Faces in a crowd: A close look at Martha’s Vineyard personalities

Jeanne Staples won first place in the People's Choice contest with her painting of Steve Ewing. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Featherstone Center for the Arts has always been a great place to visit with friends and neighbors. Whether at a gallery opening, at a performance, or while stopping by the weekly summer flea market, local visitors can generally spot a familiar face.

Now, through the end of October, a number of recognizable faces will – this time around – be looking out at the audience from the walls of the Virginia Besse Gallery. The Oak Bluffs gallery is currently hosting a show featuring the entries from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s recent Island Faces Portrait Competition.

Last fall, the museum reached out to artists — both amateur and professional — for submissions to the contest. More than 60 people responded to the call for depictions of Island residents, either year-round or seasonal, living or deceased. Although all media — paintings, drawings, and photography — were welcome, the one suggestion was that the artist chose someone who they felt was worthy of inclusion for any reason — either as someone with significance in their life or as an integral part of the life of the Island. A short, written explanation of why they chose their particular subjects was one of the requirements.

This past June, a panel of judges announced three winners, Genevieve Jacobs, Traeger di Pietro, and Leslie Baker, and awarded them cash prizes. The 19 finalists were exhibited at the museum until earlier this month. Now, for the first time, the majority of the entries are on public display: 35 of the portraits are included in the exhibit, which opened last Sunday, Oct. 14, with a reception.

The collection is sure to be interesting, in terms of the quality and diversity of the work, as well as the variety of subjects.

Digital images of all of the portraits were posted on the museum’s website earlier this year and people were encouraged to vote for their favorites. At last weekend’s opening reception at Featherstone, the three winners of the People’s Choice awards were announced. The juried winners and the popular vote winners were entirely mutually exclusive.

The portrait to place first in the People’s Choice category is a large oil painting by Jeanne Staples of Steve Ewing standing by the Edgartown Wharf on a moonlit evening. Mr. Ewing, pictured in waders and a hooded sweatshirt, has a suitably rugged look, but his eyes indicate a sensitivity that’s borne out by the artist’s statement. Ms. Staples explains that Mr. Ewing is not only a commercial fisherman, but also Edgartown’s first poet laureate. The painting is a remarkable accomplishment as both a portrait and an evocation of the duality of the Vineyard population.

Second place went to a work in an unusual medium with an equally unusual story on the artist/subject relationship. Patricia Killian chose to paint Ann Barrett on an indented ceramic vessel mounted on an ornate wooden plaque. In the artist’s statement, Ms. Killian describes Ms. Barrett as her “sister wife – the old China term for women married to the same man.” Both women married, and then divorced, the same man. Ms. Killian also lists Ms. Barrett’s family tree placing her as a 10th generation Islander.

The third place winner is a charcoal drawing by Cris Tactaquin of a Filipino woman named Krista. She is captured in a glamorous cocktail dress, her lustrous wavy hair streaming down her back. In the artist statement, Mr. Tactaquin explains how he chose his model. “Since the Asian population on the Island is underrepresented, this drawing could help depict a face in the crowd who belonged to one of the said minority group.”

Ms. Staples, whose moody landscapes have been exhibited for years in galleries both on the Island and off, is among a handful of successful professional artists who took place in the competition. Others include painters Rez Williams, Marston Clough, and Traeger Di Pietro and photographers Alan Brigish and Nicole Friedler Brisson.

A few well-known artists are also the subjects of the submitted works. Ms. Friedler Brisson entered a wonderful color photo of an Island icon, the painter Ray Ellis; Nancy Kingsley captured Marston Clough on canvas; and two artists, Mr. Williams and Nina Gomez Gordon, entered self portraits.

Although no photos won the top slots in either competition, a number of photographers are represented among the entries. Michael McCasky contributed a marvelous black-and-white shot of art collector and philanthropist Olga Hirshhorn with her enigmatic smile and a twinkle in her eyes. Longtime Chappy farm owner and former Edgartown selectman Edo Potter was photographed in black and white by Frank Gazarian.

Some of the entries depict faces from the Vineyard’s past. Two folk-style artists chose Chicken Lady Nancy Luce as their subject. Jeanne Campbell captured Camp Jabberwocky founder Helen Lamb, who died last year, in a wonderfully dramatic color photo taken during her last public appearance at the Jabberwocky annual musical.

One of the most interesting — and arresting — portraits is of Robert Douglas, designer and captain of the Shenandoah, pictured by Ruth Major as a 19th century sea captain, complete with a wooden telescope and his canine first mate.

Although many of the portraits are of well-known Islanders, others are friends or family members of contestants or simply faces in the crowd that caught an artist’s eye. The one unifying factor is that, with few exceptions, the works are all skillfully executed. Which is surprising since the competition was open to all and many of the entrants were amateurs.

The exhibit provides a good overview of the unique Vineyard spectrum. In her statement accompanying a portrait of tribal elder Kristin Hook-Leslie, Sharon Mello writes, “When trying to decide who to paint for my entry, the first thing that came to mind is that the indigenous people of Martha’s Vineyard should be represented.”

Juleann VanBelle entered a partially obscured photo of a Dukes County Jail inmate and wrote of the jailhouse, “It is a rather hidden part of our Vineyard community; some know it too well, most of us chose to let it hover just out of our peripheral vision.”

By reading the artists’ statements, one can get a feel for the diversity of the Island population and the often fascinating stories that make up our Vineyard collage of characters. By all means, take the time to read the mini bios.

Island Faces is a colorful, diverse, and interesting show and, perusing the collection, you might just spot someone you know.

Island Faces continues through Oct. 31, 12 noon–4 pm daily. For more information, call 508-693-1850 or visit featherstoneart.org.