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Susquehanna Life

Smokey the Bear’s Rescue

Mar 12, 2015 01:52PM ● By Erica Shames

The Moose Exchange was home to many small businesses, including a record and handmade hat store, comic book shop, bakery, restaurant, graphic designer and several local artists.  The town lost many wonderful local treasures that day. 

One of the artists affected by the fire was Larry Ney II, who has been a painter for 35 years. He works mostly with oil now, but has dabbled in most all mediums throughout his career.  His paintings are distinctive, whether they are vibrant abstract interpretations of landscapes, still life or human form.  His artwork demonstrates depth and conjures feelings of serenity in nature.  Besides being an excellent artist, Larry is equally talented as a teacher and mentor.  He has been giving lessons to students of all ages for the past five years.  This is where Smokey’s journey begins.

Creative instincts ignited

Three years ago, we were at the Moose Exchange, picking up our son at a camp hosted by the Box of Light. Our daughter, Madeline, was 7 at the time and had just finished art camp at the Children’s Museum.  That’s probably why she noticed, for the first time, Larry Ney’s art studio. She had spent the week making fun projects and her creative interests had been ignited.  Outside the studio were several paintings stacked neatly in a box with a sign that read “For Sale.”  There were beautiful oil landscapes with warm oceans and blue skies—practice pieces, I guess.  A sucker for the beach as well as affordable art, I agreed to let each child pick one for themselves. 

When we stepped inside the studio to pay, Madeline was mesmerized; there were paintings everywhere of all sizes, subjects and color schemes.  There was a comfy couch along the wall and a tapestry hanging from the ceiling.  On a small square wooden table there were tubes of bright, thick paint; brushes made from natural bristles; some paint thinner; and a large drawing pad.  In the corner of the room was an easel and a stool; that’s where Madeline’s eyes rested.  While I dug in my purse for some money to pay, Larry made small talk with us and we complimented him on his work.  The kids each grabbed their pieces and thanked him.

Back in the studio as a student

A few weeks went by before we returned to the Moose Exchange.  This time, Madeline could hardly wait to walk through and see what new displays would be out in the main hallway.  When we got to Larry’s studio, the door was closed, but there was a sign stating “Art Lessons.”  I wrote the number down and later that week, Madeline was back in the studio sitting at the easel she had admired at our last visit.  Madeline was officially Larry’s youngest pupil.  None of us was sure how this was going to go, but we thought “why not?” 

Larry is an excellent teacher, no matter what age the student.  He discovers ways to fuel Madeline’s passions and helps her express them through paint.  He has taught her how to paint flowers and vases, landscapes and abstracts.  Also, she has worked in many different mediums such as oils, acrylics and oil pastels.  Each project has had its purpose—whether teaching technique or form— beyond creating something of beauty.  He continues to challenge her 10-year-old patience with large projects requiring multiple layers. She grouses a little, but loves every minute of it! 

She started one of the more time-consuming paintings near the end of October 2013.  Larry wanted Madeline to paint an animal.  Up to this point she had done a bird and a rooster, but she had not tackled an animal or the details of a face.  The background was going to require a few layers to develop some depth before the face could even be sketched.  Madeline was very into bright colors and she chose varying shades of blazing orange and red.

Perception and death

After several weeks and many coats of paint, the background was ready for its subject.  As her eyes moved swiftly from picture to canvas, her hand sketched the outline of the face of a bear, “Smokey.”  This was not only a project of great size, but also one requiring perception and depth.  Madeline was to make the face appear half in light, half in shadow, as if a candle were illuminating his profile.  Many more weeks passed with great focus and intent on shading and, slowly, Smokey came to life.  The eyes were the final challenge.  Madeline and Larry decided on a deep magenta to accent the right eye, almost appearing bruised.  It was perfect and complete.

Madeline’s father and nana had been accompanying her to the lessons from the inception of Smokey and reporting back to me on the progress.  We were all very excited to welcome Smokey home the next week, provided he was dry enough to transport.  Unfortunately, the morning of her next lesson was a fateful one for the Moose Exchange.  At around 11 a.m. a call placed to 911 reported smoke billowing from the top floor of the building.  Fire trucks were on the scene in minutes and all inhabitants were evacuated safely. However, most belongings in the building were either damaged or destroyed. 

Larry Ney II, and fellow artists William Whitmoyer, Sarah Mica, Brock Dent, Cindy McNeff-Collins and Annie Barnhart lost much of their hearts and souls that day.  Jeff McGreevy, who was the guest artist of the month, lost his entire life’s work.  It was devastating to the artisans and the community who appreciates their work.

Smokey’s rescue

After the smoke cleared and the building was deemed safe for re-entry, Larry returned to see what, if anything, could be saved.  He was cleaning out his space, loading up paintings covered in soot and smoke film when he glanced behind his sofa.  There he found Smokey, hiding in the shadows, waiting to be rescued. 

After some soap, water and elbow grease, he was almost as good as new.  While his backing is smudged with soot and the odor of smoke still radiates from his canvas, Smokey looks happy to be with us in our home.  Seeing him reminds us of the spirit of survival and everyone’s desire to continue on, no matter what obstacles we may face. 

Larry Ney II and several other artists of the Moose Exchange now have displays at Art Space on Center Street in Bloomsburg.  Thankfully, he is still sharing his love of art and gift of teaching by offering lessons at his home on Old Berwick Road. 

Catherine O’Neil works at Bucknell University and lives in Bloomsburg with her husband, Chris, and two children, Maddie and Riley.

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