When they met five and a half years ago at the Hammonton Arts Center, artists Barbara Maxwell and Cheryl Crews had no idea they had so much in common. But they knew they wanted to stay in touch.
The two artists had attended the Philadelphia College of Art at the same time but had never met. They were born two days apart in December 1946. They both lived in Camden County as children.
And they both enjoyed writing letters.
So Maxwell, of Sweetwater, Mullica Township, and Crews, of the Villas section of Lower Township, began writing to each other at least once a day. Now, more than 1,500 of their letters have become part of an exhibit at the Atlantic Cape Community College Art Gallery in Mays Landing. “Corresponding Women,” featuring paintings, drawings and letters by Crews and Maxwell, will be on display through Dec. 5.
“When I saw that Cheryl had not jumped on the email bandwagon, it was obvious that she liked to write by hand,” said Maxwell. “And I liked her so much, and I felt like we had so much in common, I was pretty sure we would end up being friends.”
“I wanted to be friends with an artist,” she said. “That was really my motivation in writing the letters.”
When their correspondence began, Maxwell was living on her own because her husband had died. With his pension, Maxwell was able to leave her job and paint full time. It was something she’d always wanted to do, but she found she was spending a lot of time alone.
She enjoyed knowing that there’d be a letter from Crews just about every day.
“That back and forth with Cheryl and seeing the letter from her every day, it was like, ‘There are other people in the world still,’” Maxwell said.
When they met, Crews was teaching at the Hammonton Arts Center. When Crews saw Maxwell’s work, she realized she was another very committed artist.
“When we started the correspondence, we realized we could discuss our art, but then, the letters were enriched because we also talked about our lives,” said Crews.
Crews’ father uprooted her family and moved to Avalon when it was a deserted place in the winter. Maxwell’s family moved from suburbia to the Pinelands and the Mullica River. Growing up, they both spent time looking at the water, the sky and the stars and realizing that some of their art would reflect nature.
Both women feel most safe, most relaxed and most at ease when they are out in nature, Maxwell said.
“I know that we share that, that being with nature is the place to be,” said Maxwell.
“It’s fun to think how our friendship has grown because of the letters,” Crews said. “We have dug into our pasts. We have shared that. We worked out a lot of issues that we needed to resolve.”
And they have helped each other through some dramatic life events. When the correspondence began, Maxwell was recently widowed, while Crews was newly married.
“When I started out (painting full time), I wasn’t sure it was OK. My husband would have never thought that was a good idea,” Maxwell said. “Cheryl got it. She had done it when she lived that way. I became more and more convinced that this is what I was meant to be doing.”
The exhibit grew from a conversation between Crews and Joyce Hagan, Atlantic Cape’s art gallery coordinator. Crews, who is an art teacher at the college’s Cape May Court House Campus, mentioned that she and Maxwell had been writing letters, had a lot of them, and that it might be interesting to display the letters somehow in an exhibition.
Joyce agreed. She was surprised people still wrote letters and committed to writing and mailing them every day.
“It was a delight to work with both artists and to install the exhibit with the hopes that the community will come and be enriched and inspired by it,” Joyce said.
To put the exhibit together, the artists began to host potluck evenings and “stringing bees,” where friends and other artists and writers gathered to help string together the letters with long ribbons.
Carpenter Michael Stoehr, of Sweetwater, built the structure to hang the letters. Hammonton artist Donnetta Irvis created handmade books, so the public could read some of the letters.
Besides the structure holding their 1,500 letters, the exhibit also features oil paintings by Maxwell in her postmodern impressionistic style and portraits and landscapes by Crews, whose work is inspired by nature and by growing up in Cape May County.
“Barbara and I are both amazed, thrilled and delighted that we are as old as we are and as young as we feel — and do and think and be,” Crews said.