Gay Head Gallery spotlights Endangered Wildlife

Endangered Landscapes: The Intrinsic Value of Wild Nature is the title for a new show at Aquinnah’s Gay Head Gallery, opening Sunday, August 12. The show will bring together artists with a particularly strong commitment to environmental issues, reflecting the gallery’s dual role as a conservation center called “the Rare&Endangered,” as well as an exhibit space for art.

Megan Ottens-Sargent explains her gallery’s mission by saying, “Art can connect people to the intrinsic value of the natural environment, so through collaboration with artists whose work is inspired by the beauty and mystery of nature, the gallery/conservation center aims to engage the public in a new way.” Three speakers at the opening will discuss the art-nature connection.

Photographer Barbara Norfleet, who has summered on the Island since 1955, will talk at the opening reception about how the natural world has inspired her photography, along with Chilmark plein-air painter Linda Thompson, and wildlife biologist Luanne Johnson, a Vineyard Conservation Society board member. A portion of the show’s proceeds will benefit VCS and the Moshup Trail Project.

Wildlife photos collected in Ms. Norfleet’s book, “Manscape with Beasts,” will be on display, as well as cibachrome prints of New England swamps from one of her most recent projects. Many of the photographs from the Manscape book feature animals in Vineyard settings — frequently Tisbury Great Pond — and show how wildlife interacts with the detritus of human life. Very few copies of these remarkable photographs remain available.

Explaining how she was able to attract skunks, crows, raccoons, and other wildlife for her environmental portraits, she says, “I put out tons of food.” With support from a Guggenheim grant, the Cambridge resident came to the Island in early spring. Armed with bread, carrots, and apples, she waited, usually at dawn or dusk, for the animals to show up. At the time, she found a collection of abandoned cars at an up-Island dump, where she would sit and wait to capture her subjects.

Ms. Norfleet’s least favorite but most frequent visitors were skunks. “The whole book could have been skunks,” she says. “I would be sitting in the dunes, and with all the concern about dogs and piping plovers, I’d watch mother skunks with their babies going out to get the (piping plover) eggs.”

“They are so beautiful,” Ms. Norfleet says of the swamps she has been photographing in large format. She began with Florida swamps but found them too lush for her project. The majority of swamp photographs, taken with a Hasselblatt Panorama camera, depict swamps in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. “We avoid them,” she says of swamps. “But they’re very spiritual.”

Ms. Norfleet has published 11 books of photography, both her own work and collections of other photographers, reflecting the sociological bent of her academic background. In addition to having photographs collected in major museums like New York’s Museum of Modern Art and teaching at Harvard University, she started the photography archives at Harvard, becoming curator of its Carpenter Center photography collection.

The gallery’s second speaker, Linda Thompson, likes to paint scenes that convey a sense of evanescence, ranging from the cliffs at Lucy Vincent Beach, which are receding, to a fleeting sunset. “Mother Nature is always changing things,” she says.

She plans to discuss three or four of her plein-air oil paintings and explain why she chose to paint those particular scenes. A 30-year resident of Montreal before she and her husband moved full-time to Chilmark, she says, “I’m just in love with this island and its beauty.”

Known as the skunk and otter lady, West Tisbury resident Luanne Johnson, the third speaker on the Gay Head Gallery roster, recently started a nonprofit organization, Bio-Diversity Works. As a member of its board, she will speak on behalf of the Vineyard Conservation Society, explaining why the Moshup Trail area is so special ecologically.

“It’s an ecological hot spot,” she says. “Those moors are incredibly scenic; it’s a very different scenery than the rest of the Vineyard.” She quickly ticks off the rare flora and fauna that make their home in the area.

In addition to the photographs and books of Ms. Norfleet and the paintings of Ms. Thompson, work by Zaria Forman and Catherine Allport, Liz Taft, Barney Zeitz, Julia Purinton, and Laura Rosenfeld among others will also be on display, along with wampum work by Joan LeLacheur.

Because Gay Head Gallery promotes conservation and environmental education as well as art, it provides resources for participation in environmental stewardship and activism. The Endangered Landscapes exhibit will remain up until August 24.

Endangered Species: The Intrinsic Value of Wild Nature, opening reception, Sunday, August 12, 5-7 pm, Gay Head Gallery, 32 State Rd., Aquinnah. For information, call 508-645-2776.