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Arts & Culture

Little Pictures Show’s size constraints make for unbounded creativity

In 110th annual show, works with 16-by-16-inch size limit attract diverse audience

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2014

With one wrong stroke on the paintings’ small surfaces, “a bush can accidentally become a tree,” said Craig Masten, an artist who participated in the Little Pictures Show. But while size constraints challenge artists, they offer positives for visitors, such as reasonable prices.

When the doors opened, the walls of the Providence Art Club were fully masked behind experiments in feathers, local landscapes and three-dimensional still lifes. But 10 minutes into Sunday’s opening reception of the 110th Annual Little Pictures Show and Sale, entire sections of the wall had been stripped bare — and the clientele was not the wealthy, art-collecting crowd one might expect. The country’s oldest Little Pictures Show packed professional art into small and affordable packages, attracting amateurs, early holiday shoppers and casual visitors alike.

Though the exhibition has changed over the past century — expanding from including only small paintings to also accepting diminutive photography, sculptures, collages and jewelry — the size constraints have remained an essential part of the tradition, said Michael Rose, the gallery coordinator at the Providence Art Club. The 16-by-16-inch size limit goes hand in hand with a more “reasonable” cost, he added, with the maximum pricetag capped at $300.

Jervit Tan, a visitor from New York who attended the opening, pointed out that the size restriction makes the art more fascinating, as artists must creatively work within the given parameters.

But artists don’t necessarily see the size restriction as a unfavorable constraint. Some, like Craig Masten, regularly paint smaller pieces that would qualify for the show. “Small paintings work well with the outdoors, because you can finish a painting in one day before the light changes,” Masten said, adding that smaller size doesn’t necessarily imply an easier process, as with one wrong stroke, “a bush can accidentally become a tree.”

While this aesthetic twist draws some to the show, others find the main appeal in the prices of the works, which are similarly small. “The show makes art accessible,” said Julia Geynisman, as exhibition-goer.

Though many of the buyers at the exhibition searched for holiday presents, some were art collectors. Ron Vierstra, who has a growing collection of many of the featured Little Pictures artists, comes to the show every year because he is able to recognize many of the landscapes depicted in the paintings.

Other visitors feel similarly, as Lee Chabot, one of the artists, has noted. He brings many local, Rhode Island paintings because they get the most attention, he said, describing his artwork as “a walk through Providence” that compares the city’s landscape to that of European cities.

The show provides the artists — who range in age from 24 to 93 — an opportunity to experiment, Rose said. With a small sample of art, they can test out a new concept with the public, he added.

“Last year at the show, I tried something new, and it was a complete flop,” said artist Linda Dewing. After failing to sell any pieces last year, she said she pushed to find a more popular style and, this year, created artwork using bird feathers.

Frederick Nowosielski, one of few sculptors, said the show allowed him to experiment by stepping away from two-dimensional art for the first time. Though Nowosielski “mixed it up,” he used the same recurring character of his previous work as inspiration for his new sculptures.

As new works fill the empty spaces left by customer purchases, the selection of little pictures will evolve, providing constant change for visitors. Little Pictures is on exhibit through Dec. 23.

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