Delicate flowers in Ellen McCluskey's "Spring Plantings." Photo by Ralph Stewart
Delicate flowers in Ellen McCluskey's "Spring Plantings." Photo by Ralph Stewart

The subtle art of painting with pastels

By Brooks Robards - August 3, 2006

Vineyard Haven artist Ellen McCluskey makes the challenging art of painting with pastels look easy. Her show at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, which opened last Sunday, demonstrates in her recent works the expertise she has developed over the years.

Ms. McCluskey, who teaches at Featherstone, has an enthusiastic student following, and one of the pleasures of the new exhibit is to see the generous sampling of her students' work that has been included.

The signature McCluskey pastel is a Vineyard landscape filled with sky, clouds, lush greenery, golden fields spotted with flowers and a house or bit of water in the background. The artist is at her best in works like "Felix Neck View," with its lovely blue sky and touches of red in an expanse of fields.

Ellen McCluskey's
Ellen McCluskey's "William Street" evokes the feeling of a serene Island afternoon.

A large tree dominates the foreground in "Tashmoo Overlook," while the lake's blue waters with two small white sails appear in the background. The effect is almost dreamlike in its serenity. On the other hand, "Lobster Traps," in which those boxy, marine shapes provide the compositional focus, demonstrates the delicacy and precision of Ms. McCluskey's touch.

As satisfying as such typical Vineyard scenes are, some of the loveliest works in the Featherstone show were inspired by a trip the artist took to Provence in France last year. "Farmhouse in Provence" offers the viewer a banquet of interesting colors and shapes in its spiky poplars, red tile roofs, and house-dotted hills in a purple distance. The buildings that provide the pastel's subject are grounded in masses of dark green foliage. "Red Umbrellas" has a distinctly European feel with its outdoor restaurant, potted bushes and brick-red awning, as well as its umbrellas.

A work like "The Road Home" takes the viewer back to quintessential McCluskey. In it, a sandy road with a grass center leads toward a small white house on the right-hand side between two dark, almost melancholic fir trees. "Hart Haven Moon" captures a full moon hanging over Nantucket Sound, accented by a window-lit house on the edge of the water. The artist uses a deep but soft blue for the night sky and lights it with moonglow on the Sound and a nearby salt pool. It is unlike any other of the works shown.

"Year of the Islander" celebrates that cakebox-shaped Vineyard ferry in mid-course. By placing the boat slightly to the left of center, Ms. McCluskey suggests its motion, and even the windblown field of grass in the foreground seems to wave the ferry along.

One effect of working in pastel can be a sense of blurring, which may or may not lead to successful results. In "Menemsha Hills" the artist raises the medium to a new level through this work's muted, hazy green fields, which alternate with trees, a pond, and the sky for a deeply balanced and peaceful work.

A series of still-life compositions has been placed together on one wall in the exhibit. Here Ms. McCluskey depicts apples, eggplants, leeks, and onion in a variety of arrangements. She has flattened her subjects and their containers slightly, moving them away from realism without achieving the transcendental feel of her best landscapes.

A few of Ms. McCluskey's students' pastels have been hung near her still-lifes, but the majority of them can be found in a small room behind the main gallery space that should not be missed. It is a treat to see what lessons the students have drawn from their teacher, and what directions they have gone in through their own inspiration. They have also covered a table with a delightful collection of photographs of teacher and students at work.

Ellen McCluskey's "Pastel Painting as Art" exhibit continues through August 10.

Both Ms. McCluskey's show and the center's current "Earth's Elders" exhibit will be among the highlights of Featherstone's gala 10th anniversary celebration this Saturday, Aug. 5, from 12 noon to 5 pm.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to the Times.