Director's films shed light on art

Filmmaker: Perry Miller Adato is to return to Columbia Festival of the Arts to discuss her acclaimed documentaries of female artists.

June 24, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

When the organizers of this year's Columbia Festival of the Arts announced a retrospective on 20th century women in art would be included in the event, one name came immediately to mind: Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Perry Miller Adato.

Adato, who is considered one of America's foremost producers and directors of arts documentaries, will return to the festival to present three of her critically acclaimed films about painters Georgia O'Keeffe, Mary Cassatt and Helen Frankenthaler.

The documentaries will be shown back-to-back at 1: 30 p.m. Saturday at Columbia's Slayton House, and Adato will speak about her films and her distinguished tenure as a documentary maker.

Poets, writers and artists have been the subject of Adato's films over her 30-year career.

Though she hasn't released a film since 1996, Adato is still very much in demand within the film industry as a lecturer.

Adato admits to being slightly baffled that her films about Cassatt, O'Keeffe and Frankenthaler are part of a 20th century retrospective.

"It's funny to me that the festival people are billing this showing as women artists of the 20th century when that's not exactly true," Adato says over the phone from her Westport, Conn., home. "[Impressionist] Mary Cassatt painted in the 19th century, but she's very current now, as all of these artists are. They were all pioneers and that says something, I think, about the millennium."

Adato isn't surprised by renewed interest in the three painters. Major retrospectives of Cassatt and O'Keeffe are being shown at galleries in Washington (at the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, respectively), and Frankenthaler still paints in her studio in Darien, Conn.

The two women have been friends since Adato brought her film crew to Frankenthaler's studio in 1972 to watch her work.

"She's quite an amazing woman," Adato says of Frankenthaler. "She's in her early 70s, and I would suspect she's still as active as ever. We're going to have dinner together during the July Fourth weekend."

There's a bit of the Energizer Bunny about Adato, as well. She talks excitedly about her latest project proposal, a script about late photographer (and O'Keeffe's husband) Alfred Stieglitz for the "American Masters" series on American public television (PBS).

Adato could be content by resting on her numerous laurels. She was the first woman in the history of the Directors Guild of America to win an award for Outstanding Achievement in Television (for "Georgia O'Keeffe"). Her other film subjects include writers Carl Sandberg and Gertrude Stein, which Adato says is still her favorite.

Her masterpiece, a film biography of Eugene O'Neill called "A Glory of Ghosts," received another Directors Guild of America Award, and her first film, "Dylan Thomas: The World I Breathe," won Adato a 1968 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Documentary.

Born and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., Adato moved to New York City at 18 and eventually found work at CBS as a film researcher. She traveled to Europe, where she saw a lot of art films and discovered that she was interested in making her own.

"If you are a really creative person, at some point you say, `I can do that,' " Adato says. "I was immediately hooked."

Over the past 30 years, Adato has made 15 feature-length documentaries. She has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Columbia, Yale and New York universities, and she was the subject of her own retrospective at the National Gallery of Art last year.

Adato has also been married for over 40 years and had two children. She commuted from her Connecticut home into New York for more than 30 years to work on her films.

Still, Adato says, there's so much to learn about filmmaking and the art of the documentary.

"It's strange that I'm considered something of a role model," she says, laughing. "It makes me feel a little old sometimes, but on the other hand, these younger women are interested in the fact that I managed to do both.

"From a distance, that looks great," she adds. "But from my side, it hasn't been all that easy. But I wouldn't have done it any other way."

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