Fine Feathered and Furred Friends

Artist Deborah Maher celebrates the camaraderie between women and their pets with her solo show at the Peggy Lewis Gallery in Lambertville through Feb. 7.

By: Susan Van Dongen

TDeborah Maher’s Women and Their Pets is on view at the Peggy Lewis Gallery, Lambertville, through Feb. 7. Above: "Willing to Share." Below: "Freedom to Dance."

   There’s an urban legend that if a marriage fails between persons of a certain age, the husband will find another woman but the wife will get a dog or cat. Perhaps it’s because a pet won’t sulk after a hard day at the office, monopolize the remote or run off with its secretary.
   A more scientific fact is that the presence of a pet is known to soothe anxiety and loneliness, lower blood pressure and even extend one’s life. So maybe women make the smarter choice after all, keeping a furry or feathered friend around the house.
   Artist Deborah Maher celebrates this inter-species camaraderie with her solo show, Women and Their Pets, at the Peggy Lewis Gallery in Lambertville through Feb. 7. Ms. Maher, also a noted opera singer and voice teacher, has planned a closing party from 1-4 p.m. that day, and hopes she’ll be joined by some of her students and friends when she performs at 2 p.m.
   Her vibrant watercolor paintings and mixed-media works often portray women alone, cocooning with a bevy of beautiful things — musical instruments, furniture, objets d’art and, of course, animals.


   "I’m at an age when a lot of my friends are divorced or alone," says Ms. Maher, a Titusville resident. "They’re surrounded by their things and animals, trying to find a safe place. So many times they have pets so there’s someone there to greet them when they come home to an empty house. It’s not nice to come home to a lonely place."
   Ms. Maher is fortunate to have friends, students and family around her and actually doesn’t have a pet herself. But many of her acquaintances have a real menagerie of animals among them — from cats and dogs to llamas and ostriches.
   The show includes painted lampshades and hats, all influenced by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and artist Bruce Brown — a distinguished artist, art professor and Ms. Maher’s best friend from childhood.
   "Bruce Brown has been my friend since elementary school," she says. "I remember he’d draw things on the back of the notes the teachers would send home to his parents, then he’d throw them out and I’d dig them out of the trash. He became a phenomenal artist. But a long time ago he taught me how to look at things, how to see great art — I’ll always be grateful to him."
   The 60-ish Ms. Maher has a special fondness for young women — maybe because she remembers her own teenage tribulations and joys. You can see her love for her youthful subjects in "Annette Changes Her Hair," the largest and perhaps most colorful painting in the show. Ms. Maher pays homage to her neighbor Annette, known for altering her hair every few months — hence all the colors in the woman’s hair. The figure also wears bright harlequin-patterned tights and a slinky banana-yellow bodice, also a loving tribute to the teenager’s experiments with her wardrobe and accessories.
   It was one of Ms. Maher’s adolescent musical charges who helped her land the solo show at the Peggy Lewis Gallery in the first place.
   "Ilana (Kruger) studies with me and when her mother, Ogden Lewis-Kruger, came to pick her up after a lesson, she saw one of my paintings and asked if it was for sale," Ms. Maher says. "Now she’s one of my best customers. She also bought some of my painted lampshades and boxes."
   Ms. Lewis-Kruger is the daughter of the gallery’s namesake — the late artist and art patron Peggy Lewis.
   Ms. Maher has been a professional opera singer for years, performing regularly with the Vienna State Opera. Trained at the Curtis Institute of Music and the elite Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, she has sung with many of this country’s large opera companies here and abroad.
   "I’ve done some film and TV, and also sang in nightclubs," Ms. Maher says. "In the ’60s there were operatic nightclubs or supper clubs, like the Latin Quarter. I’ve also sung with the Neapolitan Sextet and for a year sang regularly at the New York Hilton. I did the world premiere of what was probably the first rock opera — ‘Flowerstone’ by George Quincy."
   Although she cut her professional life back while raising her family, Ms. Maher continued to sing, sometimes traveling to Hollywood and England to perform. She always had the desire to paint as well, hoping to rekindle the talent she explored as a youth, studying at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, her hometown.
   "Painting is my real passion but my gift was music," Ms. Maher says. "Nature had given me this wonderful instrument and it was my way of making a living. But in me there was always this passion (for visual art) and when I turned a certain age, I gave myself permission to get more into painting."
   About five years ago, the art inside of her essentially bubbled over. The owner of the Riverrun Gallery in Lambertville admired some original works Ms. Maher brought in to have framed and offered her a show.
   "I called that show ‘Thanks Picasso,’" she says. "The story goes that after (his lover) Francesca left him, Picasso locked himself in his studio and painted like crazy, which is what I did. I went into my room and did something like 80 paintings — and sold 60."
   Ms. Maher also has had shows at American Cyanamid Gallery in West Windsor and has been a judge for numerous shows at ETS and other area galleries.
   Perhaps her most ardent love is for teaching, however. Ms. Maher shares her knowledge, skills and enthusiasm with students in the Titusville area as well as New York City. She also is involved with a special program at the Jewish Community Center in Ewing, teaching music, voice and social skills to disabled young adults."
   "I’m lucky to be a teacher," Ms. Maher says. "It brings me such sanity and joy. Teaching is a gift."
Women and Their Pets, multi-media works by Deborah Maher, is on view at the Peggy Lewis Gallery, Lambertville Public Library, 6 Lilly St., Lambertville, through Feb. 7. Closing reception: Feb. 7, 1-4 p.m., with vocal performances by Ms. Maher and friends at 2 p.m. Gallery hours: Mon.-Thurs. 1-9 p.m., Fri. 1-5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For information, call (609) 397-0275.