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At North Hill retirement community, an artist riffs on whimsical Mexican folk figures

"Nayelli, Whose Name Means Love" by artist Nan Hass Feldman.

NEEDHAM­ — Last year, Boston painter Nan Hass Feldman visited the Museo Rufino Tamayo of Pre-Hispanic Art in Oaxaca, Mexico, and was captivated by the lively, even impish Mesoamerican figurines she found there. The clay sculptures, often made to accompany the dead into the afterlife, chimed with her own ebullient aesthetic. She started drawing and painting them.

When she showed her work to Helen Meyrowitz, who runs the Art Gallery at North Hill retirement community, they struck a chord. Meyrowitz, a 91-year-old North Hill resident and artist originally from New York, opened the gallery in 2012 as a showcase for high-caliber Boston-area artists. As a graduate student of Long Island University in the 1970s, Meyrowitz helped research a pre-Columbian exhibition at the now defunct Fine Arts Museum of Long Island and acquired her own small collection of millennia-old Mexican indigenous art.


In “Travel in Time/Mexico 250 AD to 2019 AD,” Meyrowitz exhibits her trove alongside Feldman’s antic paintings, drawings, and mixed-media works. Most of the sculptures, such as a pair of male and female figures from Nayarit, are squat and grinning. Some, in gesture and costume, appear shamanistic, as if summoning gods or visions.

To see Feldman add color to these forms is akin to viewing classical marble statuary revitalized in its original polychrome. She flushes figures already crackling with character with new life and context.

Thanks to her sunny palette and the figures’ enchanting mix of whimsy and gravity, there’s a risk of Disneyfication here. They’re ripe for smart-talking second-banana treatment. But Feldman’s expert technique, loose and layered (and also evident in some larger pond paintings on view), keeps them firmly anchored to the more sober pursuits of the canvas.

“Nayelli, Whose Name Means Love,” appears hands open and receptive, aglow in an aqua and teal garment and wearing a headdress with a fish. “Gabor and Itzel at the Aquarium” play musical instruments, their eyes wide and mouths open.


"Gabor and Itzel at the Acquarium" by Nan Hass Feldman.

The funerary figures originally depicted uncanny characters who could cross between this world and the next. Resurrecting them with color and context, Feldman recharges their mystical import.


At Art Gallery at North Hill, 865 Central Ave., Needham, through Dec. 31. lmcconchie@NorthHill.org, www.northhill.org/art-gallery/

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.