You could call Judy Boyles a memory preservationist.
She has a knack for capturing majestic moments in nature via camera and recreating them on canvas, moments beautifully embedded in your mind or abstractly described as words in some memoir.
Her latest oils are neither flora nor fauna, but this: nostalgia.
Stand at West Main Street and N. Towamencin Avenue and look in the direction of the water tower; you see a parking lot for a Univest Insurance building that spans the entire block.
In the 1920s, it looked much different. In fact, it was the crown jewel of town, frequented daily. On March 5, 1928, Lansdale Theater opened and remained on that site until its demolition in 1979.
In its heyday, it was the place to see “All Talking Pictures.” The building was also the home of, among other stores, Bitner’s Drugs.
Now, Lansdale Theater circa early-1930s, lives on in Boyles’ brushstrokes.
Now, supporters of Lansdale Historical Society, lovers of old Lansdale, and admirers of Boyles’ artwork alike now own a moment in time.
“I painted a lot of scenes from Italy. When I was painting one day, I said, ‘This is foolish. There’s so much art in my own area.’ Looking back to the 1950s, I think about those memories. I never stopped to realize how much history goes way back.”
She started attending Lansdale Historical Society community presentations. She spent time researching old photographs of the borough at Jenkins Homestead Research Center.
Those experiences became new muses for Boyles. She decided she would do paintings of local historic landmarks and give a percentage of sales to the society.
“I’ve gotten so absorbed, because the more I looked at the old photos, I became fascinated with history,” she said.
The same fascination was echoed and shared with Boyles at the recent Founders Day event, where she appeared to sell her paintings and support the society.
“If you listened to people (at Founders Day), you would understand why people loved the theater: everybody’s stories are different about the theater. One old man told me he owned one of the lights in the foyer shaped like a star,” she said. “There are so many memories of going to the theater.”
Boyles has her memories, and her children have their memories. Those were the main reasons for her commitment.
“My daughter said, ‘I remember Nana took me to see my first movie in the theater, ‘Gone With the Wind.’’ That’s just one of the memories people have given me,” she said.
During the process, she contacted Bitner’s son to be in the painting, and even did research on the cars and costumes of that era. She took some liberty with the oil painting of the theater.
Boyles had to work with a black-and-white photograph; she dwelled on what she could do different. She decided to paint it at night, which gave her a challenge on the lighting. She sketched it on canvas and gently filled it in with color, at eight to 10 hours a day over three months.
“When I saw the picture of the theater,” she said, “I said, ‘That’s such neat architecture,’ and they got rid of so much that was beautiful in Lansdale.”
Born into Art
Boyles, 73, was born to a local artist named Ruth Shissler. When Shissler was a little girl, her mother asked her one day what she really wanted. The girl responded, “A sketchbook and pencil.”
Shissler’s influence continued through matrimony when she became Mrs. Emmerick.
Boyles was immersed in her mother’s passionate talent: she posed for portraits, she learned techniques and visual elements like composition and perspective and she painted her first oil of Raggedy Ann and Andy at age seven.
“From the time I was little, I wanted to be around artists,” Boyles said. “I learned from listening and watching them.”
It continued through Boyles’ childhood at her family’s home on Bergey Road in Hatfield, where her mother honed her talent at Moore Institute of Art in Philadelphia. Soon, a 20-year-old Boyles was traveling to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to get formal training through classes in the basement.
The talent continued as she juggled a family real estate business and raised two children with her husband in a farmhouse on Forty Foot and Welsh Roads, right about where Applebee’s stands today.
“I’ve done it my whole life,” she said. “I’m a serious artist. When I take my art to shows, they don’t let me show in the hobbyist level.”
And now — this grandmother of four — has adorned the walls of her Montgomery Township home with her favorite works of art.
There, one will witness that the nostalgia doesn’t stop at Lansdale Theater.
In fact, this was Boyles’ first masterpiece of local history: Lansdale Train Station. It was also the first art created to raise funds for the society.
“I appreciate what they do, and I am very willing to help. If people haven’t been to the research center, they should. They have great records,” she said. “I know they are a worthwhile organization, and there are a lot of hardworking people in the organization.”
Giclee prints of Boyles’ artwork are available through the Lansdale Historical Society at $75 for an 8x10 and $160 for an 18x24. Download an order form at this link.
Art is Born
Like any talented artist, work is never done.
Once she got into it, she wanted more of it.
The muse for Boyles’ forthcoming oil painting stood right outside the window as she chowed down at Not Just Sandwiches on Main Street: 315 W. Main Street, the home of The PEAK Center.
“I sat and looked at this building in the center of Lansdale, with trees all around it and this neat building underneath,” Boyles said. “Some of the façade is covering up old artifacts and you would never recognize it.”
Boyles wants to create more glimpses of “what was.” And she’s open to suggestions.
She realizes the charm is still here. She has an eye for the yearning.
“At this point, I’m at a place where, ‘What do I do next?’ I envision four to five different scenes and pick one,” she said.
In essence, Boyles does more than paint: she hears, she listens, she empathizes, she enjoys. She creates paintings and memories. She brings history alive through pictures.
“The more I started working on local paintings and started going to historical society meetings, I became more enthralled in history,” she said. “I came to a place where I wanted to capture the charm of Lansdale as it was, and spark good memories of the past.”
Boyles isn’t shy to admit — it is hard to paint the mind’s eye.
“We each have the ways we can help — they are different for all of us,” she said. “Only God gives us these gifts, and if that’s the gift he’s given me, I will use it to bring joy into other peoples’ lives.”
Download an order form for Boyles' paintings at this link. Find out more about Lansdale Historical Society at www.lansdalehistory.org.