This artist's outlook — and her work — anticipated the growing environmental movement now underway. Before much of today's talk about conservation, animal welfare and sustainability, Dallas Piotrowski was experiencing, and loving, nature.
Growing up, she had reveled in the natural world, foreshadowing her lifelong preoccupation early by winning a school prize for collecting the most wildflowers. Eventually, she moved from collecting flowers to painting scenes and species of special interest.
Piotrowski says she's a "naturalist" as an artist. Little wonder: everything she does has to do with nature. Even praying. "I always thought that's the cathedral to be in if you're going to pray."Tall and slender, she can seem reserved, but she quickly dispels that impression with her wide smile or an unexpected funny line. "Dallas," as she signs her work, frequently visits Veterans Park in Hamilton Township, not far from her home of nearly 40 years, where she and her husband, Ed, raised their two sons, now grown.
From the nearby park and other venues, she returns with photos, which along with live plants, her notes and her memory, contribute to her paintings. Most are grouped in series that memorialize the many aspects of nature she cares about.
Begun as a final college project, her first series focused on plants. To get the "clean edge" she wanted, Dallas switched from oils to acrylic paint, and pretty much stayed there after that, with watercolors also in play.
Her other series have included New Jersey wildflowers; sunflowers; threatened, endangered, extinct animals; animal portraits with decorated backgrounds; florals ("I love botanicals"); animals in fables and fairytales; and birds with illuminated borders.
Her series on endangered or already-gone animals may have yielded Dallas's most iconic image — zebras in a subway station. This is what their habitat has come to, the painting says, leaving these wild animals the choice of "Bronx" or "exit."
Wanting simply to show the natural beauty of animals, she next launched an animal portrait series. Some of her "sitters" were a rabbit, a ram, a hog and two squirrels. Each portrait includes a finely wrought background. (Gallerists, please note: these paintings have not been shown as a group — yet.)
Fascinated by Renaissance art, particularly its illuminated borders, Dallas copied several of them before designing her own for the bird series. "The borders are all nature-related," she says, "plants, little birds and animals, insects. . ." Though she likes her goldfinch border best, she's less happy with the bird it frames.
Of her current series on "fields, meadows and woodlands," Dallas says, "I had wanted to paint pokeweed for ages. There's an abstractness about them. The magenta stalks and deep purple berries . . ." So she took a "slew of photos" in different places, and went from there to create a prize-winning painting.
"Pokeweed" (shown here) was the first of two paintings from this series that won "best painting in show" awards two years running in the Artsbridge juried show, Lambertville, NJ. ("Woodland Ferns," also reproduced here, was the other.)
In a second-floor room at home, Dallas usually paints all morning and sometimes sneaks in afternoon time too. For a person who's neat and organized in day-to-day life, she manages to turn the place into a disaster area while immersed in a painting, she says. The chaos of plant specimens, myriad photographs, her drafting table and large easel can last for months — which is about the time it takes her to complete each one.
As if painting painstakingly detailed and colored images in series were not enough, Dallas is also a curator and a bibliophile. This is her fifth season as art curator for the Gallery at Princeton's Chapin School. Six times a year, she selects the artists whose work will be displayed there and hangs the shows. And she "loves visiting artists to look at work."
Princeton University — especially its library — has long been a Dallas-magnet, and over the years, she has built relationships and made wide ranging contributions. Describing herself as "always a book person," she collects books, which now number around 3,000 and overflow every room of her house.
But, "I read the books I collect," she says of her first editions. These include books by Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez and Barry Moser, as well as a huge collection of children's books.
A member for more than a decade of "Bibliophiles and Book Collectors" at Princeton, Dallas is also a Friend of the Princeton University Library. Her campus connection began years ago when she audited undergraduate courses, and it has included being a friend of the art museum as well.
Although time must hang heavy on her hands only rarely, Dallas cites Princeton University activities, cooking vegetarian dishes and visiting used book stores (not the internet because "I like the hunt!") as what she does "for fun."
Her first name might suggest otherwise, but Piotrowski was born in Trenton and grew up in the 1940s in Hamilton Square and Lawrence Township — both boasting plentiful woodlands. (Her mother had heard the then-popular "Stella Dallas" radio show en route to the hospital to deliver the middle child of seven, who became "Dallas."
The artist studied art privately with Liz Ruggles for "the basics" and portrait painter Nelson Shanks, among others, and earned her associate's in art from Mercer County Community College. Besides working in acrylics and watercolors, she also studied printmaking at the College of New Jersey.
Dallas has exhibited widely in solo and group shows in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and her work is included in private and corporate collections.
Dallas Piotrowski's work can be seen in two exhibitions right now: the Garden State Watercolor Society's juried show at Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, through Nov. 7; and the Phillips' Mill 81st Annual Fall Exhibition, New Hope, Pa.; through October 30.