Doug Kent transforms the ordinary into art

Doug Kent amid his work at his West Tisbury gallery. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Doug Kent, an inventive and dedicated artist, amid his work at his West Tisbury gallery. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Brooks Robards - September 7, 2006

Everyday objects like ironing boards, wooden bowls, and oars don't usually seem like the material for artistic expression. But West Tisbury artist Doug Kent does not have an everyday imagination. Through his magic, these items become both art and a statement about our throw-away culture.

Late last winter, Mr. Kent put aside his latest painting project, a series of giant heads as islands, and set to work on the old-fashioned wooden ironing board tops, oars, and bowls he and his wife and collaborator Patricia had collected. He began painting scenes on them, applying acrylic paint that he thins to a watercolor consistency and sands, buffs or rubs some of the paint off with a cloth. The result is this summer's show, "Decorative Works."

"Woman with Two Bears," painted on a wooden bowl. Photo by Ralph Stewart
In "Woman with Two Bears," painted on a wooden bowl, the artist uses familiar primitive images - animals, birds, trees, a symmetrical pattern.

"I've always loved primitive art," Mr. Kent says, "even before I knew what it was. I think I inherited it." Primitivism fascinates him, because it hovers on the edge between realism and abstraction.

Rather than laying out an entire scene before he starts work on his ironing boards, Mr. Kent begins at the bottom or the top, to set himself a challenge.

"I thought the ironing boards were great shapes," he says. On one, a woman with a fishing rod stands near the top, while black cats dot the mid-section and at the bottom is a pool with a circle of fish. On another, fish are arranged over the surface as if it were a piece of fabric ready to be ironed.

A number of the wooden oars have brides - one wearing ice skates - or grooms. They have been popular as wedding presents.

The bowls come from India, where they had already done hard duty. Some still sport chopping cuts; others have been repaired with cleats or clips. After scraping off years of patina, Mr. Kent paints the bowls and adds deceptively simple scenes of country life on their centers.

An old ironing board is recycled as a canvas for this primitive farm scene. Photo by Ralph Stewart
An old ironing board is recycled as a canvas for this primitive farm scene.

One has a tiny farm family displaying their animals - a cow, a bull, a goat, a pig. The house behind them turns out to be a patch plug of a different color wood. Several feature bears, whose simplified shapes turn them halfway into wolves.

If viewers haven't already caught onto Mr. Kent's lively sense of humor, they'll see it in his bowl portrait of a cat in red high heels and a camouflage dress, with two American flags waving in the background.

Inventive and sophisticated

Tourists who think they've stumbled into a tchotchke shop would be sadly mistaken. Mr. Kent is a highly inventive and sophisticated painter who has made his home on the Vineyard for close to 40 years.

He first came to the Island when one of his Worcester Museum School instructors bought an Oak Bluffs inn and invited him to help fix it up. After graduating, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for another year, supporting himself by making psychedelic concert posters.

After graduation, Mr. Kent was hired by a New York firm to produce more of his psychedelic posters but told his future employer that first he wanted to spend the summer on Martha's Vineyard. He decided New York could wait, and though he has sold his work there frequently over the years, he picked the Vineyard over the Big Apple.

Mr. Kent likes to work in series and on more than one painting at a time. In recent years he completed a park series inspired by a visit to his daughter in New York. A group of stylized landscapes came about when he tried to see how close he could get an abstract landscape to a realist one. A series with bears proved unexpectedly popular. Mr. Kent also does traditional landscapes.

"Bride on Ice," a whimsical composition on an oar. Photo by Ralph Stewart
"Bride on Ice," a whimsical composition on an oar. Mr. Kent's bride and groom paintings have become popular wedding presents. Photo by Ralph Stewart

The surfaces he paints on are important. For his "Heads as Islands" series, he works on canvas, though for many years he used birch plywood. Other paintings like "The Bride and the Bears" are on pine boards he scavenged from the Agricultural Hall when it was under construction.

"I haven't given up on the wood," he says. "It's what interests you at the time. It's just the feeling you want to get."

He likes to work with a variety of paints, sometimes incorporating acrylic, oil and watercolor into different sections of the same work. In "Empress," a painting of a large cat in front of a line of trees, he chose oil for the cat to give it some body, explaining that acrylic would have proved too waxy.

Although his art school instructors told him he couldn't, Mr. Kent uses cutouts to position images on the surfaces of his paintings. It's like making a notation, he explains, because once you lay paint down it changes the surface.

Demonstrating the process, he cuts out a piece of black paper and attaches it below "Arctic Pearl," an unfinished painting he put away in 1990 and has pulled out to look at in the context of his "Heads as Islands" series. The paper transforms the painting and persuades him he may have "fixed" it.

The title of the work demonstrates the imaginative process of this artist. He used to work for horticulturist Polly Hill, helping prune her trees and plants. After a rhododendron, called Arctic Pearl, literally blew out of the ground in a storm, he incorporated an image of the plant into the painting and named it.

"I always feel I'm a little behind what I'm doing," he says. Instead of working plein air, he goes out, looks and runs back in to paint. In "Woods by the Pool," where Mr. Kent thinks he comes the closest to abstraction, conventional landscape elements are combined with a green rectangle and linear strips that came out of his visit to a property with a swimming pool.

Mr. Kent frequently uses watercolor in his paintings, explaining, "It's a great pigment - very rich and heavy." Not an ordinary approach to the task of making art, but then nothing about this artist is ordinary except the objects he transforms in his latest exhibit.

Kent Gallery, 490 Indian Hill Road, West Tisbury. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 12 noon to 6 pm through October. 508-696-9606.

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