William Blakesley: 90 reasons to celebrate


Asked when he started to think that art was his destiny, William Blakesley says, “My first grade teacher gave me some praise once on a picture, and brought other teachers in to see it. I think that probably stimulated me to thinking that I could do it. Then I had a high school teacher who also encouraged me.”

He went on to study art at Ohio State University, and his paintings were added to the collections of the Toledo Museum of Fine Arts and the Columbus Gallery of Fine Art.

The prolific Island artist, who celebrated his 90th birthday this past Tuesday, June 21, admits he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t carrying around a sketchpad, even during his World War II military service. Drawing and painting has remained a constant in his life.

“I usually draw in restaurants or wherever I am,” he says, “even from the car. I like to go to Bend in the Road beach and draw the kids.”

William Blakesley arrived on the Island in the 1950s. It was summer, and he had a job as the resident adviser at the Martha’s Vineyard youth hostel. Before the first month was over, he had decided to make the Vineyard his home. By the 1960s he was operating a summer art gallery on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs — something he did for about 10 years.

Oak Bluffs is still his home, studio, and gallery. Mr. Blakesley and his wife, Liz Cornell, who was a long time Oak Bluffs first grade teacher, live on Montgomery Square. The large window of his studio faces the parking lot by the entrance to the Campgrounds, just behind Circuit Avenue shops and restaurants. It is filled with his paintings: softly colored images of children on the beach, scenes of families playing, investigating, and celebrating nature. The subjects are happy, full of mood and personality. There is a light touch, lines with grace and economy, and the figures — young, old, thoughtful — are each captured in their moment. Beyond the specific images, Mr. Blakesley’s paintings express something about summer, about people, about childhood.

“I am interested in doing people and children,” the engaging artist says. “Most painters are painting barns or something, but I don’t do barns and I don’t do still life. I especially like doing children as they are so natural, get into interesting poses and are always moving.”

His studio overflows with his art, many pieces displayed on walls and propped on the furniture, many more stored in files and stacked boxes.

Asked what keeps him creating at 90 despite health setbacks and concerns, his life-defined face takes on an introspective expression. “I don’t know,” he answers, “I often ask myself that, as I have more pictures in here that I can display. I do wonder why I keep doing it, and figure it must be because I enjoy it or it’s the only thing I can do.”

The unassuming artist exerts critical judgment on his work: “Well, I can always see some need for improvement. To me a piece is never finished til its covered in glass and framed, as then it is just too much trouble to take it apart to work on it. Otherwise I would be working on it all the time because you always see something that needs doing. That is what is discouraging about it. It is never finished.”

Mr. Blakesley’s diligence and earnest dedication become even more obvious as he carefully wends his way around his paintings, drawings, silk screen prints, giclée reproductions, and collages reminiscing, pointing out different particulars, and talking about his art.

As he views what the future holds, he says he hopes to continue to create something new everyday.

Happy 90th Birthday, Mr. Blakesley.