Painter Donna Straw finds Island inspiration


After having lived and worked in cities and suburbs for most of her life, painter Donna Straw found the artistic opportunities she was looking for three years ago when she and her husband, Bill Straw, moved from Valley Cottage, New York, to settle full-time in their Vineyard Haven home.

“We knew this was where we wanted to live,” says Ms. Straw, explaining they had vacationed on the Vineyard for years, and built their home here about eight years before settling in. “We were just smitten with the Vineyard. We can be who we are here,” she says, “and we can develop ourselves in a comfortable way.”

Throughout the year, Ms. Straw teaches various painting workshops at Featherstone Center for the Arts. This summer, she will teach a workshop in July and again in August.”Painting is very solitary,” she says, “but teaching allows you to connect with people.”

She adds, “There are so many creative and bright people here, you could stand still and meet someone fascinating.”

Ms. Straw’s paintings are represented by the Cousen Rose Gallery on Upper Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Gallery owner Zita Cousens is a staunch supporter of the artist. “When she first presented her work to me, I thought the uniqueness of the linearity was striking,” says Ms. Cousens. “There is nothing else like it here.”

Ms. Straw has focused on art since growing up in Paramus, New Jersey, but says she did not develop her own creativity and style until graduate school at Montclair State College, where she earned a master’s degree in fine art, and the College of New Rochelle where she studied education for the gifted. She went on to a career as an art teacher in Nyack High School in New York for close to 30 years.

“You give over 100 percent of yourself to the kids when you teach,” she says. “But once we decided we were moving to the Vineyard, I knew I needed to go back to doing my own work.”

She paints in acrylics on canvas, often using metallic colors to emphasize line or movement. Her collection of work includes a decorative series of paintings of birdhouses, and of the Oak Bluffs Campground cottages. The compositions are designed on a grid. The surface of the modestly sized canvasses are covered in colorful geometric shapes, hard-edged, linear, and architectural. She begins by laying out the composition in pencil, then filling the shapes in with two layers of color. Edges are selectively taped to achieve her precise lines.

More recently, Ms. Straw began painting impressionistic landscapes and seascapes, going to various sites and photographing the scenes before beginning to paint. “The photos are my way of recording the images. They are like my memory,” she says.

The shift in subject and style represents her evolution as an artist, she says, speaking of it with enthusiasm, and crediting the Island environment for having nurtured it. She seeks out up-Island farms, the overlooks at Seven Gates, and beaches such as Squibnocket and Lambert’s Cove.

“If I need inspiration, I just get in the car and drive around,” she says. “I focus on the shades of rocks, different lighting, or the way the water changes after a storm. I’m gravitating to the quieter things.”

Her compositions develop intuitively, as she begins painting directly on the canvas without adding preliminary washes or tones. The work is more spontaneous, “emotional,” she says, explaining that she works to establish a mood.

And her art is further home-based because her home serves as her studio as well as her personal gallery. “My kitchen is my studio,” she says. “My work fits well on the kitchen counter, and sometimes it takes up the table. If I have to, I’ll paint on the floor.”

Ms. Straw sounds happy as she talks about her work: “I always used to paint stairs and bridges, and I realized that was because I was always striving to get somewhere else,” she says. “But now I’m painting the ocean, and I’ve found my voice. I’m not going anywhere.”

On Saturday, June 18 from 5 to 7 pm, during the Oak Bluffs Summer Solstice festivities, paintings by Donna Straw and others will be featured at Cousen Rose Gallery, Upper Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs.