Local artwork captures spirit, history of Fredonia
Few sites are more iconic in the village of Fredonia than the skyline overlooking the northwest side of Barker Commons. For nearly 200 years, the steeples of the First United Methodist Church and Fredonia Family Church along with the tower atop Fredonia Village Hall have been a focal point of downtown, and now all are beautifully captured by local folk artist Deb Blodgett.
Last week, Blodgett’s work was installed downstairs in the concession area of the 1891 Fredonia Opera House. According to Opera House Executive Director Rick A. Davis, this is the only painting featuring the opera house/village hall that has been gifted to the Opera House for permanent display, though there have been pieces donated for auctions and fundraisers over the years.
“I just love the architecture here,” said Blodgett. “I was here for an opera and during the operas, they have intermissions in the basement concessions area. That’s when I looked around and I thought, ‘Oh, this could use some kind of focal point!’ I asked Rick Davis if that would be something he would allow me to do, and he said yes.”
Blodgett, a Chautauqua County resident, has painted many familiar sights in the area, and some may know her work from Chautauqua Institution.
The gazebo that serves coffee and refreshments just outside the Amphitheater features several of Blodgett’s paintings of historic Chautauqua Institution, including the Bell Tower overlooking Chautauqua Lake, the Chautauqua Belle steamboat and the St. Elmo hotel.
“I lived in Chautauqua Institution year ’round for about five years doing just artwork for a living, but I could live on very little, especially during the off-season,” Blodgett explained. “…I just wanted to see if I could make it as an artist, and I could make enough living very simply. It was fun, but then I got older and decided that I really should get a job with insurance and retirement, so that’s what I did.”
Today, Blodgett works for Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES as an itinerant English-as-a-new-language teacher. She considers herself a folk artist, as she is largely self-taught, and painting has always been an important part of her life. “My mom wrote in my baby book that my first sentence was ‘I want paint,'” Blodgett chuckled. “I’ve always liked painting.”
Blodgett, whose father worked for Ford Motors, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, but many of her ancestors were from the area. She moved back to Chautauqua County as an adult and about 30 years ago, called Fredonia home for a short time.
Speaking of the inspiration for her latest work, Blodgett recalled the May 2018 fire that destroyed the clock tower of Fredonia Family Church. “I wanted to feature the steeples because of the restoration of that steeple,” she explained. “I think everyone is kind of thinking of that now. The other one, the Methodist Church, is so beautiful, too. When I’m there, my eye always enjoys that side, and then you come down to the ground level, with the beautiful park. It’s just a beautiful place.”
The interesting construction of Blodgett’s piece, which is comprised of three separate pieces, was both a practical and artistic choice. “I didn’t have the ‘split’ part in mind until I realized I couldn’t fit it in my car unless I had it cut,” Blodgett laughed. “But it also allows me to highlight the two steeples and provide historical context on the ‘Village of Fredonia’ piece.”:
Blodgett used acrylic paints on Luan plywood. “It’s just a nice, thin, smooth wood, and light and durable, which made it perfect to transport,” Blodgett said. “I had the pieces spread out in my studio area for several weeks, but if I put together all of the painting time, I would say it probably took me about a week.”
Research played an important role in the completion of Blodgett’s piece. She completed the village hall/opera house building with the shorter tower, and then discovered original photos of a much taller tower. “I wanted to at least paint the three steeples all during the same time period,” she explained. “I didn’t want to do the updated middle steeple. I wanted them all to have been reasonably within the same time frame: 1907. In 1905, we found evidence that the village board was concerned about the tall tower and they shortened it during that time.”
Not only did the 1907 timeframe allow Blodgett to keep the shortened tower of the village hall, but it allowed her to draw upon some of her personal art reference books for inspiration. “All of the clothing the people are wearing is from 1907. I chose that because I had the fashion books from that particular year,” said Blodgett. “For years, I didn’t put people in my paintings because I really enjoy the buildings, the architecture. Once I started to put people in, it seems more alive! It’s kind of charming to paint little people all dressed up differently.”
Blodgett’s Fredonia skyline piece includes her signature red birds that she includes in all of her paintings, including another recent work: the new location of the Mustard Seed on Main Street in Fredonia. Blodgett gifted this piece to the restaurant, where the owners have already installed it.
Davis is enthusiastic about Blodgett’s contribution to the Opera House, and invites all to see the newly-installed work during the intermission of the next and final event of this season’s Live at the Met series. On Saturday, May 11 at noon, the Opera House will be showing “Dialogues des Carmelites” live via satellite from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. For more information, visit fredopera.org.
“I really hope people will enjoy it,” Blodgett said of her new piece. “I wanted to give that community feeling that is such an important part of the village.” Blodgett can be contacted for commissioned paintings by phone at 969-7179 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.