Consumate artist Paul Ortlip demonstrated the art of portrait painting at a special event at the Four Generations Gallery in July. Photo by Ben Scott
Consumate artist Paul Ortlip demonstrated the art of portrait painting at a special event at the Four Generations Gallery in July. Photos by Ben Scott

Paul Ortlip celebrates Tuscany sojourn

By Brooks Robards - August 3, 2006

The new Four Generations Gallery at 517 State Road in Vineyard Haven will present "An Evening in Tuscany," an exhibit of Paul Ortlip's watercolors from that region of Italy, on Sunday, August 6, from 6 to 9 pm. Also on exhibit will be limited-edition giclée prints of the artist's watercolor. Italian pastries and beverages will be served.

Paul is the third of four generations of artists in the Ortlip family. His daughter, Michele Ortlip of West Tisbury, numbers among the members of the fourth generation of Ortlips who have become artists.

The Tuscany work has special meaning for the Ortlip family, because Paul, now 80 years old, has suffered from lymphatic leukemia for seven years. The disease went into remission last year after chemotherapy. As a result, Paul's daughters arranged a one-week excursion to Tuscany on the 60th anniversary of Paul's first visit to Italy as a G.I. during World War II.

Coming to life on the canvas as Mr. Ortlip added details was a true-to-life portrait of his granddaughter, Sarah Ortlip-Sommers. Photo by Ben Scott
Coming to life on the canvas as Mr. Ortlip added details was a true-to-life portrait of his granddaughter, Sarah Ortlip-Sommers.

"The trip was a celebration of life," says Michele. She and her sisters Carol Ortlip of Putney, Vt., and Katie Ortlip of Ashland, Ore., revisited sections of Italy with their father, concentrating on places where he had spent time as an American soldier. Paul's new work was done on the trip.

The plan for the gallery, which opened its doors July 2, had been talked about for years. It did not come to fruition, however, until the family residence in New Jersey was sold, the income providing some of the funds.

"I look at the gallery as an artistic home for the family art," Michele says. It operates as a studio and gallery, as well as a museum honoring the work of the older generations of Ortlip artists.

"Having this kind of space could lead to many kinds of activities," Michele says. She sees the potential for workshops and other nonprofit events, and envisions the gallery as evolving into a venue for other artists as early as this fall.

Paul Ortlip, after years of experience, at ease at the easel. Photo by Ben Scott
Paul Ortlip, after years of experience, at ease at the easel.

In the back room of the gallery are 19th-century works by William H. Ortlip, a still-life painter and friend of Thomas Eakins, and Paul Ortlip's brother-in-law Henry McCarter, an illustrator who, in 1900, became the first instructor in that medium at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. William's son H. Willard Ortlip and his wife Aimee Eschner studied at the Pennsylvania Academy, then relocated to Fort Lee, N.J., where they worked as painters and illustrators.

Three of their seven children also went on to become artists. Aileen Ortlip Shea and Marjorie Ortlip Stockin founded the art department at Houghton College in N.Y. and are both professional artists. Their brother Paul studied at New York's Art Student's League and the Academie La Grande Chaumiere in Paris.

Paul has enjoyed a prolific and varied career. Working for the U.S. military as a Navy Art Cooperation and Liason (NACAL) artist, he sketched scenes of soldiers in Vietnam. Other parts of the world that have inspired his art include Shanghai, Korea, France and Haiti.

He traveled on the recovery ships for two Apollo lunar missions, producing a series of 19 drawings of these events and the astronauts associated with them. His work, including watercolors, washes, and pen-and-ink drawings from these periods, hangs in the U.S. Navy League and the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.

A single parent who raised five daughters, having been divorced when the children were young, he has also had an active career as a portrait painter and a muralist. From 1957 to 1972, he served as artist-in-residence at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.

Many of his landscapes depict the New York City skyline, including the Twin Towers, from the Palisades cliffs along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Scenes of longshoremen and New York City's commercial docks make up another portion of his work.

For the past 25 years, Paul has lived and worked in Highland Beach, Fla. He concludes that as a painter, he's an impressionist. He recounts the story of how, as a young man, he was copying a Rembrandt painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "A stranger from Lima, Ohio, came up to me and gave me a commission."

Serendipitous events like this one helped Paul save money so he could travel to France and study there. He visited the places along the Marne River where such Impressionists as Renoir and Monet painted, traveled to Giverny, where Monet worked, and visited the Delacroix Museum in Paris.

In early July at the Four Generations Gallery, Paul gave a painting demonstration and created a portrait of his granddaughter, Sarah Ortlip Sommers, sitting with her violin.

"In striking a pose, I would say generally you get a pencil and make a guide with a sketch," he told the audience. "With a child you have to keep in mind the dimensions." He quickly filled in sections in the portrait of the 10-year-old's face and neck with flesh-colored oil paint, then set to work on her dress, working with manganese blue and white.

"You want to work with a sense of plasticity," Paul advised. Later he said, "I want you to feel - as I do generally - that it's fun." When he added two single dabs of blue for his granddaughter's eyes, the portrait instantly came to life, a remarkable resemblance.

As a child, Michele, who is Sarah's mother, remembers how her father clowned with her and her sisters. He was an active presence in her childhood. "No matter what was going on, he'd tuck me into bed," she recalls.

Michele first visited Martha's Vineyard with family friends at the age of 13. The head of that family, Burt Ross, was the Fort Lee mayor who caught crooked developers taking bribes. His life had been threatened, so he went into hiding on the Vineyard.

"The mobsters got as far as Flanders Realty in Chilmark," Michele says. She fell in love with the Island, got married here, and vowed to move to Martha's Vineyard. "It always felt like home," she says. At the time, she and her husband, writer Josh Sommers, lived in New Jersey, where they founded a theatre.

When Michele's sister Danielle died of myelodysplasia, a form of leukemia that affects the bone marrow, Michele decided it was time to re-examine her life. She and her husband rented the Lucia Moffett House in Edgartown and eventually bought a home in West Tisbury. As a film- casting director, her work is portable, although she still travels frequently to New York. And, of course, she paints, like her father, her grandfather, and her great-grandfather.

"An Evening in Tuscany "opening reception, Sunday, Aug. 6, 6-9 pm, Four Generations Gallery, 517 State Rd., Vineyard Haven. 508-693-5501.

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