While most artists who choose Oak Bluffs as their subject focus on the intricacy of the famed gingerbread cottages with their curlicue trim and arched windows, painter Renee Balter, a longtime Oak Bluffs resident, has a different view. What distinguishes her work is the appealing, stylistic way that she captures the simple geometric design, flat surfaces, and contrasting hues of some of the town’s other iconic buildings.
Ms. Balter’s colorful acrylic paintings, many of which are currently hanging downstairs in the Vineyard Haven Library, capture the timeless charm and haunting qualities of the town that she has called home for three decades.
Ms. Balter’s work has a folk art feel with shadows used effectively to give depth to her almost two-dimensional paintings. She pares things down and often removes windows and other distracting details in favor of form. But there’s nothing impressionistic about the work. The colors are bold and the lines explicit, heightening the visual impact.
For 32 years, Ms. Balter and her husband, Bruce, have owned and operated a small guesthouse in the heart of Oak Bluffs. The 19th-century gingerbread house, Titticut Follies, is a stone’s throw from Circuit Avenue, the setting for the majority of Ms. Balter’s paintings. Many of her paintings feature the blocky, downtown buildings that lend Oak Bluffs almost a movie set feeling.
Ms. Balter recalls the Oak Bluffs of her teenage years when she was a summer server at the Menemsha Inn. “Back in the 50s I spent a lot of time in Oak Bluffs,” she says. “I remember going to the Tivoli Ballroom. Oak Bluffs was the fun place on the Island. I think it’s kind of magical.”
Other works done during the 60s and 70s, when Ms. Balter started summering with her family on the Vineyard, capture former familiar Circuit Avenue businesses like Darling’s candy store and Mr. C’s open air luncheonette. Many who spent time in Oak Bluffs during that era will recall the former as a popular destination for kids and the latter as the local grub stop remembered as a convivial gathering spot with its curbside bar stools.
More recent works spotlight landmark buildings that have remained virtually unchanged since the early part of the 20th century.
“I just love the architecture,” she says. “It’s just beautiful. Even the older, run-down buildings.” In referring to the structure behind The Flying Horses that houses a souvenir shop, she says, “The lines are great. It’s got such character.” That building and a cluster of others in the same area, such as the Strand Theater and the Dreamland Ballroom, are among her favorite subjects.
Her love of Oak Bluffs has extended to her civic role in the community. Beginning in 1992, Ms. Balter served as the executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association for almost 18 years. She has also sold real estate and is involved in a number of local organizations, but her real preoccupation is with painting.
Ms. Balter showed her work for many years at two Oak Bluffs galleries — Dragonfly in the Arts District and Cousen Rose on upper Circuit Avenue. A night scene of the latter is on display at the library and shows a street perspective picturing a small crowd in the brightly lit gallery and a few people in the side garden. It’s one of the few paintings by Ms. Balter that features human figures.
“I don’t like painting people,” Ms. Balter says. “If I’m going to put figures into a painting I’ll put them in a way that you don’t really see them. It’s sort of an idea of a person. I just like to get the mood of the scene.” The artist tends to downplay streets, sidewalks, landscaping, and pedestrian traffic, letting the structures tell the story.
An Illumination Night scene features a small crowd, their backs to the viewer, gathered in front of the Camp-Meeting Association building. A painting of Ocean Park in the winter shows a lone woman and her dog seen from behind on a park bench. “Every once in while in the middle of February when the weather is warm, you can sit on the bench and it’s just so great,” she says fondly.
In “Coming Home,” two people seated on the deck of the ferry are facing away from the viewer, gazing at another ferry heading in the opposite direction. “I just love that feeling in the summertime when you’re up on deck and you’re on your way home. I tried to capture that feeling of coming back home.”
One of the most dramatic of the library’s selection is a large painting of the interior of Union Chapel. People are gathered in the darkened balconies while a spotlight shines on a performer center stage. Although the singer, in a bright red gown with her hands raised, is the star of the show, the building itself is the real focal point of the painting. All of the angles, structural supports and the immense window-studded cathedral ceiling are lit so as to stand out in the scene, which is presented from a rear balcony perspective. “I just love that building,” says Ms. Balter. “I love being in that building.”
The singer is Lena Horne, her image co-opted from an album cover. However, the painting is a fantasy scene. Although Ms. Horne never performed at the landmark octagonal church, Ms. Balter, a collector of jazz records, had the opportunity many years ago to see the star in concert.
The Balters recently bought a house on School Street where Ms. Balter has a studio to work in for the first time. The studio/gallery has been officially designated as an extension of the Oak Bluffs Arts District and the public is welcome to visit and shop for the artist’s attractively priced originals and giclée prints.
Speaking of her hometown, Ms. Balter says, “I think it has a lot of heart and soul and gorgeous buildings. It’s one of the most interesting towns. It’s got everything… It’s so wonderful. It’s the greatest town ever.”
See Ms. Balter’s art through May 3 at the Vineyard Haven Library. For more information, visit reneebalter.com.