by Nancy E. McCarthy
Canandaigua artist Judi Cermak taught art in the Bloomfield Central School District for 32 joyful years. She had so much fun in her classes that a student once asked if she got paid to come to work.
“Coming into an art room is such a relief,” Cermak explains. “They just like being there.”
Graphic designer Kim Torpey of Naples, a former student, concurs. “The art room was my refuge, the one place where I was proud of the work I accomplished.”
Cermak retired in 1996 but remained busier than ever: getting involved with the Ontario County Arts Council, making her own art and stretching her skills across several disciplines and media by taking art classes.
“Learning, teaching, making, promoting and collecting art is a big part of my life,” says Cermak who creates and lives in an art-filled Canandaigua home where she and Fritz, her husband of 54 years, raised their family.
Cermak grew up in nearby Bristol Center, the middle child of Genevieve and Herbert Rogers. She credits her mother, who encouraged her three children to make things with found objects, as her earliest artistic influence. It was June Kesel Harris, her seventh grade art teacher, who inspired Cermak to become an art teacher. Before then, she had never taken an actual art class.
At Buffalo State College, Cermak was exposed to many visual art forms while pursuing an education degree. She liked everything – which was a good thing since she was required to master all genres well enough to teach them. Fiber art became a lifelong favorite focus. Cermak was drawn to vintage folk art handwork, and also took some graduate courses in textile design at Rochester Institute of Technology.
She was a college junior when she met future husband Fritz in downtown Canandaigua where they both had jobs. They married in 1962. Fritz was a banker and later worked in the newspaper business while his wife’s early teaching career was start-and-stop with the births of their two daughters, Jill and Jan. In those days, women weren’t permitted to teach during their pregnancies.
But once Cermak started in Bloomfield, countless middle and high school students were educated and encouraged in her art room. Some went on to pursue art careers. Cermak modestly won’t take credit for that or for their successes, but some of her students differ.
“Judi was the first person who introduced me to the idea that I could pursue a career in the arts” and “planted that seed of confidence in me,” says Torpey, a former Disney animator who drew “Stitch” for the “Lilo & Stitch” film and other iconic animated characters. Torpey owns her own graphic design business now and founded The Neopolitan Record, a local community publication in Naples she edits and designs.
Bristol muralist and fine art artist Amy Colburn also characterizes her former teacher as highly influential. “She encouraged me to always draw, no matter what kind of art I studied or created,” says Colburn. “She said the basic practice of drawing and sketching is instrumental.” Colburn has passed that “solid advice” on, and says it still helps her to break out of a creative rut.
Act two of Cermak’s artistic life began after her retirement more than 20 years ago. Shortly after she started volunteering for the Ontario County Arts Council (OCAC), the organization moved to a large downtown Canandaigua storefront dubbed All Things Art for All People (ATA). The ATA location sold art and handcrafts and hosted exhibits, workshops and events. It was an exhilarating – but expensive and financially fragile – 11-year run. By 2010, Cermak (by then board president), downsized by moving OCAC headquarters down the street to an office in Finger Lakes Gallery & Frame.
The Arts Council now sponsors the highly successful Finger Lakes Plein Air Competition & Festival, organizes art exhibits in various locations, donates library display systems, hosts arts-themed fundraisers, and awards an annual art studies scholarship. OCAC is completely volunteer-driven and receives its funding from donations, events and grants.
OCAC no longer has a physical address but Cermak remains president of its board, which includes Canandaigua’s mayor Ellen Polimeni, an ardent arts advocate. “Not only is Judi Cermak a talented artist in her own right, she is also a gifted organizer,” says Polimeni. “Judi has kept the Ontario County Arts Council active for decades, making sure that all aspects of the arts – visual, theater and music – are addressed through various yearly events. We, Ontario County, are blessed to have her as our ‘Leader of the Arts.’”
For the past few years, Cermak has been creating fiber “paintings” using wool felt like a canvas, and dyed rovings (soft wool fibers not yet spun into yarn) as her paints. Cermak makes her own design patterns and is able to shape the rovings into her desired image by poking and prodding with needle felting tools. Single strands of embroidery thread provide fine details. The visual effect is rich in texture and dimension. The finished piece is stretched over a foam core board and framed. Subjects include landscapes, people and animals.
Cermak will contribute one or two of her works for OCAC’s Annual Member Exhibition held this year at the Williams-Insalaco Gallery 34 at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC). The group show opens February 2 with an Artist Talk from 2 to 3 p.m. and a reception from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and runs through March 10. Cermak has been featured in numerous gallery and library exhibits through the years including a recent one-woman show at Wood Library in Canandaigua.
The artist maintains a full and busy schedule that keeps her connected with many talented artists and art lovers. And she still takes art classes – drawing, painting, printmaking and ceramics – at FLCC.
“That is what art does, it enriches our lives,” says Cermak.
To contact Judi Cermak or find out more about the Ontario County Arts Council, visit ocarts.org.