West Tisbury painter Barbara Day doesn’t set up an easel and create on canvas like conventional artists. Instead, she applies the acrylic paint for her landscapes onto boxes, footstools, cabinets, and other wooden furniture. Yet this painter is far too accomplished simply to be called a folk artist.
She chooses to paint on boxes and furniture because she believes in making art that is useful. Ms. Day’s work does not linger on display long at West Tisbury’s Granary Gallery, and she often works on commissions, creating scenes her clients — repeat customers and their friends — have requested. The 20 pieces a year she completes find a ready market.
She works in collaboration with her husband, Robert Day, a retired Episcopal priest who served as headmaster of Boston’s Advent School for 30 years. After he paints and varnishes unfinished furniture purchased from a supplier, Ms. Day applies a scene, usually from photographs she’s taken on site. “I usually put several photographs together,” she says. Her palette is muted, her compositions masterly without being flashy.
Ms. Day began studying art as child at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, where she grew up. “Wherever I’ve been I’ve taken art lessons,” she says, including with Boston portrait painter Conger Metcalf. “I just took a sketchpad with me wherever I went.”
Although her family has been based in Montclair, N.J., for generations, Ms. Day spent her summers on the Vineyard as a child and belongs to the Blackwell family that began summering in Chilmark in 1869. The Blackwells were identified in a 1980 “Dukes County Intelligencer” article as Quitsa’s first summer residents.
“When my mother came as a child, they got to Oak Bluffs and were met by Oscar Flanders in a stagecoach,” Ms. Day says. “They changed horses in North Tisbury. It was a whole day’s journey with aunts and uncles coming, too, and they stayed for the whole summer. There were no trees and barely any people.”
Ms. Day and her husband began spending their summers in Vineyard Haven in 1965, and settled permanently in Vineyard Haven in 1995. She comes from three generations of painters — her grandmother Agnes Jones and her mother, Ethel Whidden, preceded her. Ms. Whidden also exhibited at the Granary in the 1970s and 1980s, although she predominantly painted portraits. While Ms. Day exhibited at the Artisans Festivals when it was still held at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, she says of the Granary, “They’ve done very well by me. I love to walk in there. They have such wonderful works; it’s like a museum.”
One of her more popular subjects is the Edgartown lighthouse, and she loves getting the chance to paint it. Others include Gay Head beach, Stonewall beach, Quitsa Pond, and Menemsha. “I try not to do a scene more than once,” she says. “I change the perspective.”
In 1998 Ms. Day took her work to Connecticut’s Danbury Fair at the suggestion of a friend. “It was a little scary,” she says. “I thought they weren’t going to buy anything, but they did. They bought all 20 of the pieces I brought.” Despite her success in Danbury, one excursion to show off Island was enough, and now she limits herself to the Vineyard.
“You have to like to be by yourself,” Ms. Day says of her profession. Originally the painter listened to classical music while she painted, but she has switched to popular tunes more recently. She favors James Taylor and the Barenaked Ladies now as more cheerful.
Although cataract surgery has slowed her production this year, Ms. Day will head to England in July. She and her husband will attend a tribute to her great-great aunt, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman physician at the University of Bristol where the institution’s Health and Research Institute will be named after Elizabeth Blackwell.
Ms. Day will take her sketchpad with her.
See Barbara Day’s work at The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. For more information, call 508-693-0455 or visit granarygallery.com.