Deborah T. Colter’s extraordinary abstract view

Deborah T. Colter debuts a new body of work with an opening reception at Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs this Saturday, July 13, from 7 to 9 pm.
Photo by Karla Araujo

Deborah T. Colter debuts a new body of work with an opening reception at Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs this Saturday, July 13, from 7 to 9 pm.

While many Vineyard artists try to capture the lapping of waves and the swaying of dune grass, Deborah T. Colter transforms the Island’s same deep teals and lush greens into wholly abstract creations.

A long-time Edgartown resident, Ms. Colter has committed her career to a difficult path: working full-time as an abstract artist in an environment that embraces representational painters.

Working in mixed media with acrylic paint over layers of paper, Ms. Colter sands, scratches, and paints over circles, squares, and other shapes, developing canvases that are arresting in their complexity yet accessible in their playfulness.

“Color is extremely important,” she told The Times, pointing to groupings of archived paintings that range in hue from deep rusts and reds to royal blues and teals, citrons, and mossy greens. Color is what first draws the eye to Ms. Colter’s paintings. But it is the complexity of shapes and patterns that holds the viewer’s interest.

A new body of work, a departure from what she has been painting, will debut with an opening reception at Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs this Saturday, July 13, from 7 to 9 pm. While her recent work was more linear and refined, Ms. Colter characterizes her new collection, on display until July 20, as “more organic rather than structural.” She has replaced her tighter, more organized style with a looser, less confined approach.

She explained that she typically embarks on a three- to four-year exploration of a particular body of work. “I think you have to build a language,” she said. “It’s important to have consistency but also to push beyond your comfort zone to get to a different place.”

Though stating that she has consciously been trying to move her work in a new direction, Ms. Colter also draws on elements from the past. “I look all the time,” she said. “I look, study, research. Then I step back into the studio and see what’s coming out.”

What comes out are paintings that now hang in galleries, private collections, and corporate, retail, and institutional settings across the country. An early adopter of Internet marketing and social media, she relies heavily on her website, email communications, Facebook, and Twitter to keep in touch with gallery owners, collectors, and the press. Because of her challenge as both an abstract artist in a traditional market and as an artist living in a seasonal environment, Ms. Colter embraced the concept of self-promotion long before many other Island artists came around to it.

“It would be a great dream to find a rep who would market my work,” she sighed. “But, as an artist, I have to spend a good portion of my time in my studio marketing.” She has blogged on her website in the past and hopes to return to that soon. But, in the meantime, she keeps up a regular appearance on Facebook and Twitter. She communicates regularly with corporate art buyers, gallery owners, and art patrons she meets at festivals she attends throughout the year and at her annual openings at Cousen Rose.

While selling abstract paintings has its risks in a relatively conservative art market, Ms. Colter has received enthusiastic support from Zita Cousens, owner/director at Cousen Rose. Ms. Cousens began showing Ms. Colter’s collages in 1997, believing that they would find a following. Over the years, the work has grown more abstract, but the gallery continues to attract buyers who respond to what Ms. Cousens calls the “sophistication and mystery of abstracts.” And, although Ms. Colter’s new series is a departure from the past few years, Ms. Cousens commented, “When you view the work, you’ll say, ‘That’s a Colter, isn’t it?’”

Working in a detached three-room studio/office adjacent to her mother’s home in Edgartown, Ms. Colter is surrounded by the tools of her trade: tubes, bottles and tubs of paint, brushes of every size, rollers, scissors, pencils, adhesive, strips of paint colors for reference, random shreds of paper, notes taped to the walls, and small photocopied images of her paintings. A profusion of color and objects, the workspace reflects the artist’s love of ideas, spatial relationships, and palette. A note bearing the words “feeling,” “texture,” “motion,” “structure,” “energy,” and “love” apparently serves as inspiration, while another displays “Land,” “Sea,” and “Sky” in very large type.

Although Ms. Colter insisted that her work is purely abstract and that she does not intend it to be interpreted otherwise, she said that many people claim to see images that are representational to them.

“I just enjoy it when my work stops someone in their tracks,” she said. “They don’t speak, they just look. That’s what I like to see.”

And, while she did work in still life and figure drawing as part of her printmaking studies at Rhode Island School of Design, she doesn’t envision a return to representational work. “I’m open to whatever comes along,” she noted. “I just love to make marks, create on the page, give it life. Is it a piece of fruit, a body, who knows? I just like to push and not limit myself.”

Raised in Ithaca, N.Y., Ms. Colter came to the Vineyard first as a young child vacationing with her parents. She later married an Islander and settled in Edgartown, where they raised their two sons.

Living on a spit of land surrounded by the sea doesn’t go unnoticed by the artist. She sees the color of a wooden boat, the lines from a wildflower. “Colors are magic,” she explained. “The sunsets, ocean, beach. I’m so fortunate to live in a place that offers great visual stimulation. It influences my colors, but I don’t feel I have to reproduce precisely what’s here. Instead, I ask, ‘Can I use that teal blue from the beach?’”

The Island community also provides inspiration. She cites theater, dance, and other forms of art and their creators as contributors to her passion. And, while she appreciates the close-knit Vineyard community, Ms. Colter finds that painting is a very isolating occupation. “I try to get to art openings when I can,” she said. “But I need the privacy of my studio. I work, paint, have a family, a house, and a garden. There’s not a lot of extra room. Most of my conversation is between me and my paintings.”

She usually works on different pieces at one time, always in a series of like colors. “They speak to one another – back and forth, they inform one another,” she explained. And, because she is layering paint, going from one to another allows the paintings to dry and gives her the distance to evaluate a canvas in progress.

“There has to be some magic in the work,” Ms. Colter asserted. “An ‘aha!’ moment for me.”

Ms. Colter is also represented by other galleries in major markets across the U.S. She and her husband, now retired, travel to a handful of highly selective juried art shows as well.

“I enjoy getting out and talking to art lovers,” she commented. “You don’t get that when you show your work in multiple galleries. It’s a wonderful way to connect.”

As the sun poured into her studio windows, lighting up her already radiant canvases, Ms. Colter mentioned that she is packing her van for a drive to Denver for her first appearance at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival. Like her approach to her work itself, she is, she said, “making an adventure out of it.”

Deborah Colter’s new collection of abstract mixed media paintings will be on display at Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs from Saturday, July 13–20, with an opening reception from 7 to 9 pm on July 13. The artist regrets she will not be in attendance. You can preview Ms. Colter’s work at deborahcolter.com.