ARCHIVE: Clara Gee, the Art of Longevity

moFountainOfYouthArtist ClaraGee Stamaty celebrates 90 years of impeccable style, inspired by the sleek sensibilities of classic magazine illustration and postwar design — in a retrospective on display at the JCC’s Gallery on Grant in Deal. 

By DOROTHY CREAMER (First published on Red Bank oRBit May 15, 2009)

“I always knew this was what I was meant to do,” muses ClaraGee Stamaty, as she looks back over an illustrious illustrative career that spans more than half a century.

The soon-to-be 90-year-old resident of Elberon will be celebrating her birthday this Friday, May 15 — but there won’t be any low-key cake cutting and tuneless warbling of “Happy Birthday” for this local artist. This weekend marks the opening of her latest solo exhibition, 90 and Looking Forward, on display at the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center of Monmouth in Deal, beginning with an Artist’s Reception at 3pm on Sunday, May 17 at the center’s Gallery on Grant.

No one, least of all young ClaraGee Kastner herself, could have predicted the path on which life would take this daughter of a small, quiet Ohio town. It was while attending the Art Academy of Cincinnati that she met her future first husband, Stan Stamaty. The lovebirds both became published artists in their own rights — but together they made a dynamic drawing duo, who collaborated on such nationally read features as “Life’s Little Miracles” for American Magazine, and “Budget Busters” for Better Homes & Gardens.

Teenagers were an early theme of ClaraGee’s best known cartoons for such major publications as SeventeenLadies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Day. Energetic and glamorous in an all-American way, the teenage girls who populated her early work were rendered with the sleek design sense of the era, and the young female cartoonist’s knack for finding the humor in everyday situations struck a chord with the public.

Forging her career during a time when women were expected to merely keep the home fires burning, ClaraGee never saw limiting herself as an option. Instead, she made the leap into the often cut-throat world of illustration, an endeavor of which she says, “there is a lot of competition out there, but at least you don’t have to stay young and beautiful — it’s okay to get older.”

Red Bank oRBit chatted with this nonstop nonagenarian, to find out where and how to tap her fountain of youth.

RED BANK ORBIT: You really aren’t showing any signs of slowing down, are you?

CLARAGEE STAMATY: Well I am, a little bit! I had hoped this exhibit would be all new work, but time escaped me — so it’s become a retrospective, with some new work.

How did this most recent show at the JCC come about?

I have had various “landmarks of my age” exhibits. For my 80th birthday I had a show at the Guild of Creative Art in Shrewsbury, and another one at the Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon for my 75th.

My late husband, Stanley Stamaty, and I met at art school. We were married for 35 years. He was a cartoonist too — he had been published in theSaturday Evening Post. And our son, Mark Alan Stamaty is also a published artist. We had a three-person show at the JCC one time.

After my husband passed away, my son and I had an expo and I’ve had shows on my own. This was before they remodeled and opened the current gallery on Grant Avenue. I always thought that it would be fun to have one at the new gallery and I figured, “I’m turning 90!”

You were finishing high school at the tail end of the Great Depression. Did that affect you continuing your education?

I graduated from high school in 1936. My sister was in college at Ohio State at the time. Because of the financial situation, my father couldn’t afford to send us to school simultaneously, so I waited for her to graduate.

I can’t imagine that Piqua, Ohio, where you grew up, had much in the way of art galleries. What was it like for you to move to an environment that could truly foster your artistic growth?

There wasn’t too much available. It was a little town about 30 miles north of Dayton. At that time not everyone had cars, so it was harder to just go someplace. There were some museums in Dayton, but back then you didn’t drive that far to go visit places like that. When I attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati, it was connected to the Cincinnati Art Museum. It was wonderful because students could wander over and look at Rembrandts and all the old masters.

You also managed to find a husband between classes. Is the fact that he was a cartoonist the reason why you started cartooning?

Well, it actually started earlier than that for me. I loved art in school and a lot of young girls at that time drew profiles, it was a sort of stage of growing up, or at least it seems to have been for many people I have known. I love to draw anything, and cartooning was a natural extension. More importantly though, I had a good sense of humor! I love to laugh. I could always hear a part of a conversation and I could put a gag line on it.

Where do you find your inspiration?

It depends on what I’m doing. When I was doing cartoons I could find inspiration anywhere. While in school I lived at the Three Arts Club – it housed students studying art, music and drama. My friends were typical college-age women, and I would just observe them and listen to conversations. I would find ideas just walking down the hallway past the communal payphone, or when I would go out for a Coke.

Did marriage and motherhood change your work because your frame of reference for inspiration was different?

It did influence me in several ways. For instance, when I had my son, I didn’t have as much time to draw, so my husband and I collaborated. One time I was out pushing Mark in a carriage. My mind was reeling because I had tons of work to do and I was thinking that if I accomplished all the things I wanted to do it would be one of life’s little miracles. It just struck me that that sentiment would be a good series. I ran home and told Stan about it and we wound up doing a monthly two-panel cartoon that appeared in American Magazine, “Life’s Little Miracles.” He did the drawing and I came up with the ideas.

We also worked together on two series, “Budget Busters” and “If It Isn’t One Thing It’s Another,” that were spawned because of our freelancing lifestyle living between paychecks.

Did you and your husband assume that your offspring would naturally be artistic?

He was a born artist. There was one night that Stan went to kiss Mark good night and he didn’t realize that a ballpoint pen had dropped out of his pocket into the crib. The next morning I found Mark holding the pen in his fist, scribbling all over the crib.

He really has an extraordinary amount of talent. I am in awe of him; he’s done some remarkable things. I say that not just as a bragging mama, which I am, but as a fellow artist who believes he has tremendous talent.

What brought you to New Jersey?

We were living in Dayton and Stan was going in once a year to contact the publishers we worked for in person. We decided it would be better to live closer to New York. First we relocated to Connecticut, then to Brooklyn Heights and finally we moved to Elberon in 1950. It was a long way around, but I’m glad we did. I love the ocean. Up until recently I was walking the boardwalk every day up to four miles. I hope to get back to it; it’s just so hard to find the time.

You were a successful working artist, but you decided to start teaching. What caused that career switch?

At the time I was doing a cartoon series for Scholastic called Ginny. The subject matter was kids complaining about homework…the simple things that teenagers were interested then. The books had been selling to high schoolers, but then started selling to 10- and 11-year-olds. Scholastic wanted me to get more sophisticated, but I didn’t want to do cartoons about teenagers sleeping around or smoking pot. I was not that sophisticated! So I thought maybe I’d do something different.

Was it a hard transition?

It was sort of a natural for me. I had done a lot of demonstrations across the state showing how to do various techniques that I had employed. I was hired to teach art for the summer at Colony Surf Club in Elberon and I loved it. I taught at the Guild of Creative Art in Shrewsbury, where I am an exhibiting artist. I also offered classes in my own studio at my home.

I had to change my signature in order to teach in my home though. For a while I was using ClaraGee Kastner, my maiden name, on my published work, but I had to use Stamaty because in those years you couldn’t say you were ClaraGee Kastner living with Stan Stamaty. It wasn’t nice then. My, how times have changed!

What can we look forward to seeing at this exhibit?

I am so proud of this show. They did a beautiful job of hanging and grouping everything. It features work across my career, including a charcoal drawing that I did of my father in 1939. That’s the earliest piece. There is also a self-portrait in oil that goes back to 1940.

I am also pleased with a series I did featuring Hebrew calligraphy. My second husband, Milton Ziment, was teaching an adult Hebrew class, so I decided to enroll. I started putting the Hebrew into my paintings. I would find quotes in prayer books that impressed and inspired me.

Do you have a favorite piece?

I guess the last…well, the latest piece. I don’t want it to be my last! It truly reflects my simple wisdom that if everybody loved one another, it would be a better world. It is a collage that features the sentiments “people come in different colors” and “all blood is red.”  It will be a part of a series when I finish the other installations.

So this is art with a message?

There are a couple pieces that voice my opinions on peace and love. I hope that people get curious to learn about other people so they don’t have to be afraid of or hate them. I want people to want to educate themselves about other religions and races and try to get along.

Can we count on a 100th year exhibit or are you planning on retiring?

I hope I don’t ever have to retire. I love what I’m doing. I guess technically, I’m retired, but I don’t ever want to say that I’ll never paint or do any artwork again!

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