One local photographer’s ‘sweet’ approach to art and life

Elizabeth Wagner takes a photograph as part of her The Gummy Bear Priject, which will be on display at Sonoma Grill in Riverhead during JumpstART Aug. 11. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Elizabeth Wagner takes a photograph as part of her The Gummy Bear Project, which will be on display at Sonoma Grill in Riverhead during JumpstART Aug. 11. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Elizabeth Wagner didn’t have to look far to find a family connection to art.

From the time she was a teenager, the Riverhead fine art photographer has watched her mother, Gayle, devote much of her time to artistic pursuits.

It was in 2002, when the elder Ms. Wagner was diagnosed with brain cancer and forced to resign from her government job, that she began to dedicate her free time to art. A creative individual who felt the need to keep herself stimulated in her post-work life, Ms. Wagner took up photography as a therapeutic endeavor.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, now 28, has also decided to leave a government job behind to build a career in photography. And her hometown is the subject of her latest effort, dubbed The Gummy Bear Project, which will be on display next week as part of East End Arts’ annual JumpstART program. 

The project, she said, is a “celebration of Riverhead’s sweet spots” — a series of photographs featuring the popular candy taken at various spots around town. The Gummy Bear Project, which will be viewed by thousands of downtown visitors next Thursday, Aug. 11, when JumpstART coincides with Alive on 25, combines Ms. Wagner’s appreciation of Riverhead with the sensibilities she’s developed following in her mother’s footsteps.

“I’ve always been involved in art,” Elizabeth said. “I was kind of born an artist.”

Before she chose photography as her primary occupation, Ms. Wagner earned a master’s degree in public administration from SUNY/Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy. She spent a few years working at a government information storage facility in Pennsylvania before turning her full-time attention to art.

In the years since, she’s photographed landscapes, wildlife, abstractions — and, yes, sweets — throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. Her work, which has netted her ribbons in several fine arts competitions, has also been published by more than 100 media outlets, including ABC, Buzzfeed, Metro France and Comedy Central. A photograph Elizabeth took during a recent protest held in downtown Riverhead in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was published on the cover of the July 14 News-Review.

Elizabeth Wagner's July 14 cover photo from the Riverhead News-Review. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

Elizabeth Wagner’s July 14 cover photo from the Riverhead News-Review. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

Next week’s display in Riverhead isn’t the only way Ms. Wagner has connected with the arts community this summer. She and her mother have also been teaching a class together at Old Town Arts & Crafts Guild in Cutchogue, where more of her work was recently on display as part of the nonprofit’s Artist of the Month program. 

The Wagner women have found they make a good team. Around eight years ago, with Elizabeth’s help, Gayle Wagner established the guild’s Green Project Runway program, which teaches upcycled designs to children ages 7 to 12, who learn how to make their own costumes, among other projects.

“It’s great,” Gayle said of teaching alongside her daughter. “I never thought it would happen.”

The elder Ms. Wagner said her health is improving, but she has limited physical ability. She said she enjoys working with children and would like to bring her teaching to different hospitals, but can’t travel very far.

Gayle knows firsthand just how important art can be to the healing process.

“The doctors didn’t want me to work and they didn’t want me to do anything and I’m not the kind of person who can stay home in bed watching TV all day,” she said. “So when I got into art and making things, it kept my mind off being sick.”

Ms. Wagner said she and her daughter both look at the world from an artistic point of view.

“Art is important to everybody, whether they know it or not,” she said. “If you didn’t have art, life would be so boring, wouldn’t it? There’s art everywhere and you probably don’t even realize it.”

Elizabeth and Gayle Wagner together in Cutchogue. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Elizabeth and Gayle Wagner together in Cutchogue. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Ms. Wagner describes Elizabeth as shy, but said art has led her to experience different things and meet new people. She’s particularly proud of The Gummy Bear Project.

“She has a different mind than me,” she said, adding that she considers Elizabeth the more creative of the two. “[The Gummy Bear Project] is something I would never have thought of.”

The project will be on view Aug. 11 at Sonoma Grill on East Main Street. Large prints of the exhibit’s photographs will be displayed outside the restaurant and an interactive candy studio, where people can take their own gummy bear pictures, will be set up in the downstairs portion of the eatery. Elizabeth, who set up a GoFundMe page to support the project, will have different scenes set up as she takes photos of guests posing with enlarged gummy bear props.

Elizabeth said she finds it rewarding to watch how people respond to her work. She said The Gummy Bear Project has brought joy to children. In a recent press release, East End Arts described the exhibit as “fun for the young and young at heart.”

“It makes them really happy and I like to see them smile,” Elizabeth said.

The younger Ms. Wagner said she’s happy to be home on the North Fork and helping her mother, but doesn’t know where she’ll end up long term. She enjoys photographing people and hopes to pursue opportunities in photojournalism down the road.

“I’ll just see where art takes me,” she said.

A scene from The Gummy Bear Project. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

A scene from The Gummy Bear Project. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)