Martha’s Vineyard’s Shaw Cramer features etchings & drawings

A winter scene with subtle coloration typifies the etchings of J. Ann Eldridge, the featured artist at Shaw Cramer this week. — Photo courtesy of Shaw Cramer Galery

Most of J. Ann Eldridge’s drawings and prints have a story behind them, and those stories invariably connect to the other parts of her life. She will display her intricate, beautiful etchings and drawings at Vineyard Haven’s Shaw Cramer Gallery from June 23 to 30.

New Hampshire-based, the artist grows her own food, counts frogs and other amphibians and makes trips into her New Hampshire town of Bradford. That’s where the stories come to her.

“I may have an idea while I’m not even thinking about it,” Ms. Eldridge says. As chairman of her town’s Conservation Commission and a volunteer for New Hampshire’s reporting program on amphibians and reptiles, she may be busy at other tasks, but they usually have a connection to the natural world.

For the most part, she avoids drawing buildings and people. From her exacting point of view, one eye slightly out of line with the other on a person’s face could ruin an image; she finds the same with a crooked window on a building. When Ms. Eldridge is drawing a plant, however, one crooked leaf does not matter. Plants are more forgiving, and they don’t look over your shoulder, she says.

Nevertheless, prints of both a barn and a person will hang in her Shaw Cramer show, along with her nature scenes. The barn in question turned into a conservation project that the artist was involved with as a member of the commission. When the farmer who owned the barn died, his widow was left in debt. Commission members worked for six years to purchase development rights and save the farm. At the same time, Ms. Eldridge began creating a print of the barn.

For her portrait print, “Age 10 with Robin,” the artist used a new technique, solar plate etching. In this case, a light-sensitive emulsion covers the metal etching plate. Working with a photo of herself at age 10 with a fledgling robin on her shoulder, she made a drawing, then transferred the image to a transparency. That meant she didn’t need to reverse it, as is usually the case in printmaking. “I have the flexibility of pencil and eraser,” she says, instead of an etching tool.

One of the largest prints in the show, “North Woods Cedar Swamp,” measures 18 by 24 inches and is filled with the rich detail of swamp vegetation. Like most of her prints, it has very little color in it; the etched lines tell the story. In this case, the print almost didn’t come into existence. Ms. Eldridge measured her press and print tray; both seemed big enough to accommodate the new work, until she tried to empty the etching tray and found she didn’t have enough space to do it.

“The problem is that I live and work in a barn,” she explains. She had to keep jockeying the tray around until she could find a way to empty it of the acid that creates the print plate.

Recently she has started taking her etching plates outside to work on. Her previous method was to sit down and make a sketch of a scene, then take some “terrible” (her word) photographs and finish the work in her studio.

“It does make a difference,” Ms. Eldridge says. “Photos don’t do it.”

Ms. Eldridge has exhibited at Shaw Cramer since the gallery’s earliest days. Proprietor Nancy Cramer shares the story of how the artist became one of the first in her gallery. Ms. Cramer found her in an art show at Mt. Sunapee, N.H.

“I actually drove up there, an hour and three quarters,” Ms. Cramer says. It’s not something she has time to do any longer.

The artist’s name has strong Vineyard connections, since her Cape Cod relatives helped establish the Eldridge Tide Charts now published by Vineyard summer visitors Ridge and Linda White. The artist also has had a friendship with Island boat builder Ross Gannon. On Saturday, June 30, Ms. Eldridge will come to the Island to attend the book signing at Shaw Cramer Gallery for Laura Wainwright’s “Home Bird,” for which she provided the illustrations.

“Etchings and Drawings by J. Ann Eldridge,” Shaw Cramer Gallery, Vineyard Haven, June 21-30.; 508-696-7323.