An act of surprise and delight

Artist Elizabeth Whelan partners with local businesses for portrait-unveiling parties.

Ross Gannon and Patricia Whelan stand with Elizabeth's portrait of the boatbuilder that was unveiled last week. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Last Thursday, artist Elizabeth Whelan presented boatbuilder Ross Gannon with his portrait during a public unveiling at the Gannon & Benjamin Shipyard in Vineyard Haven. It was the very first time that Mr. Gannon was seeing the painting, an image of the boatbuilder at the helm of his wooden sloop Eleda, clearly relaxing and enjoying a sail on a beautiful Vineyard day.

“I was shocked at the likeness,” says Mr. Gannon. “I didn’t know what to expect, particularly at an unveiling.” Mr. Gannon and his family are all very pleased with the results.

The painting is certainly lifelike in every sense of the word. The portrait is remarkable not only in its realism, but also in the sense of life and emotion that is conveyed so clearly.

“Because I know Ross, I was able to capture the expression I wanted, basically him having fun out sailing. In the background are the Elizabeth Islands. It’s very much a Martha’s Vineyard scene,” said Ms. Whelan.
Thursday’s unveiling was the first of a series of similar events that Ms. Whelan has planned for the summer. On June 20, Mikel Hunter’s shop and gallery on Winter Street in Edgartown will be the scene of a party where Ms. Whelan will present Mr. Hunter with his portrait. The unveiling will function as a dual celebration between Mr. Hunter’s store and the grand opening of designer Stina Sayre’s new boutique next door.

On July 11th, Ms. Whelan will unveil her portrait of interior designer Julie Robinson at her showroom on State Road in West Tisbury. That same weekend she will be unveiling a portrait of photographer Eli Dagostino at a yet-to-be-determined location.

Stina Sayre’s new boutique will host a show of Ms. Whelan’s on August 22, which will include an unveiling of a portrait of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. At some point this summer, mystery writer Cynthia Riggs will be the subject of another unveiling.

Ms. Whelan landed on the Vineyard in 2006 when her boyfriend Bill Benns was offered a job working for Gannon & Benjamin. Prior to that, the couple was living in Maryland. Ms. Whelan, a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, was able to relocate her business here.

“We washed ashore specifically at Gannon & Benjamin,” she says, “All the good things that have happened to us since really extend from that openness of Nat and Ross. I wanted to say thank you to both of them for everything they have made possible for us.”

Last summer, Ms. Whelan presented Ms. Sayre and Mr. Benjamin with portraits during a show of her work hosted by the Workshop studio/gallery on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Benjamin’s portrait depicts the wooden boat designer and builder gazing out a window of the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway boat shop, surrounded by the tools of his trade. Ms. Sayre is shown draping fabric on a dressmaker’s dummy, the image reflected in a full-length mirror.

The inspiration for the latter portrait came about during a time that Ms. Whelan had a studio next to Ms. Sayre’s previous location, across from the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven.

“She and I were neighbors at Five Corners for a couple of years,” says Ms. Whelan. “Watching her work and seeing how serious and dedicated she was, I was intrigued by how she designed these clothes from the ground up. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to paint somebody at work like that?’”

The unifying factor in Ms. Whelan’s work is a sense of life and motion. Many of her subjects are depicted at work. “I like to capture that movement,” says the artist. “I like something to be going on. It’s very rare that people and the scenery about them is very still. I like to have a certain degree of activity of some sort in the paintings. Either the people themselves or something about the scenes. In the portrait I did of Howard Miller [whose wife was the winning bidder for a portrait at last year’s Possible Dreams Auction], he’s standing at the wheel of his boat, but there’s movement in the clouds and on the water.”

Another distinctive feature of Ms. Whelan’s work is her ability to capture an emotion, a personality, and a moment in time. “Anytime I paint a portrait, I have a concept of the permanence of this kind of artwork,” she says. “When I see portraits in a museum, I’m not sure the image really gives a sense of the person. A portrait tends to get handed down. I try to capture the essence of a personality that can be passed down to future generations.”

Anyone familiar with Mr. Gannon, Mr. Benjamin, or Ms. Sayre can surely see the personality shining through in their portraits. Ms. Whelan likes to capture people looking as casual and at ease as possible. She is a master at depicting the drape and flow of fabric, which lends authenticity and immediacy to the work, and also helps capture the sense of movement.

Elizabeth painting in her studio.
Elizabeth painting in her studio.

The former commercial artist has a rare talent for rendering hands, the bane of many portrait artists. Hands are featured prominently in many of Ms. Whelan’s portraits. “I admire people who can create with their hands,” she says. “When I look at people like Nat or Ross or Sarah [jeweler Sarah Young] they’re making things with two tools — their hands. Their portraits all feature the hands as the main element.”

Although the subjects of the series of portraits that will be unveiled this summer are friends of the artist’s, she has also done a number of commissions for strangers. Her very thorough process involves spending some time with her subjects and getting to know them personally.

“I like to meet with the person and talk to them a little one on one,” says Ms. Whelan, “I want to get their stories and hear about their lives. At the same time I’m looking at the person and getting to know them in the flesh. I take hundreds of photographs of them doing various things, and I also do some sketching. I take all of that information back to the studio. When I’m with the person, I’m already forming an idea of how I want to show them.”

Portrait of Nat Benjamin.
Portrait of Nat Benjamin.

Ms. Whelan only started working on portraits a few years ago. She and her boyfriend took on a job as caretakers on one of the Elizabeth Islands in order to give themselves the time and freedom to pursue their separate passions. Mr. Benns is busy building a boat of his own design, and Ms. Whelan is finally able to fulfill a longtime dream of working on fine art.

Despite no formal training, Ms. Whelan has been working as a commercial artist for many years, and has built up a successful business. When she decided to devote herself to portraiture, she took two workshops with well-known portrait artists in New York City. The workshops focused on technical aspects of the work: things like replicating flesh tones.

She seems to have discovered her true calling. “I’m having fun,” she says. “If I didn’t enjoy the work, it would be an exercise in torture.”

Portrait of Stina Sayre.
Portrait of Stina Sayre.

Ms. Whelan is also an expert in marketing. Her idea of hosting the unveilings came about as a way to facilitate cross-promotion. She refers to this particular type of cooperative effort as strategic partnerships. “It is a great feeling to be able to lift people’s spirits through art,” says Ms. Whelan. “At the same time strategic partnerships, a fancy name for helping each other out in business, are a win-win scenario. We’re a small Island. Coming up with something new and different can be challenging. This is my way of encouraging the idea of strategic marketing, and in this case, it’s an excuse for a little party.”

Join Ms. Whelan for her next event, unveiling Mikel Hunter’s portrait, on Saturday, June 20, 5 to 7 pm at Mikel Hunter, 11 Winter Street, Edgartown. Unveiling will take place at 5:30 pm sharp. Light refreshments available. Call Ms. Whelan at 508-560-0083 for more information.