NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. (AP) — Bill DeBernardi has turned people watching into an art form — literally — for his one-man homecoming exhibit, "An American Festival #55 (Stale)," under way this month at Penn State's New Kensington campus.
The Allegheny Township native and former Hyde Park resident, an award-winning artist and an art professor at Carlow University, returns to the campus where he began his studies in 1974 after graduation from Kiski Area High School to lead what he calls a "parade of people" on the gallery walls.
The 101 paintings, ranging from very small (2 inches square) to two oils that are life-size, most of them rendered in the past three years, are an extension of his concentration over the past 10 years on the human figure in natural, everyday environments.
In isolating each figure, or multiple figures, DeBernardi says his "snapshots" of everyday life experiences allow him to examine the many nuanced aspects of the people with whom we all casually cross paths at festivals, tourist attractions and on the street.
"It allows me to see patterns in behavior, gesture, anatomical structure and social ritual that I find fascinating," he explains. "My goal is to examine and explore the subtle variety and nuance of all of us as we experience and observe a particular human experience — a slice of Americana, if you will," he says.
The basis for that approach came early on in his classes under Bud Gibbons, gallery director and professor at Penn State, New Kensington, and now his colleague.
"Bud has an enthusiasm about art that has inspired and influenced many of his students. The grandeur of his work reflects that enthusiasm," says DeBernardi, 57, who was an adjunct instructor in art at Penn State New Kensington from 1982 to 1994.
"One of the most important concepts that I got from him was that art was not only a manner to create an object of some beauty, but rather a tool to be used to explore the world around you. That changed everything for me. It gave the pursuit of art a much deeper meaning."
Gibbons says he admires the in-depth focus his former student demonstrates in his work, whether it is still-life, landscape or figural. "He has the skill and insight to make his images speak to us," Gibbons says. "His figurative work seems to be a study of the human condition amplified by capturing unguarded moments. In these, we recognize ourselves and people we know. He gives us that rare gift; a view of the world from the perspective of a skilled observer."
DeBernardi says he views art as a way to express observations and create a conversation with those who see it.
"It allows one human to convey to another human what we are experiencing as humans. It is storytelling with deep philosophical possibilities. It satisfies our quest for harmony and affirms our life experiences. Its vistas are endless," he says.
His work has been shown in regional and national exhibitions and internationally in China, France and Venezuela. His paintings are in private, corporate and museum collections throughout the United States and in France, Italy and South America.
He is driven by the fact that there is always more to learn.
"I want to observe more deeply, and I want to express more clearly the immense power of what is around us and, as with this show, what is part of us. So, it is easy to get motivated when you look at everything around you with honest curiosity. The payoff of occasionally touching on some larger truth in your work is a powerful motivator."
He photographs people discreetly whenever he is out and then sorts through the images for ideas.
"One of the things that has always struck me was how a small child that is being carried through a crowd or wheeled in a stroller will stare at and examine each individual that walks by in a curious, but nonjudgmental way," he says. "It is all new — every combination, every type. I want to be that mesmerized and fascinated with whatever I paint, and I see these children as a good example of that joy and curiosity in the tapestry around them."
DeBernardi hopes that viewers of his work see through his eyes. "I want them to be able to be as intrigued with the nuances of the subject as I am," he says.
Information from: Valley News Dispatch, http://www.valleynewsdispatch.com