A curator’s vision of nine artists at Featherstone


Nine of the Island’s top artists have come together at Featherstone Center for the Arts in a major exhibit of their work. All are women, and they have met for 13 years to critique each other’s work.

The artists are Leslie Baker, Wendy Weldon, Hermine Hull, Lyn Hinds, Elizabeth Taft, Jeanne Staples, Nancy Furino, Claire Chalfoun, and Ruth Kirchmeier. Chilmark summer resident Monina von Opel guest curated the show.

“It’s not just a group show of nine artists’ random work,” said West Tisbury artist Leslie Baker, whose abstract monotype work, “Birches: Seasons,” makes up part of the exhibit. Many Island shows are not curated, and Ms. Baker praised Ms. von Opel, calling the exhibit a very different, very personal vision.

“Her voice is very apparent,” Ms. Baker said. “She likes to know process. She wants to understand how you got to where you end up.”

“Port-au-Prince,” a portrait by Edgartown artist Jeanne Staples, with its graphite drawing, “Study of Drack,” next to it, greets visitors as they enter the gallery. And Ms. von Opel included the double-sided plates used by West Tisbury artist Ruth Kirchmeier in creating her woodcut, “Sleeping Cat.” On the gallery wall near where the plates hang are the drawing and a photocopy enlargement of it that preceded the woodcut.

“None of us are shrinking violets,” said Ms. Baker. “We all have our individual ways of getting to the finished products.” When Ms. Kirchmeier brought her cat drawing to a get-together of the group, they proposed eliminating part of the sofa the cat lies on. The artist’s response to that recommendation appears in the lines she put on the drawing to crop the picture as it appears in the woodcut.

The group was started by Vineyard Haven artist Elizabeth Lockhart Taft, whose oil painting, “Menemsha Channel with Red Buoy,” shares gallery space with the plein-air painting she made first, titled “Menemsha Study, Red Buoy.” Ms. Taft had recently moved to the Island at the time. A number of the artists were attending life-drawing workshops at Tom Maley’s home, and Ms. Taft wanted to meet regularly and talk with other women artists as well. Over a 13-year period, the original group expanded, contracted, and combined with another group to take on its current shape.

When Ms. Taft suggested it was time for a group show, she and Ms. Baker thought it should be curated. Featherstone’s director Ann Smith welcomed the opportunity to organize the show, especially since all of the artists involved have connections to the center. She chose Ms. von Opel as curator.

“I think she has a great eye,” Ms. Smith explained. “She spent time with each artist. It was a neutral process, but it spoke to the group as a whole.”

Ms. von Opel is largely responsible for the art collection at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and has filled her Chilmark home with Vineyard art.

“She tied us all together in a way,” said Chilmark artist Wendy Weldon, below whose acrylic/gold leaf painting, “Barn with Three Turquoise Stones,” hangs a photograph of the painting’s subject. The critique group meets regularly five or six times a year, sharing meals or having tea.

“It’s not at all competitive. It’s all about people bringing in new work,” Ms. Baker said. “These are women who have devoted their lives to art. All of us have been to art school or studied art; many have Master’s degrees, have taught art, and earn their living off their work.” Ms. Baker has published an art textbook.

“I wanted to find out where the creative spark came from,” Ms. von Opel said. “I had such fun discovering these women, how they’re linked, how generous they are to each other. It was a honor to be asked.” Ms. von Opel modestly calls herself an art appreciator.

“I feel very much part of the process, because we buy paintings for our house,” she added. “The artist has a vision, then I fall in love with that vision, take it into my home and give it a life of its own.”

In a walk through the gallery with this writer just after the exhibit was hung last week, Ms. von Opel talked about the move from very literal to more abstract in two of the works on display by Edgartown artist Lyn Hinds, “Across the Water” and “On the Pond.” Of West Tisbury artist Hermine Hull she said, “Hermine just goes freelance, and if something goes wrong she often paints over it. She wants you to see the process.” In Ms. Hull’s “Linda Alley’s Peach Jam,” earlier brushwork peeks out from one edge of the painting. Ms. Hull’s “Leslie Reading” leaves much of the surface unpainted, yet the oil-on-birch panel appears completed. Ms. von Opel described side-by-side landscapes by Edgartown painter Claire Chalfoun as seeming like a panorama.

According to Ms. Opel, the gallery’s small back room has a reputation for being a place where artists don’t want their work relegated. “Au contraire,” she said. “It’s a magical space. It has great light, and you can focus on the works.” “Lobsterboat” by Edgartown artist Nancy Furino dominates one wall of the room, and another Furino oil, “Winter Storage,” hangs on the opposite wall.

A collection of work by the five artists who went together to paint plein air at Duarte’s Pond hangs together in the back room. Ms. Hull explained, “We all set up in different places and came out with entirely different images.” Ms. von Opel included preliminary drawings and photographs in the display to illustrate the different ways the five artists approached their work.

“It’s just been such fun,” Ms. von Opel said. “It was like a treasure hunt.”

At the opening reception for the exhibit last weekend, the artists presented Ms. von Opel with a bouquet of white flowers in thanks for her efforts.

“Nine Artists – Thirteen Years,” Featherstone Center for the Arts, Oak Bluffs. Show runs through August 21. For more information, visit featherstoneart.org.