McCrabb: Artists bring Hamilton woman’s unfinished artwork to life

While the artist has died, her work has new life thanks to those who share her passion.

When Rhonda Gardner died on July 27, 2016, after suffering a series of strokes, the 53-year-old single mother left behind one daughter, seven rescue animals, and a trail of her trade: a pile of unfinished art work and boxes of art supplies.

After Gardner's death, her family contacted Sue Wittman, one of Gardner's close friends and president of the Art Central Foundation, to see if she was interested in the canvasses and art supplies for her art workshops.

A great idea, Wittman thought.

Then Margie Homan finished one of Gardner’s incomplete works, and in the process, became the impetus for the Re-Art Rhonda Exhibit at the Pendleton. To honor Gardner’s legacy, her found UFOs (Un-Finished Objects) and WIPs (Works in Progress) have been re-imagined in this unique exhibit.

It features about 60 pieces, most of them started by Gardner, then finished through the collaboration of area artists, some of them whom never met the Hamilton woman.

Wittman said Gardner, lead artist on the “Jammin” mural at Governor’s Square in Middletown, was accomplished in many media, but never had the luxury to devote enough time to her craft. She believes Gardner left so many of her pieces unfinished because she thought they “weren’t good enough to show.” One piece was wrapped in a newspaper from 1996.

The exhibit runs through July 16 on the second floor of the Pendleton, and proceeds from the sale are being donated to Gardner’s daughter, Kylee Gardner, a Hamilton High School graduate and sophomore at Xavier University, Wittman said.

Once Wittman started working on the art show, she “couldn’t let it go” because “it kind of did its thing and moved forward.”

As curator of the exhibit, Wittman said her favorite pieces are hanging next to each other. One was completed by Ken Streiff, the other by Shelly Massey of Middletown.

Massey’s painting features several colorful flowers in a vase, a different version than its original concept. Gardner had partially painted two cats with shadows, then Massey turned the canvas upside down, and converted one of the cats into a vase.

She admits throughout the painting process — taking one woman’s vision and refocusing its concept — she felt like she was having “a fight” with Gardner.

“It was not going well,” Massey admitted.

So Massey searched Gardner’s Facebook page and realized through her postings that she was a gardener who loved taking photos of flowers. That gave the women a connection.

“That’s when I knew I was on the right track,” said Massey, who has an art studio at Front Street Galleries in Dayton. “It was like, ‘Carry on. Carry on.’”

She was asked how it felt to take over one artist’s project, like trying to complete a Hemingway sentence. Massey said she’s not spiritual, but she “felt” Gardner’s presence throughout the whole project.

“Very emotional for me,” she said. “It was an interesting process for sure.”

Like many of the artists who collaborated on the project and donated their time and talent, Massey attended the grand opening of the exhibit. Finally, Gardner was appreciated for her art work, what she sometimes thought wasn’t worthy.

“It was a very bittersweet thing,” Massey said. “There was so much love and emotion in that room. It felt like we all were living her dream of being an artist.”

It took felines being converted to flowers, but in the end, that goal blossomed.

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