Island influence on emerging artists

Stefanie Wolf in her jewelry studio in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Menemsha harbor, the gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs, and the Gay Head Cliffs are among the many scenes on Martha’s Vineyard that can cause moments of awe. For creative minds, however, such beauty carries a lot more meaning.

Four young emerging artists — jewelers Stefanie Wolf and Kenneth Pillsworth, photographers and painters Jhenn Watts and Elizabeth Cecil — have chosen to make the Vineyard their home, their place for inspiration and perfecting their craft.

“I’m really inspired by the Vineyard,” jeweler Stefanie Wolf says. The ocean and beaches have had an impact on the mosaic colors and the designs of her pieces. “The tiles have the blues and greens of the ocean that I find really inspiring.”

She adds, “I always felt really personally connected to the place. Even after I moved around a lot, I would always come home to the Vineyard.”

Similarly, the landscape plays a significant role for photographers Jhenn Watts and Elizabeth Cecil: “I don’t have to go very far for an absolutely perfect composition,” Ms. Watts says. “I’m inspired everyday. I’ve been here for 20 years, but I’m still in awe. I’m finding new places I’ve never seen. This place is just beautiful. You can’t get away from it.”

For Elizabeth Cecil, who moved to Martha’s Vineyard only five years ago, the beauty of the Island actually inspired her to produce a new, different line of photography. “The most recent work I’ve been making is landscape, which is unusual,” she said. “I usually do self-portraits, but being on the Vineyard, it’s beautiful, and it means many different things to me, so I started going in that direction.”

Beside the physical features of the Island, its community and culture also impact how artists live and work. Due to a high volume of visitors and activities during the summer season, artists must adapt to going from an extreme hectic lifestyle to the quiet downtime of the winter. But creative isolation has its advantages.

Ms. Watts says, “I can’t help but make art [in the winter], and I think that’s the same for all the artists here.”

Jeweler Kenneth Pillsworth, Ms. Watts’ husband, says, “It’s also more of a stress free environment.” He notes that working here “helps the overall well-being.”

Ms. Wolf agrees: “There’s a really nice rhythm. In the fall, things slow down, but the weather’s even nicer. All the visitors thin out, and then in the winter, it’s really quiet.” It’s that cycle, she says, that sets the Island apart from big art destinations like New York City, Boston or Chicago.

“If I want to be quiet and spend a lot of time in my studio, it’s totally allowed here,” Ms. Wolf says, and referring to urban centers: “While it’s fun to work in the hustle and bustle, it’s hard to get away. There’s never that quiet downtime.”

Ms. Wolf started making jewelry in San Francisco. Although she successfully sold her pieces in California, her business didn’t bloom until she moved to the Vineyard with her husband and her daughter and opened her own studio in the Oak Bluffs Arts District.

On the other hand, photographer Elizabeth Cecil says she likes to go off-Island from time to time to see what’s going on in those big arts cities: “We have galleries here, but it’s not like Boston or New York. I feel like I have to make an effort to go do things, to see what’s going on outside of Martha’s Vineyard.”

The high cost of living combined with limited affordable housing makes things even more difficult. “You have to deal with your living space being your studio space,” Mr. Pillsworth says. “When I first got here, I was pretty much moving every six months, and that’s pretty stressful.”

For a while he also lived and worked out of a shed because he couldn’t find a decent space. With his workstation right next to his bed, he used to polish his finished products outside, even in the rain.

Some artists like Ms. Cecil often work a second job to support their artistic careers. “It’s challenging to be an artist anywhere,” she said. “But especially here, it’s expensive. You have to do other jobs here and there that might not be ideal for you as an artist.”

Being part of a community like Oak Bluffs Arts District, Ms. Wolf takes advantage of working with other artists who have worked here for years. Moreover, networking opportunities on Martha’s Vineyard don’t compare to what other cities can offer. “In San Francisco, I used to push, push, push to get contacts,” Ms. Wolf says. “Here I’m really grateful at how easily I’ve been able to spread the word about what I’m doing.”

And it is the small, tight community artists discover on the Island that is perhaps one of its biggest advantages. It is not difficult to find a mentor on Martha’s Vineyard. Ms. Watts says, “There’s a great community where everyone kind of bounces off of each other. You don’t ever get a chance to go down the wrong road too far down.

“I don’t think we could survive without them,” Ms. Watts continues. “Critique group is great. We all work in different mediums, too, so it’s not like we are in competition. We are here to help each other.”