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I Couldn’t Stop Smiling

John J. Fleming, Jr. Art Show at Guilford Art Center
Review by Mary Beeman

The moment I walked in, shaking off the cold drizzle falling outside, I couldn’t stop smiling. It happened! John Fleming was there in the room with me in all his splendor. The joy overtook me as I enjoyed each and every piece around the Guilford Art Center Gallery. He passed on almost exactly 5 years prior, but his art was alive and well among friends and family. You could not wipe that smile off my face!!

John and I painted together for at least 10 years in Joan Downey’s outdoor painting class as well as later on in her winter studio at Guilford Art Center. I think I gravitated toward John, as he was just a year older than my dad, who was also in the Navy in WWII for a short time.

Each week, our intrepid troop met at a different location along the Central Connecticut Shoreline chosen by Joan. Each morning, she would inspire us with her mini art history class that somehow related to the landscape around us – rocks, churches, sandy beaches, majestic trees, serene cemeteries. Then we’d scatter to our favored spots to paint plein air for three hours, guided by her occasional visits, as well as by our compatriots that strolled around to see how fellow artists were coping with the scenery, conditions, rapidly changing light and composition. Look for Joan’s painting of our group with a photo taken by my dad.

John always found something to paint that escaped the rest of us. During our lunchtime critique, he was always tickled at how Joan time and again found the inspired composition, bold color use, iconography in his full-sheet watercolors that most likely hadn’t even consciously occurred to him. The Spirit simply moved him. I loved seeing him snicker, getting a kick out of everyone’s praise. We all wished we had the same sense of freedom and lack of inhibition that this small, unassuming, elderly WWII vet had in spades.

The mini-reunion of Joan’s outdoor painting group met by chance at Friday’s opening reception. I knew I was going to see some of my old friends there! Veronica Soell, Sandra Wiens joined me after my first trip around the gallery. I took another stroll with them and our delight grew with the recollections of the many paintings we vividly remembered, in which we found our dear, late Clementine’s figure topped by her flowered sunhat, Joan’s imaginary red fingernail (and sometimes toenail) polish, ghosts in the cemetery, Popeye and the ice machine at the marina, and the ever-present Dunkin Donuts coffee cup.

We had the pleasure of speaking with John’s granddaughter for a bit. Oh, how she loved that man!

Shortly after John’s passing, his son, Jack contacted me to ask what he might do with his dad’s enormous collection of watercolor paintings, sardine cans painted with clown-like faces, and sketches on the paper plates used for his nightly snack watching the news. He was gracious enough to allow me to share some of his paintings first with our painting chums, who each stopped by my house to sort through the art while fondly reminiscing.

But — what to do with the balance?

The first thought was to donate them to the Guilford Art Center to be used at some time for a fundraiser. That was the genesis of this show. Maureen Belden graciously accepted the offer, and to her credit – and that of his lovely family — made the show happen this winter on the fifth anniversary of John’s passing.

The found-object sculptures that the family has loaned to the show illustrate further John’s wide-range of expertise, humor and incessant need to create art.

Let’s all take in this show with the love and dedication to the Center that John had and, with his help, raise some funds for the complex that is looking towards some major renovations and improvements in the near future.

I hope that you all enjoy linking arms with John half as much as I did last Friday and receive the blessing that is the art of John Fleming. Get there soon – – it closes March 11!