Rita Crooks

by Gary John Gresl

Farm Scene, by Rita Crooks

Progressive; activist; role model and mentor; an artist with a unique modernist style that concentrates on what some might consider overworked subject matter. But in her hands that subject is not ordinary or mundane. This would be the architecture, buildings, barns, and fences which are gradually deteriorating in rural landscapes, and slowly vanishing through neglect and replacement. Yes! She creates “barn paintings”, but not like your mother’s barn paintings…unless your mother is Rita Crooks of Wausau, WI.

A WP&S member and member of numerous professional watercolor societies, Rita has recently completed a solo tribute exhibition at the Wausau Center for the Visual Arts, called the CVA. The CVA was Rita’s brain child born out of a college project conducted after she had returned to school as an experienced teacher. In 1981 Rita began an art educational program in Wausau holding classes in available churches. By 1985, the Center for Visual Arts opened its doors in an existing commercial building on what is now called Wausau’s ArtsBlock. Then in 2002 the doors of its newly built adjoining gallery space swung wide as well. It now stands butted against the renovated Grand Theater which offers performances of regional and national stature.

Rita’s trajectory as an artist developed after a stint as an elementary school teacher, then as an adult art student, and has evolved ever since. In her early work she followed a more traditional and conservative route while developing her visual and manual skills, seeking her own arts language. Like many others, she found beauty in Wisconsin’s scenic vistas and picturesque natural venues, fence lines, and buildings. However, at some point Rita came to recognize, perhaps unconsciously at first, that merely painting lovely landscapes like so many others have done, was not enough to challenge her skills and evolving taste.

Rita found her own brand of Constructivism, perhaps a Precisionism, a unique blend of nostalgia, humor, and accomplished collage technique in the 1990’s. She chose the hard edge architectural forms of buildings, rearranged them, took paper and paint and built sophisticated images that please and entertain the eye. Included in her syntax are harmonious blends of geometric forms and references to cattle, fowl, and other barnyard creatures. Animals are sometimes seen silhouetted in hard edge shadow thru doors and windows, sometimes on roofs and walking tight rope lines. Amidst this mingling of wood, metal, and flesh, there emerge controlled colors and forms to delight the viewer and gently press the nostalgia button. This personal style and subject matter is not the only form she produces, but to this writer’s eye, this is the unique language for which she can be uniquely identified.

Rita has always lived in Wausau and still resides and works there, giving much of her time and energy to her loved CVA. In earlier years she served as its administrator, Executive Director, and Board President. Today she remains as activist, volunteer and advisor. The CVA, with its original building and new expansion, ranks high among Wisconsin’s quality art venues, especially when compared to those of smaller cities outside the sphere of Milwaukee and Madison. Not only are there 7 or more exhibits annually held in the two freshly created galleries, but the facility continues to hold to its important mission of offering art education classes. It also has a gift shop providing space for the work of over 150 Wisconsin artists.

Like the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, also in Wausau, the CVA is garnering recognition as a center of arts activity, as an educational center, a cultural institution to be recognized and respected, as a treasure for Wausau and Northern Wisconsin, and as a destination for tourists and art appreciators.

Rita’s legacy will not only be the record of her paintings, but of a prominent art venue dedicated to improving the culture of a city and region.

Farm Scene, by Rita Crooks Wausau’s Center for the Visual Arts
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