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March 12, 2008

Southampton Artists Keep To Their Mission: Art Is Life


Through their work, artists reflect the cultural moods and mores of a society. But the essential element for any artist is the need to express a personal vision.

With the first streak of paint across canvas, or the first manipulation of clay an artery from the artist's imagination has formed. And for most, being an artist is a lifelong passion. Their goal is simply to keeping improving.

Unpolluted by arrogant elitists or carping artistes, the Southampton Artists Association keeps to its mission of supporting its members' creative outlets.

"Our fundamental purpose is to become better painters, better sculptors, better photographers," said George Andrews, a founding member of the Association.

SAA artists employ a wide range of mediums from collage to fine art, and anything in between.

The Association has only two rules, Andrews explained. One, there are no juried art shows, where work is pre-judged. "We do not make any restrictions. We do not discourage anyone from continuing to develop their art."

Rule number two is that the Center exists to create the opportunity for artistic expression, not to operate a gallery business "We do not sell any of the paintings. The paintings are always a matter of the artist and a person," said Andrews. "If someone wants to buy it, your name is on the program and they can get in touch with you – some galleries take 50 percent of what you can get. It really discourages people."

SAA was formed 20 years ago with just three members, and has since grown to about 150 members, according to last year's numbers. Not every member is an artist; "Some are just interested in art," said Dom Lamontanaro, SAA vice president.

And the members' backgrounds are as varied as their art.

"I'm a retired chemist who's been painting from when I was a very small boy," said Lamontanaro. "I paint landscapes, figurative work. My style is . . . varied, eclectic, as they say." He uses oil, pastels and acrylics, which is typical of the painters in SAA.

"I was a dancer on Broadway and TV," said Aura Levitas, president of SAA, explaining her entry into the art world. The arts have been a part of her life on and off for decades. These days she is working in mixed media, or assemblage, and exhibits her work at the Association's shows.

"Our mission was to give artists in our locality, regardless of their professional status," gallery space to exhibit their work, "at a nominal cost," said Lamontanaro.

Their gallery is located in The Levitas Center For The Arts at the Southampton Cultural Center in Southampton Village. The Center was named after Willard Levitas, who was a scenic art director for television.

"He did all the big shows in the 1950s, 'Studio One,' 'The Defenders,' said his wife Aura. His TV credentials also included the first two Barbra Streisand specials and "East Side/West Side" with George C. Scott.

The Levitas's joined SAA in 1987. "We were at the very first meeting," she said. Their enrollment was straightforward.

"Our friend was George Andrews and he came to the house one day and talked my husband into joining," she recalled. "My husband wasn't a joiner, but we thought, 'oh it would be a good thing for us to do out here and be involved.' George didn't realize that I was also into art at the time and I said, 'can I join?' and he said 'sure.'"

When Mr. Levitas passed away in 2001, he left a generous bequest to the Southampton Cultural Center, which was used to renovate and expand the space. The Levitas Center For The Arts opened two years ago.

In addition to offering art classes in sketching and figurative drawing, SAA also hosts five shows a year at the Levitas Center, plus an annual outdoors art show the third weekend in July. The two-day fair is held at Agawam Park, across the street from the Center, and features work by Long Island artists, SAA members and non-members alike. Last year, close to 60 artists signed up and that number is expected to rise again this year.

Most recently, SAA presented The 8th Annual Student Artist Invitational, an art exhibit and competition for high school seniors and juniors attending schools stretching from East Hampton to Middle Island. There were honorable mentions and winners for "Best in" categories for painting, drawing and printmaking, photography, mixed media, sculpture and electronic and computer art. The exhibit will be on view at the gallery through Sunday.

Under the new leadership of Aura Levitas, The Southampton Artists Association is spending greater time on giving the group more structure and growing its membership. In the meantime, members can stay informed of upcoming classes and events by reading the Association's quarterly newsletter. For more information, call the Center at 287-4377.

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