Julie Crothers jcrothers@reporter-times.com
August 30, 2012

Though somewhat of a “best-kept-secret,” Martinsville has all the makings of an artist’s dream gallery, says visiting watercolor artist Jo Bidner.

Since June, Bidner has been working as a guest artist at the Art Sanctuary, 190 N. Sycamore St., Martinsville. Although born and raised in Ohio, Bidner left the Midwest area for a career in Brooklyn, New York, returning “home” for the occasional art show or exhibition.

“I quite literally fell in love with this town,” she said. “I drove down a residential street filled with just normal, everyday houses and felt the strongest attachment to it.

“I then returned home (to New York) and still, I felt good feelings about the place. At that time, I had no idea there was any art connection at all.”

A year later, Bidner returned to the Indianapolis area to attend the Midwest National Abstract Art Exhibition and while there, met Gretchen Hunt, a Martinsville artist.

“When Jo and I met, she was asking about studio spaces in the area. She was delighted when I told her about the Art Sanctuary,” Hunt said. “In April, she came and scoped it out and by November, we had some plans in place for her  to make a short visit.

“We have so many bungalows in this area, perfect for artists trying to work.”

Bidner then connected with Ron Stanhouse, the Art Sanctuary’s manager.

Stanhouse said he was thrilled to find Bidner was interested in a studio at the sanctuary and together, they began finding a place for her to stay in Martinsville.

“She came to me talking about how she fell in love with Martinsville and felt like she had this connection to the area,” Stanhouse said. “She kept telling me that she wanted to come here to create art.”

In June, she did just that.

“I had hit a wall in my painting and was in need of a change of scenery,” Bidner said. “So I packed up, and came. I arrived at the studio on a Tuesday I believe it was, and by the end of the week, I had a home just four blocks away from my new studio space.”

A few stops at Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity and garage sales later, she’d managed to fully furnish her new home.

And then, it was back to the drawing board as she began to pull herself out of her painter’s block and again begin creating beautiful abstract pieces.

“I brought three pieces with me that I had thrown into my ‘failure’ pile,” she said. “That’s where the pieces go when I just can’t find a direction to head with them.”

In her time since she arrived in June, those three works — and a variety of others — have found their purpose and direction and are featured in her Art Sanctuary gallery.

Training in technique

Bidner, 77, refers to her work as an artist as her “fourth career,” although most of her previous jobs have also been art-focused, she said. Her other careers have included identifying lace at the Brooklyn Museum, teaching art at a university and studying to teach English as a second language so she could travel the world and take photos. She also learned the art of pinhole photography, a lesson that she says taught her to understand depth in images, and studied fashion and design.

For many years, she traveled throughout the country and to France, studying, learning and falling more and more in love with the world art.

“It was 12 years ago when I picked up a brush for the first time,” Bidner said. “I sold my condo, cut my expenses more than in half and started painting full time. I cannot believe I’ve come this far this fast.”

Although her background in art played a major role in her future, so too did her relationship with her husband, Robert. “My husband was an artist and I’d watch the work that he did. I think I learned that way too,” she said.

It wasn’t long before Bidner realized she, too, could create art and she began studying with a local teacher named Andy Reiss.

“For a year and a half, I did nothing but draw spheres and shapes and lines,” Bidner said. “But slowly, I began feeling absolutely pulled into the work.”

Through her individualized art education, she learned “the best of old master techniques.”

“There are so many people, artists, with plenty of talent, but no skill. And here I was, learning the skills and then finding my talent,” she said. “I starting learning from everyone I could find.”

Once she had trained herself in drawing, Bidner began using oils on canvas. When she discovered later that she was allergic to that medium, she switched to watercolor — a choice that she calls “the no-rule medium.”

“Watercolor, it has no rules. You can rub it, layer it, glaze it. If I don’t like (how it looks), I take it into the shower with me and just wash it off,” Bidner said. “I love that about it. There are no rules.

“I never dreamed I’d have this kind of success with my painting.”

Come the first week of October, Bidner plans to return to her home in New York, where she’ll focus her energy on selling her work and reflecting on her time in Martinsville, but she won’t soon forget the home-away-from-home she found in Morgan County.

“People have been just absolutely friendly and welcoming,” Bidner said. “It’s been a most wonderful experience.”

To learn more about Jo Bidner, stop by her gallery at the Art Sanctuary in Martinsville or go online to www.JoBidner.com.