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The groundbreaking art career of Theresa Pollak at Reynolds Gallery 

click to enlarge “Plant Cuttings and Sundry,” 1970, colored chalk on paper.

“Plant Cuttings and Sundry,” 1970, colored chalk on paper.

The year was 1928 and all Richmond Professional Institute instructor Theresa Pollak was asking was to use nude models in the art classes she would be teaching.

"Our final decision is that we will not use such models for a number of years, if ever," the typewritten letter from the dean states. "Bathing suits and track suits may be used."

It wasn't until 1950 that Pollak taught her first class using nude models at RPI, a practice which set the art program she'd spearheaded apart from nearly every other school in the South.

With a nod to the 90th anniversary of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts, "Theresa Pollak: the Wonder of Life" at Reynolds Gallery, offers a detailed look at how the 1917 graduate of John Marshall High School and 1921 graduate of University of Richmond's Westhampton College established a world-class art school in Richmond while transcending barriers in the art world.

Part history lesson — a timeline with critical events, letters and photographs marches across the gallery walls — and part art show, Pollak's works are hung above the timeline to provide a sense of her artistic development. The exhibit demonstrates the determination of an artist who sought out the creative stimulation she needed while encouraging her students to do the same.

Pollak, who was born in the 19th century, worked throughout the 20th and died in the 21st, spent the years between 1912 and 1917 studying at the Richmond Art Club with founders Adele Clark and Nora Houston. Years later, she recalled that, "in the early part of the century, when I was a child in Richmond, there was no art gallery or museum, no art in the colleges and no art in school — except for the Richmond Art Club."

The absence of avenues at home for her to expand her creative consciousness led to her seeking out formal training at the renowned Art Students' League in New York. There, professional artists taught, but also worked alongside up-and-coming students like Alexander Calder. As part of her first group show at the Studio Club in 1926, Pollak won first prize.

Back in Richmond by 1928, the young artist was asked to develop an art department at RPI, Virginia Commonwealth University's predecessor. A letter in the exhibition dated June 11, 1928, spells out the school's formal notification of her teaching appointment in drawing, painting and composition, with a caveat that her pay would be tied to the number of students who took her classes, a needless concern since her first class quickly surpassed studio capacity. Pollak hadn't been the only one starved for art instruction and influence.

As late as age 59, Pollak was still searching for fresh ways to make art. A letter from March 1958 to abstract expressionist Hans Hoffmann shows her asking the noted artist and teacher if he'll include her in his summer class, "…to enlarge my concept and better enable me to carry on with students in my classes who have studied with you." The four works in the exhibit done under Hoffmann's influence — lyrical abstractions using black and white washes of watercolor — demonstrate how Pollak learned to create structure and space through gesture and value contrast rather than relying on cubistlike lines.

After being faculty chairwoman at the School of the Arts from 1942 through 1950, she retired after 41 years of teaching, stating in a letter that her association with the school had been "one of deep satisfaction and challenge." The university named its School of the Arts building after her in 1971.

When she was 83, she had her first solo show at Reynolds Gallery, a partnership that continued through five more shows, concluding with 1990's "Celebration of 100 Years: Theresa Pollak Works on Paper." From that first exhibition on, she and then-gallery owner Bev Reynolds became friends, with Reynolds holding an annual birthday party for the artist.

Included in the exhibition are two nudes, one from 1942 done while she was part of the Art Students' League and another from 1951, the year after she won her battle to use nude models in Richmond. The most recent work on display is "Untitled, 1984," a loosely drawn ink image of a streetscape with pastels used for jolts of color on trees, buildings and sky.

Fittingly, the show closes with a quote on the wall from Pollak in her own handwriting. "Life is a wonderful thing — just life — just to be alive, to breathe, to move, to feel with the fingertips, to have sensation. It is wonderful because it's a mystery and a miracle." S

"Theresa Pollak: the Wonder of Life" through Oct. 26 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. reynoldsgallery.com

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