Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Old Masters inspire new life for Berks artist Eric Armusik

Epic-sized paintings that portray moments of human experience appear as dramatic scenes in the style of 17th century master Caravaggio. For nearly two decades, Berks County artist Eric Armusik has been perfecting this technique, which translates into an emotional dialogue that "transcends culture, religion and time, itself."

Armusik, 38, is an internationally-recognized artist who works from his Hamburg studio. His work reflects a mixture of traditional subjects – religious, mythical and historical. Currently, he's working on a commission that can't yet be made public, he said, but will have major impact in art history.

In 2008, he made local headlines in removing and restoring a painting of "Virgin and Child," thought to be well over a century old, from a plaster wall 16 feet above the altar of St. Mary's Church in Hamburg. The church was in the process of relocating to another site outside of town.

In 2010, he held a "Fire Sale," where he sold some of his older paintings or else he'd burn them. He was serious in his mission and wound up burning a work before the remaining 19 were sold at a discounted price. He did so because he said he wanted his art to be more accessible to the general public.

Later that year, Armusik was commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross in less than three months, surviving on three hours of sleep per night. Balancing his life as an artist and father of three young children, he said he was used to painting in the wee, quiet hours of the morning.

He also held a "48-hour Marathon Portrait" event at the historic American House Hotel in Hamburg, vying for a world record, and sold 27 of the 30 11x14-inch paintings he created during that time period in 30 days. A portion of the proceeds benefited St. Jude Children's Hospital.

Through the years, his work has been featured at the Salmagundi Art Club, Allentown Art Museum, Berman Museum of Art, and State Museum of Pennsylvania, as well as in the pages of the New York Times, Poets and Artists, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Victorian Homes, and American Artist Magazine. His work is in the collections of Lehigh Valley Hospital, Trenton Museum of Art, and numerous private collectors.

Armusik refers to himself as "a romantic artist" who fuses life experiences with art history. "I didn't have an artistic upbringing," he explained. His traditional figurative art can be traced back to his own upbringing in Wilkes Barre, where he would attend church each Sunday and look up at the stained-glass windows and vivid paintings that surrounded him.

He majored in painting and minored in art history with a focus on Baroque art at Pennsylvania State University (1991-1995), and studied under Julie Heffernan and Robert Yarber. He spent a semester abroad in Todi, Italy, where he studied directly from the masterworks of 17th century artists. He had the opportunity to return to Italy in 2003, representing the United States at the Biennale Internazionale dell'Arte Contemporanea held in Florence. He also studied under Bucks County artist Nelson Shanks at his Studio Incamminati School for Contemporary Realist Art.

In 2010, Armusik won the Chairman's Choice Award in the Sixth International Art Renewal Center competition -- out of 1,700 submissions from more than 30 countries. That was a turning point for him as an artist, he recalled, when he was told, 'You've got something really unique. You understand emotion and human spirit and drama.'

"I asked myself, 'Where did that come from?'" Armusik said. "I was a churchgoer as a youngster growing up in the coal region, looking up at these beautiful churches in the surrounding mining towns. I started realizing this traditional drama and embraced it with open arms. I began painting religious art and found a whole new market in the world. …I always had it in me. It's what I now enjoy."

Armusik's religious paintings have been commissioned by churches across the country. He's done Stations of the Cross for St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle and Holy Family Cathedral in Pasadena. His canvas creations range in size from 4x5 feet to six feet or more, as evident in his "Final Judgement" scene with a large sky background. "The bigger the painting, the more drama," he said.

He uses oil-based pigments, applying them to wood panels he prepares. His chiaroscuro technique is based on 17th century masters like Caravaggio and Artemesia Gentileschi. He paints fast and direct in an alla prima style over a grisaille, then with layers of glazes he finishes with a rich, varnished surface of richness and depth. As a talented carpenter, Armusik also creates his own custom epic-sized frames that are "more architectural and tabernacle in appearance," such as the one for his "Temptation" painting.

Looking closely at some of Armusik's work, it's easy to see some resemblance to the artist in his subjects, particularly in "St. Sebastian" (being attended by St. Irene) for St. Sebastian R.C. Church in Akron. "I use myself here and there," Armusik said of his work. He's also incorporated the faces of his young daughters and son and his wife, gothic novelist Rebekah Armusik, as his subjects. He said his Medusa in "The Turning of Medusa" (being transformed by Athena) is patterned after a friend/photographer living in Italy.

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Arts Roundup

The Berks Arts Council has three free concerts left in its summer concert series at the Volunteer Firemen's Memorial Bandshell in Reading's City Park. Friday features Big James and the Chicago Playboys from 7 to 9 p.m., headed by trombonist and singer Big James Montgomery. The Chris Cain Band will take the stage on Fri., Aug. 3, entertaining the audience with jazz-tinged blues tunes. Toby Foyeh & Orchestra Africa, whose concert was postponed by inclement weather earlier last week, will bring the finale of the season on Fri. Aug. 10.

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The three-part installation, "Barbara Thun: Elegy," including works from both Elegy I and II and multiple mediums, is on exhibit beginning Saturday through Sept. 14 at the Reading Public Museum. Thun explains her installations "create an environment with a particular period of time in mind and are often in the form of a narrative, or a cultural perspective." Elegy includes poetry, photos and totems to reveal the narrative of family history. Thun currently has a studio at Reading's GoggleWorks.

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"Ghosts of the Museum Come to Life" at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown on Friday from 5:30 to 9 p.m., with special, one-hour guided tours and exhibits with live actors and props. "Ghosts" will include John Wilkes Booth, the 26-year-old assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, Lehigh County Civil War surgeon John Peter Kohler, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War hero Colonel Tilghman Good, a Native American Lenape woman from the 1750s, and a New Jersey Frontier guard. The program is suitable for all ages.

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