The former she has always done; the latter she picked up later in life
Ten or 15 years ago, Diane Hark started teaching watercolor painting at nursing homes in South Jersey and Philadelphia.
She drove there, gave everyone materials and paper and taught for two hours. Over time, the Jewish artist added 20 to 30 nursing homes to her regular rotation.
Hark, then in her late 60s, had showcased her watercolor paintings in local galleries for decades. But the professional artist had yet to try and pass on what she had learned.
As it turned out, she really enjoyed it.
And she’s been teaching ever since. After the pandemic broke out in 2020, she shifted her operation to Zoom.
“I never thought I would teach,” Hark said. “I never thought I would’ve wanted to.”
The painter teaches four classes a week. She has her own Zoom account and keeps her own Excel spreadsheets.
“She’s running her own business,” daughter Lisa Hark said. “I’m incredibly impressed with what she’s doing.”
Hark’s students say she has a way of clarifying the artistic process.
First and foremost, Hark tells her students to look carefully at their canvasses, according to Cynthia Saltzman, a Hark student and Wynnewood resident. Then, once they start painting, she repeats a key question.
“Where is the light coming from?” Saltzman said.
That question can also be asked in another, more literal, way, she said.
“What are you trying to accentuate?” Saltzman said.
For example, is it the tree or the bridge? Whichever one it is, you need to make it stand out on the canvas.
It must be the figurative center, even if it’s not literally in the center. It must be the light.
“What she’s doing is really breaking down the steps you need to use in order to see like an artist,” Saltzman said.
Saltzman tries to start a painting in a Tuesday class and finish it by Friday. When she started taking classes with Hark, she often had too many competing subjects.
But now, Saltzman is fairly skilled. She’s proud of her paintings of Golda Meir, of candles and an etrog and of various still-life landscapes. She sends her family members her new painting via email each Friday.
“When you’re new to something and you’re a student, it’s almost like you’re a child,” Saltzman said. “She’s able to put us at ease and say to us, ‘This is not easy. You need to realize that as you’re working through this.’”
Another student, Abby Horowitz, said Hark takes the time to go around to each student during class to offer comments. Her suggestions often do not seem consequential at the time — until the students finish their paintings and see the difference.
Horowitz gave her parents a couple of the paintings she completed in Hark’s classes; now they’re framed in their house. One is of a platter of fruit. The other is a boathouse with some rowboats.
“By the end of the class, you’ve painted it,” Horowitz said of Hark’s suggestions. “It completely changes the painting.”
Hark developed her instincts over a lifetime of making the art that she teaches about; but she had the artistic gene even before she started learning, she explained.
When Hark cooks, she does not follow a recipe. She does it her way. She takes the same free-flowing approach to gardening, designing clothes and making flower arrangements.
Hark’s sister makes fun of her because she can’t follow a recipe. But it’s just who she is.
“You’re born an artist,” Hark said. “I certainly couldn’t be an accountant.”
But when your own kids are born, you have to become more than what you are and, after having four children, the artist put them first. She was a stay-at-home mom who taught her children how to cook, stay organized and be productive, according to Lisa Hark.
All the kids, Lisa and her younger brothers David, Richard and Jeffrey, grew up to do well for themselves, Lisa Hark said. Today, the family includes 11 grandchildren, and they all still gather in Margate, New Jersey, every summer.
“We’re very capable children,” Lisa Hark added.
But even while staying at home, the artist wasn’t. She kept painting and painting, and then coordinated with local institutions, like the Cosmopolitan Club of Philadelphia, the Woodmere Art Museum and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, to put up galleries of her work.
Stay-at-home mom is not a fair classification of Hark’s role, as she continued working professionally throughout her children’s young lives. But her favorite paintings remain the ones of her family. There’s one of the grandchildren standing together in the ocean, arms around each other, water washing up against their ankles. There are also the 11 individual portraits that Hark crafted as Chanukah presents for her grandkids.
Her kids and grandkids even sometimes depend on their matriarch to enliven their offices and homes. Lisa Hark has a house full of her mother’s paintings, according to Diane Hark. Hark’s granddaughter, Jamie Finkelstein, also has several paintings in her home, of the beach, of a scene from Israel, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and of Philadelphia City Hall.
Yet none of the artist’s paintings stand out quite like the ones that her whole family sees every summer down the shore. The kitchen and living room in their Margate house are filled with creations from when the grandkids were young, according to Finkelstein. There are rainbows, an ice cream cone and a portrait of the Margate Yacht Club.
“They spark joy,” Finkelstein said.
For Hark, now 83, they also give her a sense of peace. Much like her teaching, Hark’s living, breathing paintings make her believe that her work will outlast her.
“It comes down to sharing your life experience. That’s what it’s all about,” the artist said. “It’s that connection. That unbroken connection. L’dor v’dor.” JE