Down Jersey Magazine — October 2014
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The “Real” Deal: Elsie Donaghay
Dan Podehl

The phone rings. “Hello?” artist Elsie Donaghay kindly greets the person on the other end of the line. “No, thank you. I’m in the middle of a conversation with a gentleman at my kitchen table.”

The pleasant and energetic 80-year-old sits back down.

“It was Good Housekeeping calling for a subscription,” says Donaghay, a Cedarville resident. “I think my house is OK.”

Donaghay’s statement regarding her dwelling’s status is quite modest.

It’s pristine. It’s decorative. It’s homey. It’s comfortable.And, it’s full of artwork that a very skilled and talented Donaghay has produced over the past, more than half-century.

But, the finely detailed oil based paintings that hang from her walls aren’t the only medium found in her household. The daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. David Holding also has quite a following from her Victorian Gone With the Wind Lamp Globes painting work.

And during a most gracious house tour, media of charcoal, watercolor, and sketching works were observed, as well as a bust of her daughter, Helen, who was 7-years-old at the time of the sculpting.Additionally, if visitors peer toward her kitchen cabinets, they’ll notice a few colorfully hand painted acrylics of farm animals on the doors.

It’s a passion to paint in realism that has allowed Donaghay, the widow of the late Oliver Nichols, to live the life she loves, which includes teaching students.It’s also led to some generous offers for her work.

“I was once offered $2,000 for this one in New York City,” said Donaghay, pointing her Lilacs painting hanging from a wall in her dining room she had painted in 1969 from flowers she plucked from her backyard. “The gentleman asked to borrow it as a backdrop for his show and I said, yes.Well, after the show he offered me the money to buy it. But, I couldn’t, because I like it so much.”

Something else that is well received is the Victorian Gone With the Wind Lamp Globes. Donaghay says once her following got to the point where she was known “as the lady who painted lamp globes.” The lamps get their name from their appearance in the movie classic.

“What happened was area antique dealers would buy these bases for the lamps, Lilacs painted by Donaghay in but they had no tops,” said Donaghay, the mother of David, Leslie, Carl, and Helen, and grandmother of four. “So, I began painting the glass tops with my oils. They are not fired. I started to do it and it just flourished for me. Word got around fast and I had antique dealers from Tuckahoe, Woodstown, Delaware, because they had no artists that would paint these art globes.

“What would happen is ladies would buy the base that had a decorative design on it, but the top would be the blank white globe ball. I use oil paints and don’t fire them, which is unusual, because most would use powder paints and fire them. But, I have found my work doesn’t fade.They have held up for the last 50 years. All I do is spray varnish on them.”

Her meticulous work is well respected in the tri-state area. In fact, during a vacation trip to Niagara Falls 10 years ago, she stopped at an antique store in up state New York. While she was perusing, a familiar work of hers came into view: a lamp.

Donaghay knew it was her lamp, because she signs and dates them around the bottom.

“I was so dumbstruck,” said the former Miss Cedarville beauty pageant queen as she raised her hands in the air and chuckled. Donaghay continued her pageant trek competing for the Cumberland County Fair Queen and winning New Jersey’s Miss Vegetable pageant.

The Miss Vegetable Pageant led Donaghay to the Waldorf Astoria New York, where she finished third in the national Miss Vegetable Pageant, an event that promoted healthy eating.

Locally, a dealer in Monroeville, Jerry Thomas, through the years has ordered around 300 lamps from Donaghay, who added that she taught herself the technique of lamp painting and is a fan of the movie Gone with the Wind.

The lamps were what actually began Donaghay’s journey in painting. However, it was her affinity for sketching while she was sitting at her fourth grade desk in Cedarville School that started her on an artistic path.

Her teacher at the time, Mrs. Doughty, noticed that Donaghay did a lot of drawing and sketching during her free time.

Fast forward a few years later and Donaghay immediately enrolled in art classes at Bridgeton High School.After four years of classes, and upon graduation, Donaghay desired to begin private studies.

She began her studies with an artist named Mr. Joseph in Millville. A year later she was introduced to Russian painter Anatol Bonderenko who resided in Vineland. It was with Bonderenko that Donaghay developed her passion and technique in realism.

“He really took me places, meaning he really taught me how to paint.” Donaghay said. “He really taught me sketching and how to use colors, landscape. And he’d sit right next to me and watch every little thing I’d do. I’ll be honest. It made me nervous.”

After meeting once a week at his studio for six years, the sessions ceased.

“Out of nowhere he told me ‘You not study anymore.You just paint’,” Donaghay said.

“He felt I was ready to go out into the world. And this was coming from an artist and teacher that was very serious and strict, meaning he was very much into making sure the details of the painting would be seen. In fact, Cumberland County College, back then, hired him to paint President portraits. And I can still remember looking at his works, because you could see into his studio, and I’d look at his works and think will I ever get there? Will I ever paint with that much detail? And, I did. He told me you have to make a painting speak. It has to say something.”

After gaining the knowledge under Bonderenko’s watchful eye, Donaghay decided there was something else she’d like to try her hand at that would benefit her realism style: sculpting.

Her studies led her to the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, where she studied with Dr. Boris Blay.

Donaghay felt she needed to learn how to incorporate what exactly happens behind the back of the head when it comes to spacing, as well as facial detail.

“If you don’t master that concept then you’ll end up with a flat looking face on the canvas,” Donaghay explained.“When you paint you’re looking at the face, but you need to take into consideration other details.”

These details would be made evident rather quickly courtesy of Blay, when Donaghay began sculpting Helen’s head, her daughter who was 7 at the time. Donaghay recalls Helen sitting on a turntable, spinning slowly, to aid in creating the space behind the head as well as mastering the profile.Then, one of Donaghay’s learning experiences occurred.

“I’ll never forget this. Dr. Blay was sitting far away, across his large studio and we were all sculpting our subjects,” Donaghay said. “He got down off of his platform and he kept walking and walking and I thought...he’s coming to me. I thought I was doing OK, because I know my daughter. He said “I show to you...the nose.” He took his thumbs and pulled down on both sides of the nose and he could see from way up there that I was missing this detail.”

It’s that definition, that realism, she learned from Bonderenko and Blay, that Donaghay has shared with her students through the years.

One of those former students is former Dividing Creek resident Steve Lewis, who now works as an artist, painter, and artist teacher and has his own home studio in Leipzig, Germany.Lewis is the head of the arts department at Leipzig International School and teaches art to students from around the world in grades 6-12.

Like Donaghay, Lewis’ teachers encouraged him to take art lessons at a young age.Lewis’ mother was a nurse at the Millville hospital where Donaghay worked and she had heard that Donaghay gave lessons in the evening. Lewis began taking them in second grade.

He can still remember the sights and odors of her basement.

“Her basement studio was just amazing.The luring smell of turps and linseed oil greeted you in the kitchen, at the top of the steps,” said Lewis who recently surprised Donaghay with an unannounced visit to her house with his 11-year-old son Kaeden in early August. “Once down in the studio you saw paintings all over on tabletop easels and the second room was full of antique glass globe lamps of all shapes and sizes.

“I remember taking in my drawings of Looney Tunes characters and copied pictures from children’s books. I was so excited to meet a real artist for the first time. She was so nice and had such a friendly smile.”

Donaghay can effortlessly recall Lewis’ work as a pupil.

“What I knew about Steven was I could tell from the start he had what it takes and the talent,” Donaghay said. “Some of my students, parents want their kids to get an introduction to art, and you have to explain a lot to them. With Steve, you didn’t. He naturally understood shapes, forms and other complexities.”

Lewis, who continued his sessions through high school graduation, reflected kindly on his time spent in Donaghay’s studio.

“Elsie instilled a sense of perseverance in me,” said Lewis, who during his teenage years made drawings that were used for posters and T-shirt designs for the POW/MIA Association. “She could look at any picture and guide you step-by-step how to replicate the image of your choice. Even something that seemed at first an incomprehensible instruction would prove to create the perfect effect. No matter how difficult something seems, with the right amount of effort and patience everything is possible.”

As the years have passed Donaghay has had other unexpected rewarding moments, like the time Gloucester County College wanted to display 60 pieces of her work at a one-woman show. The experience yielded a lifetime memory when well-known and respected glass blower, painter and collector Paul Stankard purchased a painting of hers.

“It was wildflowers,” Donaghay said. “I remember thinking I’ve got an artist that is known for wild flower art in his paper weights and he’s interested in buying one of my works. I nearly dropped over having someone of his caliber purchasing my works. He still has it.”

And, just two years ago, Donaghay completed her largest series of paintings requested by Newport resident Steve Kutney.

The order was a series of portraits and scenes from the Civil War, including portraits of President Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.

“I was down in Delaware at a guy’s house and he had a portrait of Lincoln,” Kutney said. “I have been hung up on him for a while wanting a painting of Lincoln. I went to school with Elsie’s kids and I saw her daughter one day in the (Cumberland County) courthouse where I was doing a painting job. I asked her if her mom was still painting. She said yes.”

But it wasn’t easy on Donaghay, whose largest request from one person prior to Kutney’s was six paintings.

It wasn’t the workload that was the problem: It was Booth and Mrs. Lincoln in particular.

“I paint with passion,” Donaghay said. “I remember painting Booth and making him a bit angry, because as I was painting I was just hating him. I was thinking, “Why did you do that?”

“But Mrs. Lincoln really threw me for a loop.
The photo I was working with, her portrayal was so simple. She had nothing much to go by. Her face was plain. Her facial expression was plain.I had an awful time. The other guys had wrinkles and other defining features, but Mrs. Lincoln had none. It was so non-script. You would think something that simplified, you can blow it right out, but you can’t.The more simplified it is, the tougher it is. Now if it’s more complicated, I thrive with it.But, I finally got it.”

Donaghay and Kutney have also had a student and teacher relationship on occasion. Kutney, through his painting job, noticed area churches have recently dwindled in their religious figurine display. He had been told that the churches shelved them, because of their poor condition.

“What ended up happening is he offered to restore them for the churches,” Donaghay said. “I taught him how to restore them, but he has trouble with the eyes, so he restores most of the figures and I’d finish them off by touching up the eyes.”

As for one of Donaghay’s more heartfelt requests, that came from Mainline Fuel Company owner William Gould in Fairfield Township.

Gould had a little old black and white photograph of his dad, sitting on the fender of an old fuel truck.

“It was hung by a thumbtack in his office,” Donaghay said. “But he wanted it larger. He wanted an 18-by-24.”

Donaghay magnified it to achieve the details of the father’s face. And, at Gould’s request and choices, added color.

“It’s hanging in his office,” Donaghay said.

Today, Donaghay continues to teach, paint, and on the rare occasion complete a lamp.But, it’s the interaction with her students that’s most fulfilling.

“I teach detail, just as I was taught,” Donaghay said. “It’s very, very tight. Your work has to have definition. It has to talk to you and say something.And when a student gets that, it’s such a thrill.”
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