By Peter Brakman
Villanova University’s celebration of the art of Ray Sternbergh more than 10 years after his death gives the New York painter, illustrator, sculptor and wood carver an exhibit that the reticent artist never sought in his lifetime. The posthumous show, arranged by his widow and daughter, comprises never before publicly seen landscapes, seascapes, portraits, still lifes, and sculptures.
“Ray Sternbergh – a Retrospective” opens Friday, February 24 with a free public reception from 5 to 7 pm in the Art Gallery in the Connelly Center.
His 1950s classmates at Pratt Institute saw the Korean War-era Air Force veteran as destined for a place of note as an American painter. Sternbergh, then studying on the GI Bill, is recalled as a quiet man whose presence went without much notice – until he engaged a canvas. “There were some very good artists in that class, but he was the best,” remembers classmate Tom Doyle, a retired illustrator.
That Sternbergh didn’t become an acclaimed artist is no mystery to his daughter Jennifer Huth. “Dad wasn’t interested in changing the world with his art. The hustling, dealing with agents, it just wasn’t who he was. He painted for himself. It was pure selfish love and joy,” says Huth, who lives in Bryn Mawr with her husband James and their two children.
After graduating from Pratt, Sternbergh went on to make his living as a comic book and book cover jacket illustrator, an industrial designer, and art director in the marketing and point-of-purchase industries. He saved painting for his private life and never sold or tried to sell one.
With the picturesque harbor of Northport, Long Island, NY, at the end of his lawn, and a small airport nearby, Sternbergh indulged his passions for painting, sailing, piloting small aircraft, sculpting, writing poetry, making toys and furniture, and riding motorcycles, among other pursuits.
As a painter, realism was his forte, notes his widow Nancy. “He painted what was there and he did it incredibly well. He had golden hands. I once asked him to let me represent him as an artist. He wouldn’t; nor would he let anyone else, either. My, he was an incredible artist.”
Retirement in the early 1990s became one of the most prolific creative periods of Sternbergh’s life. With skills honed by classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he produced a large body of paintings, many of which have been selected by his widow and daughter for the exhibit.
Even as he battled pancreatic cancer, Sternbergh was not idle. Jennifer recalls him taking down a large canvas done years before of three clam boats buoyed in the Northport harbor. He noticed that the light reflected off the water appeared brighter than that of the sun, which cannot be. So he fixed it. “He was obsessed with capturing light,” says Huth. He died in 2001.
The exhibit came about when Huth, a graduate student in Villanova’s Theatre Program, met Art Gallery Director Fr. Richard G. Cannuli, OSA, who then also headed the Theatre Department. Invited to the Huth’s Bryn Mawr home to examine Sternbergh’s considerable artwork, Fr. Cannuli, himself a Pratt graduate, liked what he saw: “It was time that someone who had produced such a large body of varied works without ever having had an exhibit, should have one.”
‘Ray Sternbergh – a Retrospective’ continues to April 11, 2012. All exhibits at the Villanova University Art Gallery are free and open to the public. The Art Gallery is open weekdays from 9 am well into most evenings. For extended and weekend hours, and other information, telephone the Art Gallery at (610) 519-4612. Selected works from the Ray Sternbergh exhibit may be previewed at www.artgallery.villanova.edu