The Island’s ability to spark creativity is legendary. For many, simple immersion in the landscape or the populace is sufficient to stoke inspiration, albeit for a spell, before that inspiration peters out and must be re-stoked by a shift in outlook or a change in environment.
For a very few, what that same immersion helps to ignite can become a thing ever-burning. The late Geoff Pease embodied such a phenomenon, when, after moving to Edgartown with his family in the late ‘90s, he discovered a latent gift within himself, a reservoir of creative fuel revealed through Island living that he lit with guitar, skateboard, and paint brush. For all too brief a time, he shared it all with everyone he knew before it burned completely through him.
On March 14, a decade after his death, proof of the still inextinguishable nature of his artistry will be on public display for the first time. Along with video, photography, and installations, a collection of Geoff’s paintings that has been gathered from across the Vineyard and across the country will crown Beautiful Beast, an exhibition in Brooklyn co-curated by his brother, Randy Pease, and West Tisbury artist Dan VanLandingham.
“This show has been a dream of mine since we lost him in 2004,” Randy said, “but it became a reality when my mom and I were visiting Lucy Vincent Beach — where we spread his ashes — for his nine-year anniversary in early March 2013. We stuck to our usual tradition of walking through the dunes and enjoying a hearty meal and a few beers at The Newes [From America Pub] in his honor, and I began writing down some notes on the boat-ride home. Instead of the standard feelings of grief and longing, I grew very inspired at the idea of throwing a show to honor Geoff’s 10-year anniversary. Since that day, roughly 11 months ago, I’ve been carefully planning every detail of the show, assembling a collection of paintings from every rapid phase of his artistic career and assembling all of the merchandise and promotional materials that I can think of.”
For Dan VanLandingham, an oils and acrylics painter who recently opened a gallery in Vineyard Haven, The Workshop, time during his high school days with Geoff not only honed his skateboarding skills but broadened the perspectives that would come to underpin his career.
“I was first close friends with his brother, Randy,” said Mr. VanLandingham. “I began to spend time with Geoff when I would go over to Randy’s house and would find myself peering into Geoff’s space. He would paint in their parents’ basement. This also doubled as a place for Geoff and I to skateboard in between his painting. Probably the best memory I have with Geoff was him teaching me how to ’360 Flip’ in the basement. I worked on that trick for hours while he made it look easy. I’m always reminded of Geoff when I try that trick today. As for the art, I was just beginning to paint when I first saw Geoff’s paintings. Yeah, they had a big impact on me back then and still do today. They were expressive and all Geoff. They were moody and more thought-provoking than what I was used to seeing. I didn’t ‘get it’ then, like I do now.”
Though he’d skateboarded ever since his first days on Island, Geoff didn’t begin painting until he’d lived in Edgartown for approximately three years. After friend and fellow skateboarder Marlon Grennan’s father received a terminal medical diagnosis, the gravity of it so moved Geoff that he purchased painting supplies and fashioned a “near perfect,” according to Randy, portrait of Marlon with a skateboard to cheer up the father. Days before Marlon’s father died, Geoff presented the painting to him.
Brooklyn artist Colin Ruel, who was one of Geoff’s high school friends on the Vineyard, remembers promising sketching and doodling that predated the Grennan painting.
“The first time I remember him drawing we were having breakfast at Lola’s, a bunch of us,” said Mr. Ruel, “and they had those paper table cloths. We were all drawing on the table and Geoff was drawing. He drew a hand, I remember, and it was really impressive.”
Jon Varriano, a former skateboarder and a colleague of Randy’s at Food & Wine Magazine, has been designing elements of the exhibition for months. In that time his appreciation for Geoff’s paintings has only grown. “Geoff’s scope, depth, and variety of work was nothing short of stunning,” he said. “Especially given the relatively brief timeline. There was so much life, motion, honesty, and soul in his pieces. I saw progression and artistic evolution moving at light speed. It was a force that couldn’t be stopped; building a momentum that seemed to border on uncontrollable and uncontainable. There’s tragedy laced throughout Geoff’s beautiful work, and the more I look at it, the more I want to know.”
During his sophomore year at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), Joshua Robinson-White met Geoff, then a junior, through an introduction by fellow skateboarder Zeb Weisman, and eventually developed a friendship.
“At the time there was no skate park,” said Mr. Robinson-White, “so we would all go to a friend’s house and skate in his tennis court on his homemade ramps. Geoff had his license and would drive us there. He was totally different than any of my other friends, had a sort of punk rocker way about him — from his spiked hair to his overall attitude. I was always blown away with Geoff’s grace and style. He wasn’t the most technical skateboarder, but the way he would stylize his ollies was nothing short of incredible.”
In time, Mr. Robinson-White came to photograph Island skateboarding and Geoff in particular, producing images that remain locally iconic.
“He would ollie off of ledges, shipping containers, and even the school roof. That particular shot [school roof] was actually on his second attempt at landing the trick. When I took that photo it was before the digital camera age and I didn’t even know how amazing a shot I’d gotten until I was developing the negatives in the dark room. I knew I had captured the moment, but I had no idea it was so perfect. I took numerous other shots of him throughout the few years I had the honor of being his friend; some were better than others, but all were special. He was electric when he got on a skateboard.”
One photograph Mr. Robinson-White took of Geoff skateboarding managed to so thoroughly capture his essence, athleticism, and the awe it instilled, it received a special award at the Agricultural Fair.
“I took another photo of Geoff at the Park and Ride near Cronig’s,” he continued. “We had a small number of ramps set up in the back of the parking lot and I needed some shots for another project I was working on…When I developed that shot I again couldn’t believe how amazing it was. With my friend Whit [Lasker] in the background I caught one of Geoff’s signature tweaked ollies over a 1-foot high by 5- or 6-foot long rectangular pad. His facial expressions, along with my friend Whit’s in the background, led to an incredible moment captured in time…A couple years after Geoff passed away I decided to enter the photo in the Fair. I ended up winning a special award for sports photography. I have never been more proud of a picture I had taken before.”
Geoff’s musical aptitude was no less pronounced than his talent for skateboarding. “Geoff taught himself how to play guitar,” said Randy. “What began as a hobby quickly evolved into an obsession, just like his painting and skating, and he filled the gaps between painting by playing alongside cassettes of his favorite musicians: Hendrix, Zeppelin, Bob Marley, etcetera. What began as replicating his idols evolved into an incredible style and confidence that just made it look easy. Within a couple of months he could put on a Hendrix cassette and play along with it, note for note.”
“Geoff was so talented in anything he set his mind to,” said Mr. Robinson-White. “I remember he wanted to play the guitar so he bought himself a chord book and taught himself how. I remember once he came over and played the guitar for me and a friend and I couldn’t believe how good he was. The same was true for his painting, he progressed so fast and had so much natural talent.”
After he graduated from MVRHS, Geoff’s family moved to Duxbury while he moved to Portland to attend the Maine College of Art where, in addition to being a “notorious ladies man,” according to Randy, his studies were so productive he was “often working on five-plus paintings at a time.” His creations in Maine increasingly became more profound, grim, and abstract.
“The work evolved at such a rate that it’s hard to tell if his insanity influenced his artwork or his artwork contributed to his insanity,” Randy said. That insanity, which unbeknownst to his family had been creeping in throughout his freshman year, manifested in full the next year when a series of vivid hallucinations of a beautiful woman, a reformed prostitute he believed he was having a relationship with, culminated in a psychotic break and an eventual diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. His exodus from college came on the coattails of that break. He would never return.
As part of a letter to the Plymouth chapter of The Nation’s Voice on Mental Illness (NAMI) lauding the care Geoff received during his illness and the support the Pease family received both during that care and after Geoff’s demise, Wendy Pease, Geoff’s mother, illustrated how the Family to Family class she and the Pease family participated in proved indispensable.
“The information we learned in that class saved our lives,” wrote Ms. Pease. “We laughed, we cried, we role-played, we learned how to live with a loved one who couldn’t change his clothes for nine days, a loved one who was hearing voices, a loved one who refused to take his meds, a loved one who wanted nothing more than to have his old life back. We learned we were not alone.”
Geoff’s final two years were spent shuttling in a triangle between a hospital, his family’s home, and a shack in West Tisbury that was both studio and bedroom to him. His painting during that period was marked by an incessant perfectionism that, when coupled with his great need for parsimony due to the financial instability his condition created, erased much of his earlier work. Either by executing something entirely new or by continually revamping the same work, he turned to recycling to maintain his creative flow.
“He transformed his older paintings into entirely new works of art,” said Randy. “While these re-works are beautiful in their own right, it resulted in a scarcity of evidence from the early years in Geoff’s artistic career.”
In March of 2004, while visiting his grandparents in Halifax, MA, Geoff succumbed to the demons of his illness and took his life with a firearm.
“It came as a huge shock,” Randy recalled. “Ten years is a long time to reflect on everything that may have unfolded on that day and the days leading up to it, but I find it hard to believe that he didn’t have some second thoughts. He hit some low points during his fight with schizophrenia, but he was also working steadily on finding a full-time job, producing more artwork, and even re-applying to art schools in Boston. I hate it that my brother isn’t around to witness this incredible event — not to mention my wedding, the birth of my kids — and I miss the hell out of him.
“When Geoff passed away,” he continued, “we asked everyone to donate money to a fund, in lieu of flowers. We eventually used those generous donations to host a free art class for other teenagers suffering from mental illness. They worked with a local artist at the Plymouth Center of the Arts, and they took home a number of original pieces and all of the leftover supplies. The class was titled ‘The Mind is a Beautiful Beast,’ which is where the show title ‘Beautiful Beast’ came from.”
Beautiful Beast, March 14–16, Brooklyn Fire Proof in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The show starts at 5 pm on March 14 and ends at 2 pm on March 16. All proceeds from the sale of artwork and other merchandise will be donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Skate Park in furtherance of a new half-pipe in Geoff’s honor. For more information, search Beautiful Beast: The Life and Work of Geoff Pease on Facebook.
Island artists share their thoughts on Geoff’s work
Having only seen a selection of digital images, several Island artists have shared their impressions of paintings that will be included in the upcoming exhibition.
Allen Whiting: “What comes through to me is something universal. No doubt Geoff experienced the joy and excitement that is felt by a developing artist. He was finding his voice and realized he was part of something wonderful. His artistic journey was short, powerful, and personal. I am now 67 years old and on my bedroom wall hangs a painting by a young man named David Ives. I traded for it in college and shortly thereafter he, at the same age as Geoff, found life overwhelming. It is a wonderful painting and treasured remembrance. David, like Geoff, was a real painter…Very impressive body of work.”
Traeger di Pietro: “Geoff Pease’s work is very deep and soulful. The contrasts and mood in the work is completely genius. They are very powerful and rich works…so much feeling…so beautiful.”
Kenneth Vincent: “He has a great way of creating deeply rich emotional paintings via his strong compositions and stylized mark-making. He has a great way of making you feel connected to the figures in his painting, but the way he uses color (it seems almost monochromatic) tends to keep his subjects aloof from the viewer in a way that stings. It feels like he was trying to make a very interesting comment on the emotional spaces between human beings, but whatever his intentions, his work shows that both his technique and creativity were one of a true artist.”
Brandon Newton: “There is a sense of many moving parts. I have a strong feeling of turbulence under the surface. What starts out as a painting viewed as another’s portrait, seems to turn into a look within the artist himself.”
Valentine Estabrook: “He had a feel for capturing the human quality, the vulnerability and the weight of the soul within his portraits. Each of his subjects is captured in a momentary reflection allowing the observer to sense a familiarity and timelessness within the portrait.”