OCEAN CITY, N.J. — When coming up with the theme for the June invitational art exhibition at the Ocean City Arts Center, president Jack Devine knew he didn't want lighthouses, dunes, or jetties.
"That's the last thing we want," Devine said. "We have that out the window. I wanted something else."
And so, naturally, it was just a short hop of a wave from a beach landscape to a theme about Wanamakers.
Wanamakers? "I had this idea of celebrating Wanamakers," he said, "because so many people in the area have a connection to the store."
Funny thing, though: By settling on an "I Remember Wanamakers" theme to evoke memories of the bygone Philadelphia institution, Devine ended up with a lot of paintings of something that is actually found (in increasing numbers, by the way) at the Jersey Shore — eagles.
As in the phrase "Meet me at the Eagle," the landmark 2,500-pound bronze sculpture in the grand court of the 1911 building at 13th and Market Streets (now Macy's) that so many people remember so expansively and poignantly.
And so Devine got Granny and Me at the Eagle, by Frances Huges, a sweet, nostalgic painting of a little boy and his grandma at the Eagle with a Christmas tree in the background.
He got Lance Balerson's Eagle, Organ and John Wanamaker Equals Philadelphia.
He got Where Shall We Meet?, a pencil-and-watercolor work by Jill DiRienzo, 91, who noted, "Meeting friends at the Eagle was a weekly must. Wednesdays after work, it was two blocks from my job, and the thought of dinner in the Tea Room was worth waiting for."
And there is one by Merryl Cool called Mannequins Meet at the Eagle.
Glancing around the gallery at the Arts Center (on the second floor of the Library/Aquatic Center/Arts Center building at 1735 Simpson Ave.), you might think for a moment you were in fact at a naturalist exhibition. But just for a moment. What you're really looking at is the shared experience of memory: How a building, a store, a routine, a landmark of a bygone era still evoke vivid emotions.
Chuck Law's painting of the Eagle is titled Still Proud.
"I did get a lot of eagles," Devine said. "There are several of the Eagle, but that was a natural focal point. Like little Eddie [in a painting by Ed Wismer, Eddie Waiting to Meet Mother at the Eagle], I spent a lot of time waiting for my mother at the Eagle."
The exhibition, which has a Meet the Artist event Friday evening from 7 to 8:30, is not all eagle. Several works pay tribute to the architecture of the building at 13th and Market, designed by architect Daniel Burnham and opened in 1911, and to the organ, and to glimpses of the building from various vantage points.
Ellen Gavin, a Millville-based artist who once worked as a salesgirl at Wanamakers, said, "I knew I didn't want to do the Eagle." Instead, she painted a street scene, with figures that look as if they came from the fashion catalogs of the '40s, '50s, and '60s, with long umbrellas, set against hauntingly pink reflective light, walking past the Wanamakers building, identified only by the J.W. insignia.
"What I really was thinking about is the fashion aspect," Gavin said, "why people really went. They went because they had all the wonderful fashion in Philadelphia. I went through old fashion photography to be inspired by figures. I know it doesn't look like anything else there. I know it doesn't have an Eagle."
She said when she was done with the painting, she realized she had evoked a past generation, in a Mad Men or Pan Am kind of sensibility. "Every generation feels like the past generation was more glamorous," she said. "I love the way those women are dressed, with long umbrellas."
Barbara Rosin created a work based on the Crystal Tea Room and its gracious living traditions, but wrote a note observing that today's version would feature "a young girl checking her messages as she sits with her old relatives."
"For me, there's sadness and nostalgia at this reflection of what change has wrought in this remembrance of teas past."
Shirley Hawthorne chose to paint From the Bridal Department, a picture of her wedding dress. (That aspect of Wanamakers caught me in an unexpected pang of remembrance. I never met anyone at the Eagle, but I did, in fact, get my wedding dress at Wanamakers. The salesperson even hand-made my satin gloves.)
One morning this week, Bob and Barbara Joachim of Philadelphia were at their summer home in Ocean City and stopped up to see the exhibition.
"It brings back memories," said Barbara.
"We used to meet at the Eagle," said Bob.