Gabrielle Maye says one of the perks of working at the Museum of Fine Art is being surrounded by so many masterpieces.
An artist herself, Maye, the coordinator of the MFA’s workforce development program for teens, says she derives ideas for her own pen-and-ink drawings just by walking in the door each day.
“It’s probably one of the most inspiring places you can work if you’re interested in pursuing the arts,” says Maye, who cites the museum’s stash of Charles Sheeler paintings as a particular influence on the surreal landscapes she creates.
Maye, it turns out, is one of many MFA employees — security guards, customer-service reps, curators — who are capable artists in their own right, and their work is on display now at the Copley Society of Art on Newbury Street. The exhibition, “Emergence: Art from MFA Boston Staff,” features work by 37 museum employees.
On display through June 24, the collection of oil paintings, watercolors, photography, textiles, and mixed media highlights the hidden talents of some of the museum staffers who care for, program, and protect the MFA’s vast stockpile of priceless art.
“These are artists who, in their day jobs, spend time in close proximity to the greatest art and best artists in the world,” says Max Stern, a Boston lawyer and a member of the Copley Society of Art’s board of governors. “At night, they go home and do their own work. They’re largely unsung, so we thought it’d be a great thing to give them a chance to come out from behind the wall.”
The Copley Society of Art, a century-old nonprofit arts group with about 300 members, hosts several shows a year at its Newbury Street headquarters. The idea to present work by MFA employees was first discussed a few years ago, but shelved due to the pandemic. When the world eventually reopened, the museum’s 550 workers were invited to submit pieces for possible inclusion in a show.
The exhibition’s 37 pieces were curated by Stern; Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists; and Kaitlyn Clark, exhibitions manager at Tufts University Art Galleries. Six of the artists were also given a $100 honorarium and free membership in the Copley Society of Art. (Normally, artists must apply to become members and, if accepted, pay a $1,500 initiation fee.)
“Some of these people have had opportunities to exhibit their art, but some never have,” says Stern. “Just looking at their faces at the opening, they so appreciate the opportunity to exhibit their work.”
Chloe Grinberg, the MFA’s coordinator of rights and permissions, started working at the museum last summer. (Previously, she was a photo archivist at The Boston Globe.) Although Grinberg studied photojournalism at Boston University, she considers herself a “hobbyist” who uses elements from nature to create still lifes.
Told that the theme of the show was “emergence” — defined by the Copley Society as “the process of coming into being or arriving at an understanding” — Grinberg says she wandered the galleries of her workplace, drawing inspiration from Flemish painter Osias Beert, among others.
“I interpreted emergence in a cyclical sense. Like, things that come around have to end,” said Grinberg, whose moody still life of pigs’ feet and decaying fruit on a table earned her one of those six special recognitions from the show’s curators.
“It’s really awesome,” she said. “I didn’t expect to win an award.”
John Storrow, who’s worked as a security guard at the MFA for 36 years, says he sometimes takes photos while patrolling the museum, and uses the pictures later as the basis for a painting. An example is “Hamilton Palace Period Room,” Storrow’s submission for the Copley Society show.
“I was in the [Hamilton Palace Period Room] and the sun was coming through the window in a certain way and it caught my eye,” he said. “I capture things like that and collect them and they sort of represent my life at the museum in a way.”
A 1988 graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Storrow said he feels lucky — honored, even — to be able to spend so much time in the Impresssionist gallery whose walls are crowded with Van Goghs and Cezannes and Monets.
“It’s hard to articulate directly how it’s influenced my paintings, but it definitely motivates me,” he said.
Karl Stephan, a studio art instructor at the MFA for eight years, teaches drawing to teens and adults in galleries throughout the museum. Sometimes he’ll hold class in Arts of the Pacific, sometimes in Art of Ancient Greece and Rome.
“As my mother would say, it’s all grist for the mill,” Stephan said. “It feeds the furnace of artistic inspiration.”
Stephan has shown his art many times before and also curated exhibits. He thinks the collection of work by his MFA colleagues is marvelous.
“I know what it takes to put together a show that’s interesting and varied and of high quality,” Stephan said. “You’ve got work here by folks from literally all walks of life. It’s a wonderful assortment of work from a wonderful assortment of people.”
EMERGENCE: Art from MFA Boston Staff
At Copley Society of Art, 158 Newbury St., through June 24. 617-536-5049, copleysociety.org