Art is long, life is short: Neighborhood Center of the Arts says goodbye to three | TheUnion.com

Art is long, life is short: Neighborhood Center of the Arts says goodbye to three

Bu Jennifer Nobles
Staff Writer

The Neighborhood Center of the Arts strives to be a happy place.

Its many rooms are elaborately decorated with the colorful creations of its artists, a group of individuals with special abilities who create works of art and learn to sell their wares directly from their gallery and on Etsy.

However, the month of May dealt the center a huge blow. Within the span of nine days, the art space was forced to say goodbye to three of its longtime artists, all of whom died of various causes.

Executive director Amee Medeiros has been with the Neighborhood Center of the Arts for 13 years and said her center is devastated by the losses of Robert Riley, Judy Peterson and Barbie Wilkins. Each of them, she said, were talented artists and were loved in the community.

Robert Riley was a joy, said Medeiros. He always had creative titles for his artwork, a very friendly and outgoing gentleman. He began going to the Neighborhood Center of the Arts in 2008, and was seen as an elder of the center. Riley developed problems with his kidneys and had to quit visiting the center to concentrate on his health.

"He liked to draw little men and houses," said Medeiros, "and images from his childhood. If you look at his photos out on his memory board, he was always with a different woman. He was a ladies' man."

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According to Medeiros, Riley liked to do impressions and was particularly fond of doing his best Wolfman Jack. He was observant, and always noticed if one of their crew was missing, taking note when someone was absent. He loved Janis Joplin and trips to Reno with his uncle.

Judy Peterson was, by all accounts, the ultimate weaver. She attended Neighborhood Center of the Arts since 2014 and after suffering a massive stroke, she died on May 25, six days after Riley.

"She would weave rugs, and before they were even off the loom they would be sold," said Medeiros. "She had this incredible style about her. Almost everything she made, sold. Her sister said it was the happiest she had seen her ever."

Medeiros believes wholeheartedly that Peterson's confidence was given a major boost by the success she experienced as an artist at the center.

"She was happy," Medeiros said. "Her behavior and her outlook on life was happier here."

May 29 found the center suffering its third loss in nine days when Barbie Wilkins died of complications from pneumonia. Wilkins was 68.

Wilkins attended programs through Neighborhood Center of the Arts since 1984.

"It's hard because a majority of our folks here have known each other for as little as 15 to 30 years," said Medeiros. "She was probably here before it was founded as an art program. So you're not just losing a coworker, you're losing a sister. She was an icon."

"She is the definition of outsider art. She was the bulk of what (our program) is really about."

Wilkins worked in a variety of mediums — ceramics, watercolor, ink. Medeiros said there are devout "Barb collectors," fans of the artist who have loyally purchased and displayed her art consistently.

Neighborhood Center of the Arts held a standing-room-only memorial for Wilkins last weekend in its space on Litton Drive.

"That's where Barbie would have wanted her party," said Medeiros. "It was rad."

Medeiros was proud to announce that some of Wilkins' artwork will be included in a permanent exhibit at the North Star House, as part of a collection being curated in honor of the late Peggy Levine, a driving force in the arts in Nevada County who died in 2017.

Medeiros' hope is that everyone who visits the Neighborhood Center of the Arts sees that the artists are artists first, not folks with disabilities.

"That's the message I've been trying to convey for 12 years," she said. "We kind of get forgotten that we are a human service agency, social service agency, and we want to be seen as more than that. We're working artists. And Barbie, Judy and Robert were contributing artists to our community."

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.

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