By Walter Ault
Correspondent – Montgomery Media

For a few years now, a group of conscientious individuals has been taking on the challenge of bringing culture — primarily through the utilization of art — to the borough of Norristown.

This popular effort has been concentrated on DeKalb Street, near the Montgomery County Cultural Center. However, what many people don’t realize is that Norristown already has a real cultural gem — a very old, plain-looking brick building that sits alongside the Schuylkill River. It is a haven for art, artists and art lovers known as the Norristown Arts building, home to 21 residence studios and the Pagus Gallery.

Furthermore, through July 31, the former costume factory is also the place to view a provocative exhibition of abstract art titled “Color, Geometry and Abstraction: a national juried display of 69 works by 37 different artists from six different states.

The exhibit was envisioned and organized by Pagus Gallery director Ryan Earl, a 28-year-old artist from Norristown.

“I wanted a show that brought together artists from different backgrounds,” Earl said in a recent interview. “And I wanted artists who were relatively new as well as established, with the hope of getting momentum for the gallery and for Norristown. These are works,” Earl continued, “that focus on color and geometry. That is what I wanted. These are important works that need to be seen.”

Along with Ryan Earl, the other person largely responsible for the current exhibit is Ireland native Tim Hawksworth, an accomplished artist who purchased a former costume factory and converted it into the arts building in 1996.

According to past newspaper articles about Hawksworth, his idea was to provide a nurturing environment for artists of all kinds, one that offered freedom for exploration and development, as well as the appropriate space.

Hawksworth has become well-known for his benevolent efforts for artists as well as the community at large, exemplified by the affordable studio space he provides, as well as workshops and outreach programs. Of course, both the artists and the surrounding community benefit from the Pagus Gallery’s occasional shows like the current one.

Two of the artists with works featured in the exhibit are area residents Anna Belle Loeb, from Chestnut Hill, and Lisa Basil of Norristown. Both have three pieces of artwork in the show, and both had flattering things to say collectively about Hawksworth, Earl and the arts building itself.

Loeb is a retired lawyer and grandmother who has been painting for 10 years. But it’s only been in the last four years, Loeb explained, that she has been doing original pieces, thanks to the encouragement of Hawksworth.

“When I met Tim, I started painting original works. It was like a miracle,” Loeb said. “In the beginning it was hard to tap into my imagination. Tim,” Loeb continued, “taught me a lot about creativity and developing my own style and showed me how to paint what I feel and understand.”

One of Loeb’s most intriguing works is called “7 Seconds.” It is a painting inspired by the recent mass shooting in Arizona in which U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was critically injured by a deranged assassin. The painting is a microcosm of the world, or at least the way Loeb sees it, with both good and evil. There are flowers, seemingly innocent people, bloody handprints and a pool of blood.

Lisa Basil, a 1991 graduate of the Moore College of Art, is an artist and photographer who has had exhibits in both genres. In recent years, she explained, she has become heavily involved with encaustic art.

“There are a lot of techniques involved in encaustic art,” Basil said. “Sculpture, printmaking and painting are all part of the process.

“Essentially,” Basil continued, “you combine beeswax, resin and pigments, heat the mixture and then form it into a work of art.

“This is an excellent show,” Basil pointed out. “It brings artists, art lovers and their families to Norristown.

“It is really an impressive show, with quality work,” Basil said. “Ryan did a great job putting it all together. I’m grateful this gallery is here. It is hard to find good quality places that show all kinds of art in a truly professional way.”