A look inside Gallery Josephine, a welcome addition to the Island art scene

The work of Jules Arthur lines the walls of the newly opened Josephine Gallery. — Michael Cummo

The exhibit currently hanging at the recently opened Gallery Josephine will give visitors a good idea of what the newest addition to the Oak Bluffs Arts District has to offer.

The mixed-media work of featured artist Jules Arthur has a strikingly contemporary quality, yet the historical context and incorporation of archival images and vintage objects give the work a timeless feel.

And just as important, the work’s themes align with the mission of the gallery’s owners, Nayama Wingood Daigle and Brian Daigle. “Brian and I love art, and we’re passionate about social justice,” says Ms. Wingood Daigle. “We hope to represent the intersection of two ideals. What we want to represent is a real dedication to the craft and a skill level that’s not always found in other local galleries. This is museum-quality work.”

“We also hope to bring representatives of various organizations to the Vineyard and host talks that will raise

Artist Jules Arthur, in front of his work "Bahia Belle." Photo by Michael Cummo
Artist Jules Arthur, in front of his work “Bahia Belle.” Photo by Michael Cummo

awareness of some different causes. It’s an interesting time right now — socially, politically. It’s time to get the community educated and involved,” says Ms. Wingood Daigle of the potential for the multi-purpose gallery space.

Of Mr. Arthur’s work, she says, “His art definitely tells the story of people who have triumphed over difficulties and celebrated life.”

The 14 pieces hanging in the gallery right now are, with a couple of exceptions, portraits done in a multi-layered style that includes paintings, archival photography, wood and metal construction, fabric, and found antique objects.

Each assemblage is rich in detail, but the focus is always on the subject of the portrait. “A lot of my work deals with the accomplishments of people representing the African diaspora. High water marks, achievements. At one point I thought it was important to talk about the struggle on the other side of accomplishment,” said Mr. Arthur.

The artist’s choice of subjects reflects his admiration for people from many different sectors of society, from athletes to musicians, to political leaders.

Mr. Arthur’s boxer series spotlights African-American groundbreakers Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali. Additionally, Mr. Arthur has chosen to use boxing as a metaphor for his portrait of the late South African President Nelson Mandela.

The piece shows Mandela in a full-body profile with boxing gloves raised in action against an unspecified opponent. The image was adapted from an old photo of Mandela as a young man boxing on a rooftop in Johannesburg. During the opening of the Vineyard exhibit last Saturday, Mr. Arthur met the founder of the website ringside.com, who provided the artist with an interesting bit of information: “He said that at the time Mandela was more popular as a boxer than as a young lawyer.”

The portrait is painted on a combination of wood and distressed canvas which has been stitched in the corners to emulate elements of the boxing ring and gloves.

Of course, the pugilist imagery speaks to far more than the famed revolutionary’s athletic past. The masterfully executed portrait is shadowed by the outline of a lion in similar fighting stance and includes the words “The Lion of Africa.” In the bottom section of the piece one finds some small images from the apartheid struggle.

Various unsung heroes are honored in other works by Mr. Arthur. Two pieces from his latest series, “Commerce and Culture,” feature vintage images of unidentified women. The pieces titled “Bantu Belle” and “Bahia Belle” are mounted in settings constructed to resemble steamer trunks, and each features fabric, large antique dressmakers’ scissors, and other tools of the fashion trade.

“There’s been a conversation recently about co-opting African culture in music and in fashion,” says Mr. Arthur. Looking at these two very distinctively dressed women, one can see elements found on the current runways of Paris and New York.

Speaking of his “Culture and Commerce” series, Mr. Arthur says, “These became almost fictitious advertisements. What would it be like if these individuals, the creators of the cultures, owned their own shops in their day?”

Mr. Arthur creates nearly every element of his work by hand. Things like photos, old boxing tickets, and other archival material are sourced from the Internet, aged, distressed, and in some cases altered using computer graphics programs. The artist, a collector of Americana, sources all of the objects used in his assemblages and incorporates many salvaged finds in his work — things like an old metal radiator cover found on the streets of New York and antique tools and equipment rescued from an old rural barn slated for demolition.

He does all of his own framing and construction. The Belle pictures are set into boxlike structures which are meticulously constructed by the artist from wood, retro hinges, and other hardware.

“I love carpentry,” says Mr. Arthur, who began his art career as a sculptor. “Lately I’ve developed a real affinity for the process. I find more joy in the process than in the painting.”

Still, his skill as an artist is clearly evident in his assemblage work. While the pieces are fascinating for the details revealed upon close inspection, the faces are what really grab and hold the viewer. In the athletes, we are struck by the power and determination in the countenances of these men, whose confidence and resilience helped them overcome the odds.

“The whole boxing series is not about sports per se,” says Mr. Arthur. “These are all men who have transcended their roles, and how they’ve altered history.”

Mr. Arthur’s work has been exhibited all over the country. His paintings have been shown, among other places, at the Schomburg Center in New York and the Studio Museum of Harlem, as well as the Corridor Gallery and Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C. Collectors of his work include musician Jay Z, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, actors Kevin Spacey and Kate Hudson and Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.

Mr. Arthur, who was born in St. Louis and currently lives in New York City, has long had a connection with the Vineyard through his best friend, dancer, instructor, and former Vineyarder Kelly Peters. It was through Mr. Peters that the artist met Ms. Wingood Daigle, who spent her junior high and high school years here.

Prior to purchasing the combination home and gallery space, Ms. Wingood Daigle and Mr. Daigle were living in Austin, Texas. She had just completed a master’s in Chinese medicine, and he had recently earned an M.B.A. In considering their next move, the two contemplated traveling for awhile but, as it turns out, their travels took them no further than the Vineyard.

Just days before their four-month Vineyard house lease was to run out last March, the couple decided to purchase the former Dragonfly Gallery, which had been closed since October 2013.

The business is still evolving. No plans are in place yet for the next Gallery Josephine exhibit. Ms. Wingood Daigle has a number of well-respected artist and activist friends whom she plans to approach about upcoming exhibits and talks. The space will be open year-round to serve as both a gallery and a gathering place for educating, inspiring, and fostering discussions among those with interest in social and political issues and causes.

Gallery Josephine should prove a very welcome and much-needed addition to the Vineyard community.