Matriarchs of Art

Group Photo By Jeb Boyd
Story By Christina Heintzelman –

We are strong, we are unapologetic and secure in who we are and what we do, we are fierce, we are creative, we are wise, and we are invincible– we are ‘woman of a certain age’.

The world is full of strong, creative, vibrant women and, in this story, you will meet four energetic, resourceful, resilient, inspiring artists who between them have close to 250 years of combined artistic talents, beginning as children making their own paper dolls complete with costumes, sewing, oil painting, creating greeting cards for family, and even designing a girl scout award patch.

A Brief Introduction to the Matriarchs

Although Jo Alexander has a background in pastels, charcoals, acrylics, and oils she concentrates mostly on her mosaic pieces. Remembrances figure deeply into Jo’s work such as a scissors to cut away hurtful moments or a thimble to protect one from hurt; the remembrance of parents and loved ones and of the passage of time in one’s own life. She uses stained glass and broken pieces of ceramics, pottery, glass from her findings or personal collection.

Cathie Conrad MacArthur has worked in oil, acrylics, and sculpting but now chooses pastels as her artistic home. Cathie is inspired by the beauty of the Susquehanna River, our vivid skyscapes, and sunsets. She feels a strong pull from Georgia O’Keeffe’s sultry blend of hues drawn across a landscape.

As a teacher for thirty-six years, Donna Berk Barlup had to become facile in all types of artistic media but now concentrates almost strictly on watercolor. Donna loves painting images from her past and from everyday life. Her goal is to capture something from everyday life but to present it in a way that allows the viewer to see it differently than they may have in the past, such as a beautiful bowl of cherries (as seen in one of her pieces) but with the focus now on the waterdrops hanging onto the fruit.

Vivi Sterste-Brandler is known as a ceramic artist to many of us, but her talents take in a bit of every art medium one can imagine and she will work in whichever strikes her mood at any given moment. Vivi’s ceramic art is often inspired by our Susquehanna River, using glazes of blues, greens, and browns to capture the ever-changing ebb and flow of our beautiful waterway.

Sit back, relax, and find out why these women have earned the title Matriarchs of Art: What they have given to the community, how they act as guideposts for younger artists and mostly how they have changed and grown into the self-assured artists who call the Harrisburg area their home.

The following conversation took place on a lovely May evening at the oblong table located in Vivi on Verbeke Studio. As you read their words you may feel the roar of these strong women.

Christina: What is it at this point in your life that you find inspires you in your creation of art?

Donna: Now that I am retired from teaching, I have more time to put toward my painting and to look back on how my work has changed. Networking! I can now network with so many varied artists, especially through various artistic groups. I continue to have the need and the drive to create.

I had shoulder surgery during Covid and began painting with my left hand and realized I could do it and I sold two of those pieces. You can train your brain to do any number of things.

Cathie: As an example, I find myself at times moving further away from my earlier work in realism and wondering what path or style my next painting will take. I now have time to look at what I’m doing now as opposed to what I did earlier in my life. My art creates me as much as I create my art. Your work takes you on a path– you just go along for the ride. Earlier in my career, if I could have seen what I would be creating now I would have said, “No way!” It is wonderful to see your work grow.

 I broke my wrist and took the time to begin sketching with my left hand which opened new possibilities for me. As we get older our work becomes more concentrated, more intense.

Jo: I just cannot not make art. It is therapy for me, it is my space of meditation and I go into a very altered and spiritual place. It is a mantra of meditation, it guides me. I am aware of so much more – I can sort it out into different piles for examination. I’ve learned so much about myself and have grown exponentially. Brainstorming with others helps my creative process.

Vivi: I totally agree with everything already said and I love it. Each of these answers ties into the next person. 

I notice that I have a much deeper skill set and discipline and can delve much deeper into my art. I’ve put in the time and the work to get to this place. I’m always pushing myself to higher places – doing the work all the time. We all have the need and the drive to continue our artistic work and allow it to take us to new and higher places. All of us here have that need and that drive.

Christina: Do you find that social media has been helpful to you?

Donna: It is a marketing tool, and a mentoring tool as I have people who I have worked with in the past come back and ask me questions about their work by contacting me through social media. Social media becomes a learning experience – forever!

Cathie: Yes, it is a mentoring tool as there are so many new artists showing up on the Creative Harrisburg Area Facebook page who are willing to put their work out there and ask for guidance and ideas – feedback – they appreciate this so much as often they are not sure if they want to post their work. It is also a great way to work with others and bypass some of the trial-and-error time. YouTube has amazing videos that are created by other artists who are willing to share things that they have tried and succeeded with. That is how I learned to paint large rocks. It was right there on YouTube. I was able to take my own skills and adapt them to learn a new method. It got me over the hump of not knowing how I could handle this.

Vivi (Creator of Creative Harrisburg Area Facebook page): The page grows weekly – daily with so many new artists willing to put their work out there for feedback. They appreciate this feedback. And all of us here also look for that feedback from others.

Jo: Now that I work in mosaics I often felt as though that field wasn’t recognized as an art form, but now I am able to meet via social media other mosaic artists. I realize the attributes of this medium and its recognition as a fine art. It has been an amazing learning experience. I started by making stepping- stones for my garden and my mosaic artwork grew from there. 

Christina: All of you attended schools for the arts but my question to you is do you think you learned more from your schooling or more through your own trial and error and experimentation?

Donna: I never did watercolors in school – I did everything else to get my degree for art education so that I could teach. My schooling did teach me the foundations that I needed for further explorations, but once I retired, I moved to watercolors, because I had limited space, and have been doing that ever since. 

Cathie: I studied sculpture and oil painting. But didn’t really try to work in pastels until later while on a trip to Maine, I met an artist and asked if I could work with her for just two hours and she agreed. She gave me the keys I needed for this – paper, fixatives … she pulled that pastel across the paper like butter.  It totally changed my art and attitude.

Jo: I went to a Catholic high school and was in the college prep class and it practically took a dispensation from the Pope to be allowed take one semester of art in my senior year- I had to give up Calculus II to do this! After high school, my parents asked me where I wanted to go for college, and I said MICA – my dad then asked who I thought was going to pay for me to go there so I had to go to U of Maryland, and I graduated from there with a degree in English.  A few years later I met a painter, teaching privately, who had gone to MICA and was willing to work with me and assist me with my art. I worked with him for many years to get an art background and get the tools I needed.

Vivi: For me prep school was the arts, I was almost pushed in that direction. At one point my dad told me I needed to switch and get a background in teaching, which I did and worked toward my degree in art and education.  But what I’ve found is that if I want to do something different now, I can go to social media, to YouTube and search for a topic and find out everything I need to know.  Everyone shares, everything is out there- everything! It is continuing ed.

Christina: What type of advice would you have for a young person who is trying to break into art – who is trying to make it and is really frustrated and struggling? How do you do it?

Donna: Right now, I’m mentoring a student, and I often send him information on potential grants, where shows and exhibits are happening that he could apply to get into. He asks me for opinions on art he has done, and I often suggest other types of art that he may want to try. First you must please yourself with your art.

Vivi: Attitude. For me it must be about creating not about monetizing.

Jo: I need to understand what you mean by making it in art. I have other degrees, but art is what I always protected. It was what was nearest to me, it was my sanity.  I painted as an artist because it was about me, my spiritual well-being, not about money.

Cathie: Gain confidence, accept critiques and learn to rise above what others say while remembering that it is all a learning experience. 

Jo: During one time of my art study, I was also going through a lot of personal trauma and just couldn’t focus on painting.  My teacher suggested charcoal and I said no but he insisted and what I learned from working with the charcoal and laying down dark spaces and erasing them out to light was that I was creating through erasure, and this was a huge lesson. I burst into tears realizing that I could create my life with this simple art lesson.

Vivi: Again – it is about attitude, no matter what other job you need to have to make ends meet, do it! Do it and keep working on your art. Do what you need to do to get where you want to be with your art. Making it as a business should not be the end goal as you must be true to your art, your style, yourself.

Jo: Courage, belief, and confidence! Make it your own!

Donna: I entered a lot of competitions and have been turned down, but you can’t let that get you down, continue moving forward. And respect the boundaries between making a business and making your art.

No matter how difficult, always carve out the time for your creative pursuits. 

Christina: So, it sounds like what all of you are saying is that ultimately this is about pleasing yourself with your art.

Vivi: Yes, I’ve done commercial pottery for the masses, and it isn’t creatively sustaining for me.

Donna: It can’t be your goal to please others. We live in a male dominated society so as women we must continue pushing for women to be acknowledge within the art world.

And we must stop this urge to keep our kids from being creative. Do not tell them they can’t, give encouragement to them, give encouragement to yourself. Remember that we are harder on ourselves than anyone else is.

Jo: The theologian, Matthew Fox, paraphrased something from Meister Eckhart when he said, “The greatest thing the potter makes is not the pot but the potter.” This is what art means – this is what art does.

Cathie: Build your confidence and be courageous. Do it your way! As kids we were told we must color within the lines but then as adults we must think outside the box.

Vivi: It has been a long voyage of sacrifice, rearrangement of life, but you must do that. You must do this to grow. Express yourself and be seen! Many of the things we are saying here aren’t circumnavigating the question but rather getting to the core of what we are all talking about.

Jo: As women we have often been thought to be secondary to men in arts and to the degree that many of the things women do such as textiles and weaving were not thought of as art. Things are changing but we must keep working on this. 

Christina: OK, where do we go from here? When did you feel the change within yourself, within your art? Was there a time when art wasn’t your friend?

Vivi: My art and my life changed after the death of my son. I knew I had to use my time wisely, time was no longer infinite – I had to just do it – go for it! Try it. Art has always been my friend, in fact my best friend. Art has often been cathartic for me. I create through my pain.

Cathie: We’ve all gone through life altering losses and those things will change your path. I became hands off for a while after the death of my parents and a divorce because I was afraid of where my art might go. I had to work through that.

Jo: During my divorce I painted a copy of a Caravaggio – Judith Beheading Holofernes, I then slashed it to ribbons and burned it! Talk about catharsis and change – that was it. 

Cathie: Art feeds you, it makes you whole.

Donna: Art is always there. It is a dance, and we are all dancing artists. We need to look at all things as a part of artistic creation. You can’t do it wrong – it is always right because it is your expression.

Cathie: Often there is a wall built by society or by your peers but all of us here have broken through that and grown in our creative ability.

Donna: Art may be the only place in school where you are allowed to express creative thinking rather than studying for a test and answering questions by rote. Creative thinking solves more problems than just those that exist in the art world.

Jo: I wrote a paper about art as prayerful meditation. Your art becomes larger than you, your art becomes numinous.

Cathie: Yes, the process of being ‘in the moment’ – your work just flows off your brush … it is the process of intuition. I joke that everyone who gets one of my paintings has my DNA all over it because I use my fingers to blend colors.

Vivi: I’m sure we all have had those moments of epiphanies – the growth during the learning process. I’ve totally changed the way I work and even the neatness or configuration of my studio space. When I get to the edge of the cliff and worry about marketing and sales, I can now realize that it isn’t about those things, it is about the making of the art. Sure it is fun to sell stuff, but it doesn’t come close to the creating.

Christina: Do you ever feel the pressure to have to create something better to survive in the art world?

Vivi: Maybe in my forties but no, not now … I am confident in my growth as an artist. I don’t feel depressed during a downtime, I move on to the next thing.

Donna: My art becomes different, not necessarily better and that is because I have gained confidence in my work. Motivation is out there in everything.

Jo: I am always amazed at the colors I see in nature – I’m paying attention but not paying attention at the same time. I allow myself to take in everything and experience it and then I can recall it during my work. It isn’t about pressure.

Cathie: We have had the life that now allows us to sit back, take it in and create. This is something that can only come with age. I would not be any other age – I’d not want to go back.

And the conversation continued into the evening, but ultimately the matriarchs all stated that they are pleased with their lives and how they have grown and the bonds they have created with their work and with the people around them. Not one of them has the desire to go back in life as they are all looking forward to their next artistic endeavor and the future growth that awaits them.

For more information on these women, you can check out the Creative Harrisburg Area (CHA) Facebook page to which all these artists belong. Visit Vivi on Verbeke studio at 258 Verbeke St. Jo’s Facebook:  @grandmother-moon-mosaics, Vivi’s Facebook: @258verbeke, Donna’s Facebook: @donna.barlup and also her website, Cathie’s Facebook: @cathie.macarthur.