hundreds of drivers who have no idea of the beauty and the powerful element of nature which lies only a few yards below their tires.
Three of the scenes are located on Canadaway Creek, in or near Fredonia; two are on Chautauqua Creek, near Westfield; and the sixth is Corelli Creek, near Brocton, as already mentioned.
Sometimes the flow of water is almost negligible, and in other scenes, it is dramatic and powerful. Sometimes the gravel-filled bottom of the stream is prominent, and in others, it is not to be seen. Sometimes the stream flows through muddy and shady greenery, while in others, the water hurls itself at and eventually through, solid rock.
If you saw these paintings in a book or in a display about some distant state or perhaps in Europe, I suspect that many people would try to include these beautiful scenes in their coming travel plans.
Instead, they're just up the road from where we live, and many of us have either never seen them, or not since we were very young. Through his art, Alberto Rey is inviting us to look at the beauty and to ponder the natural qualities in our own backyard, and it's well worth our while to do so.
''A Wrinkle in Time,'' a play for young people, adapted by John Glore from the famed novel by Madeline L'Engle, will be performed at Buffalo's Theatre of Youth, opening Friday at 7 p.m. and playing through April 1, on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
The play is intended for children ages 9 and higher. Tickets are $23 and $25. Purchase them by going to www.theatreofyouth.org, or by phoning 884-4400, ext. 304.
The company performs in the Allendale Theater, located on Allen St., just west of the intersection with Elmwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo.