Corina Willette: “Our” Artist Goes to School
By Barbara Neville Wilson
If you had taken the traditional “Back to School” photo of a grinning Corina Willette on her first day of class last month, she might have been carrying the requisite box—but it would be a paint box. She may have been showing off new pencils—but they would be colored pencils. She was probably wearing new shoes—stylish walking shoes to carry her both on the paths of SUNY New Paltz, New York state’s flagship college for the visual arts, and along Manhattan’s West 57th Street where Galerie St. Etienne is located.
In higher education parlance, Corina is a “non-traditional” learner. She is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts as a 40-something year old and looks forward to complementing her natural talent, life experience and first non-traditional degree from the New Hampshire Institute of Art with lessons learned from renowned professors and a cohort of fellow students immersed in a variety of media; and on-the-ground, hands-on experience at the globally resonant Galerie St. Etienne.
A 27-year resident of the Lakes Region who lived in a small town in Vermont for 19 years before that, Corina is like most students entering new schools: filled with equal parts excitement and courage, boldness and trepidation. She wants to take advantage of every educational and artistic opportunity offered yet admits that when confronted with the 95-degree heat of a commuter train, she really misses New Hampshire’s cool air.
Perhaps you already know Corina’s work…
“Oh yes,” you say confidently. “I love her little paintings displayed front row at The Art Place in Wolfeboro, the little animals on unexpected backgrounds. She is a watercolorist.”
“Watercolorist? Oh no. I think her real love is oil,” a friend might reply. “Did you see her study of four women at The Kalled Gallery a few months back? All given the same piece of fabric, each styled it differently with only their body as canvas. She’s definitely a serious introspective oil painter.”
“But her multi-media work…?” your shy friend interjects. ‘What about the pieces on Barbara Gibbs’ outer wall? That gossamer. The gold leaf. The wallpaper-like patterns. Surely she’s talking through the layers…”
It is precisely the variety in Corina’s work that makes Barbara Gibbs, owner of The Art Place and Corina’s former employer, shake her head and smile with respect. “She’s an interesting artist. Her little paintings of animals have a lot more to them than you first see…she uses different media [like gold leaf and textiles], and the patterns behind them make you wonder…there’s a lot going on in them. She’ll work on these little ones and then she’ll work on those big canvases. Life drawings. They’re oil, but she doesn’t apply it heavily. It’s almost like she uses the brush like a pencil.”
In the seven years Corina worked at Barbara’s gallery, she played many roles: she worked behind the scenes; she framed; she did retail in the shop, and Barbara watched her grow. She “did everything great up front,” Barbara says, but through the years, the artist has also continued to develop more fully. Her “sense of humor has come out” and she’s been “reaching out and finding herself. I’m proud of her for taking on this new adventure,” but it’s just one of many adventures. As an artist, Corina has refused to stand still.
Look at the roster of artists receiving support from the Governor Wentworth Arts Council, an organization dedicated to local arts education, celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018. Since 2007, Corina has received four of its scholarships to take classes, do workshops, and pursue her first Fine Arts degree. For Barbara, an artist’s continuing education shows they’re open, they want to keep expanding. “Whether a workshop or a formal process…any kind of education or hands-on [training]…solidifies you as an artist. It shows you haven’t closed yourself off, that you’re willing to learn…and that’s Corina’s personality. She wants it all. She’s doing it all. She’s very open.”
Corina credits the Arts Council and Barbara for helping her grow. It’s not easy to pursue art, make a living, and carve out time to continue to develop as an artist. “I don’t know many jobs that can be so supportive” as The Art Place, she says. She points to the flexibility Barbara allowed in her work schedule so she also could work at Galerie St Etienne, on tony West 57th Street in Manhattan, six to eight weeks a year. There she handles art, does registry work, fixes frames and—you can almost hear a breathless giggle in her voice—basks in the presence of gallery owners Jane Kallir and Hildegard Bachert, serious academics on the world scene of Austrian and German Expressionism. It’s truly a situation where it’s the “back woods mouse goes to the big city,” Corina says. Applying for the job after graduating from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2011 was a genuine leap from her comfort zone, but having just left school, she saw a desert before her. “I pursued it because I was desperate for more education, more background…plus…” —again, you hear that little giggle—"New York City is so interesting.”
For the next two years Corina will call New Paltz, NY, home base. With a cohort of 20 or more fellow graduate students, she will explore her art in new ways. While she goes into the program describing herself as an illustrative artist engaged in figurative realism, she knows she will be sharpened and challenged by the other artists around her, only a portion of whom are equally engaged in creating art that “sees the world and tries to represent it as they see it” in (generally) two dimensions. She expects that little time will pass before her art starts to bear witness to the influence of the fine printmakers, photographers, ceramicists and sculptors also enrolled in the MFA program.
Corina finds she is more creative when surrounded by other artists. When she first entered the New Hampshire Institute of Art, she says, “I felt like I was in my true soul community for the first time.”
Now like a little kid standing on the doorstep for the annual “First Day of School” photo, she is excited by all the fresh opportunity offered at SUNY New Paltz and in the New York metropolitan area. She mentions how happy she is to be in this phase of life when her children are launched and she has more time before her. Women today are lucky, she says. “I think the world is newly open [to us] through opportunities like this. It shows we’re not passé.”
See Corina Willette’s paintings in a variety of media at The Art Place at 9 North Main Street in Wolfeboro and follow the artist’s journey on Instagram at corinajwil.