STRASBURG — Paintings that provide a rare glimpse of the Shenandoah Valley through the eyes of Strasburg artist Jim Costello hang on the walls of an old mill, waiting for their audience.
The exhibit, “A Retrospective on the Works of Jim Costello,” will be on display at the second floor gallery of the Burwell-Morgan Mill from June 6 through June 14.
The 21 paintings in the exhibit are but a sampling of more than 140 that Costello’s friends Peggy Simon, Maggie Maloney and Mary Redmon brought out of his barn and shed for cataloguing last fall – some that haven’t seen the light of day in around 40 years. All 21 will be available for purchase at the exhibit, along with a dozen framed drawings and over a dozen enveloped drawings.
Dubbed a “robust rustic recluse” by the Washington Post in the 1980s after a singular show, Costello had painted for himself at his home in the valley, taking care of his wife and simply loving life.
The paintings have been carefully stowed away for many years and Costello said it’s “very gratifying” to know they’ll have an appreciative audience in the valley, thanks to the efforts of his friends.
“I was very dedicated to [the paintings] but I never really tried to show them very much; I didn’t like that aspect of it,” he said.
In addition to the paintings, he’s kept a large saga of illustrative journals that tell their own stories with pasted-in odds and ends. Simon, Maloney and Redmon wanted to share Costello’s wit through those journals in the exhibit.
The curators agree that the Shenandoah Valley is Jim’s most prominent muse: his drawings and paintings are dominated by rolling horizons of cedars and clouds, old shacks and barns and plenty of female nudes.
“I think that he equates the female body with the Earth; they’re one in the same thing,” Maloney said.
Costello’s resonance between nature and the female figure was part of what inspired Simon to pursue the exhibit. His painting “Nature Watches People all the Time,” which depicts such a parity, has hung in her living room for more than 25 years.
Knowing the Burwell-Morgan Mill would be the perfect local venue to showcase her friend’s work, Simon jumped at the chance to begin planning the show.
“I think that before it couldn’t have happened because he was in it, he was painting, he was the artist,” she said. “Now he’s at a different stage in his life, but he knows what he has and it’s very emotional for him, just like it’s emotional for us.”
With the go ahead from Costello, Simon then approached Jeff Lefkowitz in March to design flyers for the exhibit. Lefkowitz was immediately taken by the art of this man he had never met and was quick to suggest a website to provide more detailed background information on Costello’s artistic legacy.
“The work almost designs itself because he has such good material,” Lefkowitz said. “We did banners, we did postcards, even down to mailing labels and the exhibit labels.”
What Costello thought would be just a few paintings trucked over to the Mill grew into a full-fledged retrospective, which he called a “wonderful thing.”
“I told all my friends right from the start that I couldn’t contribute too much to this. They said, ‘Oh, that’s fine, we’ll take care of everything.’ And by golly they have,” he said.
Friends, colleagues and a former student – some of whom he hasn’t seen in almost 50 years – all jumped at the chance to attend Costello’s artist’s reception, which serves as the opening of the show. Architects, filmmakers and fellow artists will fly in from all over the country to see the exhibit.
Costello said he was bowled over by this rather sudden and tremendous display of support.
“I am just overwhelmed that they would even care that much,” he said. “They were great friends, and they still are.”
The volunteer curators said that cataloguing Costello’s art has been an honor and the exhibition process has been an enjoyable labor of love.
“Part of the thing that’s kept us going in this process is that we get to be in the presence of his work,” Maloney said.
For Costello, that work is simply part of his day to day.
“It’s just what I do,” he said.
A sample of Costello’s paintings and drawings as well as a bio and blog on the exhibit’s website can be found at http://www.jim-costello-artist.com.
Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org