Worthington: Design for living

He is an affable man, used to being interviewed and being quotable. Jules Worthington describes himself as “a kind of hermit artist because I’d really rather paint than socialize,” and refers to his studio on the second floor of the sculptural house he designed and built overlooking Tarpaulin Cove, as “The Ivory Tower.” But listening to him talk about himself and his art, one finds he is nothing less than engaging and accessible.

Worthington is completing a regiment of physical therapy for a health crisis he experienced this past March. The 72-year-old Chilmark artist was on his annual visit with his elderly aunt in Florida (a practicing artist whose work he critiques), when a fragment of floating plaque went into his aorta, blocking the blood supply. He became immobile: transverse myelitis, inflammation of the spinal cord, and spent six weeks in Florida hospital.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “It made me thankful for all the people who are out there,” he says, describing the outpouring of concern that was extended to him. His new resolve: “I’m going to make more time for people. When fellow artists have an opening, I’m going to go.”

And he admits: “I didn’t think I was going to live. Then I thought I was going to be paralyzed. But I had my upper body and my mind.”

And his art.

Worthington describes the impact this event has had on his painting: “I’m more childlike and expressive,” he says. “Although most artists are guilty of painting for an audience, now I want to paint for myself and I don’t care what anybody thinks. And it’s been a lot of fun. It’s evolved.”

A working artist for most of his life, he grew up on a farm in Middletown Connecticut (his father was on faculty of Wesleyan University). His family is steeped in the arts: his mother, Eleanor Piacenza, was married to the brother of Thomas Hart Benton’s wife; his sister, Caroline Worthington, a former performing cellist, cofounded The Montagnana Trio and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society with pianist Delores Stevens.

A constant student, Worthington has creatively explored a wide range of styles and media, from realism to abstract expressionism and sculpture. In 1972 his sculptural chronographs (a clock with both timekeeping and stopwatch functions) were exhibited in Leo Castelli’s Gallery in New York alongside the work of Andy Warhol.

But on the Island, Worthington, who tries to paint everyday, has most often been associated with his softly colored Impressionist paintings of Island scenes and landscapes.

“Life is a continual learning process,” he says. “It just opens your mind. When you stop learning, you are dead. There’s just so much I don’t know.”

His new work has a clean bold look, landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes executed in bright colors and crisp outline, giving definition to shapes. There’s less modeling and more conspicuous design elements.

Worthington says he sometimes works from imagination, other times, uses his photos for references.

“I suppose the most creative thing is to start with a blank canvas,” he says. “It’s a lot harder than starting with a preconceived image. You really have to work harder at it. But the idea is not to intellectualize it too much. It becomes too cerebral. You want it to just flow out of you. Just let it come.”

He says, “I don’t like what’s going on in the world. I don’t want to be hurt or upset with people. Politics upsets me. All I want to hear is the birds and the wind.”

And so he retreats into his “zone” — working in his studio to prepare for his Labor Day Show at the Ag Hall.

“I’ve got a lot to do yet,” he says,” looking pleased at the prospect.