Artist Joan Walsh explains The Crossword of Life series of paintings she has on exhibit this month at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. The seven brightly colored acrylic paintings show children engaged in different experiences. Each scene is painted on a crossword puzzle-like background of black and white squares, and each is titled with a positive word, indicating the meaning of the image.
“As long as I can remember, every single day my father did crossword puzzles,” she explains. “Most of the time he could find the solutions, but sometimes he’d have to ask my mother or other family members what the answer was. Occasionally, we wouldn’t know, so he’d always go to the same neighbors…A few years ago I had a dream about doing a series of paintings and the solutions of the crosswords would be the titles.”
She adds, “I was thinking that times are hard at the moment, and I wanted to do something that was uplifting.”
Her artist’s statement expresses that sentiment: “I try to focus on the positive aspects of existence as much as possible in an effort to highlight the joy and light in what can sometimes be a gloomy world.”
To read her words without the musical sound of her Irish brogue is to get the meaning without benefit of the melody. Ms. Walsh, a 1985 graduate in glass design from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, won a green card in an Irish lottery, and in 1989 moved from Ireland to the Vineyard. It was in response to an invitation from her friend, Vineyard Haven’s Gerta O’Rourke, who described the Island to her as “a great place for art.”
At first, just to get by she worked as a cook, a chambermaid, and various other jobs. But soon she was spending all her time doing book illustrations and painting, showing at the Vineyard Artisans Festivals, and raising her sons, Andrew (14) and Louis (17).
As with her illustrations, she often uses her sons as models. She laughs, and says her sons “don’t mind” being the subject of her paintings and book illustrations — “but sometimes when I’m working and they hear me calling and they know I’m looking for a certain pose, I hear them saying, ‘You go,’ ‘No, you go,’ to each other.
Her boys are included in “Teamwork,” the painting in the Crossword series that shows children hoisting a sail aboard the ship Magic Carpet, and again in “Good Times,” a painting of children playing. “The Wish” shows Louis blowing out a birthday candle on a cake decorated with symbols of all the religions, and “Hug” features Andrew on a nature walk with his class at the Oak Bluffs School.
“Recognize,” a painting of a little girl and a smiling pig looking at each other nose to nose, was inspired by a scene at the Ag Fair.
“Achieve,” shows The Rockets, who performed basketball skills at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, teaching a boy how to spin a basketball on his fingertip.
For the series she first took photos of the subjects and scenes. The people portrayed represent real people. After the background of black and white squares is laid out, she creates the center action scene.
Ms. Walsh’s book illustrations include “The Secret” by Merrily Fenner (her great supporter and friend), “Lobstering With My Papa” by Billie Hancock, “The Wampanoag Genealogical History of Martha’s Vineyard” by Dr. Jerome Segel and R. Andrew Pierce, and two children’s books by Don Davis.
“I actually do a lot of research when I do a book,” she says. “For Billie’s book on lobstering, I went around to all the places mentioned in the story trying to discover as much as I could. Frank Fenner took me out on a skiff like the one Herbie (the late Herbie Hancock) used, and brought me where he used to go.”
Ms. Walsh, who makes a point of expressing her appreciation to the Vineyard Haven Library for sponsoring her show, hopes to sell the series as a single unit. Anyone interested should visit joanwalsh.com for details.
“The Crossword of Life” paintings are on display in the children’s book department of The Vineyard Haven Library through April during regular library hours. For more information, call 508-696-4211.