Tom Mullins’ art knows no bounds

Solo show at the Playhouse Art Space features acrylics and collage.

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"Shipwreck Surrounded by Eels," now on display at the MV Playhouse. —Tom Mullins

Though he may be limited physically, artist Tom Mullins’ creativity knows no bounds. Mr. Mullins only started painting after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and using a wheelchair, but already he has been honored with inclusion in a group show at A Gallery in Oak Bluffs in 2014, and now a solo show at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse Art Space.

Almost half the paintings on display were sold at the opening on March 25. Not bad for a newcomer to the art scene. And Mr. Mullins has earned quite a following, both on-Island and off. A family friend, the Baroness Thyssen, sent a congratulatory email after viewing examples of Mr. Mullins’ work. “You have a very bright clear, interior vision of what you want to express,” wrote the famed art dealer and collector.

The selection currently hanging at the playhouse shows off the range of Mr. Mullins’ styles. While he started off as a representational artist, depicting seascapes and boats using pastels, he has since moved on to more abstract work. The artist has also started experimenting with other media. Among the 13 works included in the show are some acrylics, and even a few collage pieces.

“He’s always curious about new techniques and such,” said Mr. Mullins’ art teacher, Valentine Estabrook. “We’ve worked in pastels and acrylics, and recently moved on to fingerpainting. Tom was skeptical at first, but he loves to do research and read, and I showed him some videos of successful artists who fingerpaint.”

The results of the most recent experimentation with fingerpainting are anything but amateurish. One notable work, which was reproduced as the poster for the show, is an abstract in black, gray, and cream set against a vibrant blue background. There’s a lot of motion to the painting, and a real feel for color and composition.

Another, which started out as a pure abstraction, features a series of thick squiggly lines overlaying the background. Mr. Mullins explains that these are eels. “This is a model of the Indian Ocean,” he said. “I was just about finished with this, and I was thinking, ‘Eels are funny creatures.’ It looks a bit like a pond. Somehow catching the growth cycle of that, plants and life in there, will be something different.”

The genesis of that work is a typical example of Mr. Mullins’ artistic process. “It’s not about taking it apart, but looking at the whole picture and the mood it sets,” he said. “Some start out one way, and then you end up feeding it more and more information until you’re at the point you want to be — to go where the picture takes you.”

“He tells me this very complex interpretation of emotions that go into a piece,” Ms. Estabrook said. “It’s quite interesting.”
This is a third career of sorts for Mr. Mullins. For two decades he worked as an executive for Gulf Oil Co., living in London and Beirut, and traveling all over the world. In a career shift, Mr. Mullins then took a job as associate director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.

After retirement, Mr. Mullins settled into his summer home on the Vineyard with his life partner, Julie Norman. In 2014 at a summer fundraising auction, the couple purchased a package of private lessons from artist Valentine Estabrook. Both Ms. Norman and Mr. Mullins tried their hands at pastel drawing, but it was the latter who immediately showed real talent for the medium.

Mr. Mullins had always been interested in painting, but his busy life had prevented him from exploring his creative side. Although he had never so much as dabbled before, he was an art aficionado. “I’ve always enjoyed visiting galleries,” Mr. Mullins said.

“I like to collect things that could be considered art,” he added, pointing out a huge narwhal tusk mounted above the large picture window in his oceanview home. Mr. Mullins cites Winslow Homer as a favorite artist.

“He just has a natural instinct for color theory,” said Ms. Estabrook. “Physically he could not do realistic painting, but he understands exactly what he’s trying to trying to create — his impressions or feelings, or even an abstract emotion at times. He’s very specific about what he’s going after.”

Mr. Mullins’ first few paintings, done with pastels, were lovely impressionistic seascapes. The artist has a wealth of scenery to choose from. His home on Lambert’s Cove Road boasts a spectacular view of James Pond and the dunes and surf of the Lambert’s Cove Beach.

Some of his first efforts were featured in a group show at Featherstone, where one was the first piece from the exhibit to sell. The small pastels showed a wonderful simplicity of form and a professional’s feel for color and composition. The work caught the attention of A Gallery owner Tanya Augoustinos, who included Mr. Mullins’ exhibit in 2014.

Since then the budding artist has kept up with weekly lessons with Ms. Estabrook, and he is constantly expanding his range. The series of paintings featured at the playhouse include a number of acrylics, and are predominantly abstracts. Two of the works are collages created by layering various colors of acrylic paint on a palette, and then peeling the hardened paint off and arranging the colored pieces artistically on a canvas.

Ms. Estabrook encourages her pupil to continually seek out new forms of expression. Next they will be moving on to another media that she hints will be something entirely different.

Ms. Estabrook, who has long enjoyed a successful career as an artist and teacher, said, “In truth, I have learned a tremendous amount from Tom about art and expression and the power of art.”