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Tribute to Prehistoric Art and Artists Offered In Joyce Harris Mayer Exhibit at Villanova Gallery

Joyce Harris Mayer image

Villanova, Pa.In her upcoming solo exhibit at the Villanova University Art Gallery, Joyce Harris Mayer continues a theme of her long and celebrated career – paying homage in art to the prehistoric artists whose pictures and symbols provided images of civilization tens of thousands of years before the printed word came along.

Mayer's exhibit, Rondels: Digital Experiments with Space, Line, Color and Form, is her paean to the Paleolithic Age artists who engraved their work on shaped animal bones, creating what is believed to be the world's first circular art form. The free public exhibit featuring 43 of the Medford, NJ, artist's abstract rondels opens Friday, January 10, in Villanova's on-campus Art Gallery in the Connelly Center. An artist's reception will take place on January 17, from 5 to 7 pm. Refreshments will be served. Convenient free parking is available.

Discovered in caves in Europe's Pyrenees Mountains, the 25,000-year-old rondels offer representations of animal life and symbols that have come to be seen more as forms of communication than decoration. Measuring about 21 inches in diameter, all of Mayer's own rondels bear sharply defined, color-rich abstract images carrying names such as 'Color.Dot.Chaos', 'Homage to the Birth of Art', 'Crescent Moon', and 'Green, Grey, White, Black'.

In most cases, the titles are not terribly cryptic. 'Crescent Moon' features one, 'Homage to the Birth of Art' includes a fetus shape and images of a cow and calf drawn in replication of those found on original rondels; 'Croqui' is dominated by soft, dark green shapes, some with goggle-like green circles appended. There's a lot more going on beyond title references in the vibrant, color- and form-rich images, which Mayer hopes viewers of her Villanova exhibit will take the time to stop and consider.

Mayer sees art as one of the oldest of all human intellectual endeavors, and for her personally, significantly more than that: “All my work is a sacred engagement in the act of creating art. My life has been greatly enriched by the inspiration I receive from the images created by artists I have never met, but have come to love. My Villanova exhibit is a celebration of their accomplishments.”

Born in Queens nearly 79 years ago, Mayer's desire to be an artist was strongly opposed by her parents. Battered by the Depression of the 1930s, they insisted she be a secretary, an attainable position for a woman in the early 1950s, and one that offered a steady income. Fortunately for Mayer, then Joyce Harris, her teachers at William Cullen High School saw her artistic promise and helped her obtain a scholarship to the Institute of Applied Arts and Science in New York, where she thrived. “The New York public school system gave me my life,” she says.

By age 22, Mayer was a Madison Avenue art director, one of the first women to reach such a height in the then solidly glass-ceilinged New York City commercial art world. Even so, she found art work for hire unfulfilling. “To me, art is not commerce, or a commodity to be revered for its craftsmanship alone. It is a calling, and a great intellectual achievement to be respected.”

Keeping her day job, she worked on her own art at night, and got a gallery in Greenwich Village to represent her. As a painter, printmaker, watercolorist, sculptor, and assemblage and ceramics artist, she produced art she felt she was called to create, gaining exposure for her work in galleries and exhibits, and winning honors in each medium. Years later, as time and insistent illness took its toll on her physical strength – but not her spirit – she would have to shift to computer-generated art and digital photography, gaining international recognition in those mediums, too.

The 1960s were a good time for artists such as Mayer, for whom wealth was not the force driving their work, to come into their own. Abstraction was in vogue and the fine art world was thriving aesthetically, critically and socially. Of then, an art insider later recalled: “The most wonderful time to be in the art world was in the sixties because it wasn't a business.” It would be soon enough.

Aestheticism in visual art took a strong hit from the pop art movement led by Andy Warhol, who proposed money as the principal incentive for making art. “Making money,” he famously said, “is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Many heard fine art's death knell sounding.

“The cry went out that visual art was dead and had to reinvent itself,” Mayer writes of the impact of the 1970s' pop art phenomenon. “Yet, at this very moment, the Paleolithic cave art had been discovered in France, and in Africa archaeologists discovered our ancient human ancestors. . . I perceived a fusion of ancient and modern art as a source for making images.”

Mayer's keen interest in the connection between prehistoric and modern art developed into an intense intellectual pursuit, attested to by her extensive private library on the subject that takes up three-plus walls in her Medford home. She once calculated that she spent 25 hours a week on her art and 50 hours researching it.

While striving for motherhood after her marriage in 1969 to Bernard Mayer, she became interested in the ancient “Great Mother” myth, creating and exhibiting a body of work on that. In 1979, her husband's work took the couple and their son Robert to New Orleans. Here she thrived, becoming a very active member in a vital, innovative art community while producing some of the most provocative and powerful work of her career, most notably, 'The Cave of Art'.

Featuring 14 floor-to-ceiling abstract oil paintings and monoprints, with texturing to give the feel of cave walls, her exhibit took up five rooms of the Mario Villa Gallery. “How many times in a career does an artist get to have an exhibit that takes up five rooms in a gallery?” she poses.

Starting in the early 1990s, Mayer had to reinvent herself as an artist. A spinal fracture forced her to give up virtually all of the physical work attendant to the artist's life. Lymphoma caused solvents, widely used in painting and printing, to become toxic to her. Not to be deterred, she called upon her son Robert to show her how to use the computer. (“The smartest thing I ever did for myself was to agree to buy him a computer when he was in high school,” she says.) Back to work she went, to become multiply honored as a computer artist.

A very partial list of public institutions holding her art is the New Orleans Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Yale University Cancer Center, the Dedalo Center for Contemporary Art in Abruzzo, Italy, and the Leon Ettal Sculpture House in New York City. Her work also hangs in the board room of the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans.

Her recognitions include the Fine Art Award for Digital Print, awarded by Judith Brodsky, founder of the Rutgers (NJ) Center for Innovative Printmaking; the Otis B. Morse award from Michael Smith, director of the Philadelphia Print Center; and the American Color Print Society's Stella Drabkin Memorial Award. She is also recipient of the National Association of Women Artists' Medal of Honor.

'Rondels' continues to February 20. All exhibits at the Villanova University Art Gallery are free and open to the public. The Art Gallery is open weekdays from 9 am well into most evenings. For extended and weekend hours, and other information, telephone the Art Gallery at (610) 519-4612. Selected works from the Joyce Harris Mayer exhibit may be previewed at

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others.  There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.