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Artist, 95, shows his cards
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Artist, 95, shows his cards

Exhibit is celebration of a creative explosion that began late in life

In his latest project, 95-year-old painter and sculptor George Tarr explores the imagery of playing cards, producing works currently on display at the Union Public Library art gallery.
In his latest project, 95-year-old painter and sculptor George Tarr explores the imagery of playing cards, producing works currently on display at the Union Public Library art gallery.

George Tarr’s home in West Orange is so full of his artworks, it’s quite clear that showing or selling them has never been his priority. The 95-year-old paints and sculpts and carves for sheer pleasure — and with apparently undiminished vitality.

But recently, he decided to go public with his latest project, a year-long exploration of playing-card images. The exhibition, “Visions of Playing Cards and Variants,” is on display until Feb. 13 at the Les Malamut Art Gallery at the Union Public Library.

Despite his lack of concern with marketing, Tarr has exhibited in various venues over the past 60 years and has won a number of awards in regional competitions. But the library gallery, run entirely by volunteers, is more than just a showplace for him. It was established in 1988 after two members of the local Jewish community, Les Malamut and Seymour Meskin, raised the funds to install an elevator to provide handicap access to all levels.

Tarr, one of its first exhibitors, served on the board for many years.

Gallery curator Barbara Wirkus jumped at the chance to feature his new works. “He stopped coming to meetings when he stopped driving, but we all love him,” she said.

Wirkus was intrigued by Tarr’s take on cards. Some of the pictures are simple enlargements of the familiar portraits of kings, queens, and jacks. But in others, they step out of their frozen format, turning in unfamiliar ways or gathering in a playfully disconcerting family group.

In his home, Tarr showed a visitor a glimpse of his extraordinary range. On one wall is a painting of monumental figures inspired by his days as a metal worker; on another hangs a quietly spiritual scene of the tahara ritual, the Jewish preparation of a body for burial. Other pictures include his three kids in their youth, bright flowers, meditative nudes, and horses. There are horse sculptures too, in metal and marble and wood. “I’ve always loved horses,” he explained.

Asked about the cards, Tarr’s face lights up above his snowy white beard. He said he was left many packs of cards by his mother-in-law. “She loved playing canasta,” he said fondly. He was never a keen card player himself but let the inspiration lead him where it might.

Tarr was born in Newark, but graduated from McKinley Technical High School in Washington, DC, where he learned to forge metal. After he returned to Newark, he learned casting working at Ronson Art Metal Works, the cigarette lighter manufacturer. While there, he took classes at the Evening Newark School of Fine Art and Industrial Arts.

In 1941, the year after he married his wife, Dorothea, he took a job as a machinist and assistant toolmaker at Industrial Instruments, a defense plant, where he stayed for 36 years. “There was no way to do art full-time; I had three children,” he said. He did his art in his spare time — at work and at home.

Art didn’t take center stage until his retirement — happily, a particularly long and productive one. He said his creativity dried up for a while after Dorothea died 10 years ago, but eventually the inspiration returned.

Tarr shares his home with his son and daughter-in-law. The bedrooms are on the ground floor; all the second-floor rooms have evolved into studio spaces, filled with paints and inks and paper and brushes.

During the interview, while Ron served Turkish coffee, George disappeared. He was found absorbed in his latest interest — doing a new series of encaustic pictures using melted wax crayons. He had pinned up a sheet covered with countless black and white sketches of graceful, abstract shapes — a touchstone for the color-drenched images he is creating these days.

Asked what he wants for his work after he passes, George Tarr grinned and shrugged. “That’ll be up to my kids,” he said. “I don’t really worry about that. I’m just interested in the pleasure of doing my art.”

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