Exhibit highlights late architect’s watercolors, support for arts center

By Kristina Jackson

On a trip to Scotland, Gene Ernst took every opportunity to paint the scenery.

“For him, it was a painting trip,” said Margaret Buie, a friend who was on the trip with him. “If there was down time, he’d set up his easel.”

Buie, Ernst and four other friends spent almost a year planning their trip. Buie said the scenery of Scotland, Wales and Ireland gave Ernst new ideas for paintings constantly.

“It would be raining and he’d be out there painting and sketching,” she said.

Ernst’s work is featured in an exhibit at the Manhattan Arts Center. The exhibit, which will be on display until Feb. 15, features watercolor paintings done by the former MAC board of directors member, who died in September at the age of 83.

Ernst was a retired architect who had also served on the MAC’s building committee and was an active member of its Watercolor Studio.

Friends credit his career as an architect in the pre-digital age with furthering his interest in watercolor.

“Drawn art was a big part of that, and he really embraced it,” Buie said.

The paintings in the exhibit also chronicle Ernst’s travels to places such as France, Egypt and Poland, in addition to Manhattan locales like Harry’s and the Wareham. Most of the works in the exhibit were done in the last 15 years but they include work done by Ernst as far back as 1978.

Ernst’s family and friends lent the pieces for the exhibit. Some of the lenders included a small paragraph about Ernst or the painting, and the descriptions are on display next to the paintings.

The exhibit also features two portraits of Ernst, along with some of his signature hats.

“He always wore a hat,” said Penny Senften, executive director of the MAC.

Senften said it seemed providence that a slot opened up at the center so closely following Ernst’s death.

“We wanted to do it because he was very important to us,” she said.

Ernst had been involved in the center’s Watercolor Studio since near its inception, and Senften said the group was important to him.

“I’m sure they benefitted from his expertise,” she said.

Vera Langemeier, a longtime member of the studio who met Ernst through that group, said he acted as a mentor and critic for the other painters.

“The help to individuals in improving their painting was one of his biggest contributions to the group,” she said.

Langemeier said Ernst was always willing to go to bat for the group, discussing its needs with administrators. His passion, along with his experience as an architect, were evident during a remodel of the MAC’s annex building, where the Watercolor Studio meets.

Langemeier and Senften both said Ernst was an integral part of making the building more useful for the group.

He helped gather volunteers to tear down and rebuild walls, tile floors and install a sink for paints and brushes.

“It showed how much effort and devotion he gave to that group,” said Langemeier, who helped Ernst pick out the sink for the remodel.

It was this kind of involvement that made Ernst’s exhibit so much more personal for the people at the MAC, Senften said. The opening reception became a time to reminisce about Ernst and reflect on his talent.

“It’s a nice way, when you lose a friend, to see what he’s done,” Senften said.

Langemeier said that Ernst certainly left his mark on the Watercolor Studio that was such an big part of his life.

Each week the group members spend time critiquing each other’s work, and new members often comment on the the honesty and helpfulness that others show during that time. Langemeier said that Ernst set that example to make the other painters better, and that is a legacy other members try to continue.

“We try to gently guide people,” she said. “He was a leader of that.”

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