A ‘breathtaking’ collection at Cope House Gallery

by Len Lear
Posted 4/11/24

You might say there are many volts of artistic energy emitted by the stunning paintings of Mt. Airy artist Lisa Karese Volta.

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A ‘breathtaking’ collection at Cope House Gallery


You might say there are many volts of artistic energy emitted by the stunning paintings of Mt. Airy artist Lisa Karese Volta, currently on exhibit until April 28 at the Cope House Galleries on the campus of Awbury Arboretum, 1 Awbury Rd. in Germantown. There will be a reception with the artist on Saturday, April 13, 2 to 4 p.m., on the premises with light refreshments. 

Volta, whose sister, Germantown author Lois Volta, was profiled in the Local on June 22, 2023, works in painting, photography and mixed media. The current exhibit, titled “Holding My Breath Underwater,” is a collection of her recent paintings and mixed-media drawings.

Visitors to the exhibit are likely to wonder about the somewhat ambiguous title, “Holding My Breath Underwater,” which seems to suggest more than a whisper of danger. Volta explained it to us this way:

“The story is that many of the paintings, including the one the title is named for, were inspired by a last-minute first-time family trip to Nantucket. It was the end of summer, 2021, and my husband, daughter and I decided to go there on a whim. On the ferry, I realized I had never been so far out to sea, and the island's flatness made me feel like the ocean could swallow us up at any moment. 

“We got an authentic 'Gray Lady' experience with stormy skies one minute and bright sunshine the next, biking on misty trails to fish and farmers' markets, collecting shells on the sound and jumping and diving through the roughest of ocean waves.” 

It began to feel like a kind of allegory for the national news of the day – with violent conflict and environmental disasters unfolding all over the world. 

"The story behind the story is that humanity is underwater. Between global systemic injustices, violence, tens of thousands massacred, and millions
displaced and starving in Palestine, Sudan, Congo, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and elsewhere...we are sinking, looking down, watching the show on the

flatness of our screens," she said.  "And like Nantucket, it feels like one giant wave could take us out.”

A native of Abington, Volta earned a BFA from the Tyler School of Art in 1999 and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. 

“I think I always had a creative mind,” said Volta. “I wanted to be many things – a doctor, an English literature major, a swimmer, a writer, an aimless wanderer, Mary Lou Retton and a lonely painter living in a box of paints.”

Like so many who work in creative fields, Volta has had to take several “day jobs” to pay the rent and put food on the table. 

“I worked in too many restaurants for far too long,” she said. “I worked retail at The Black Cat (the former corresponding gift shop to the White Dog Café) and a lifetime ago I worked at Border’s Bookstore and Penguin Photo, both in Chestnut Hill.”

Volta has won her share of acclaim and recognition in the art world. Over the last two decades she has won five scholarships, grants and awards from Fleisher Art Memorial and the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and 16 fellowships, residencies and projects from local institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Council for the Arts and Fairmount Park Conservancy.  

She also teaches art and design studio classes at Drexel University and is the Exhibitions Curator for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, which offers in-person and remote arts and Arabic language courses, lectures, workshops and participatory presentations throughout Greater Philadelphia.

When asked what was the hardest thing she ever had to do, Volta replied, “Letting go and moving forward is always hard. Also, trying to remember middle school math.”

And the best advice she ever got, she said, came from the “late, great Richard Kramer, one of my professors at Tyler: In painting, sometimes you’ll get to a point where you’ve worked hard, but there’s still something that isn’t quite right. In these moments, it makes sense to mix the ugliest or most garish color you can think of and paint it over your favorite spot. Then, solve the problem.” 

For more information, visit lisavolta.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a full quote in which the artist referred to the place she calls Palestine. The U.S. government recognizes this place as Gaza.