Water, water everywhere

By Brooks Robards - September 28, 2006

A new show at the Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs pairs two Vineyard artists, painter Lanny McDowell and photographer Marcia Smilack. Opening on Sunday, Oct. 1, the show's motif is "Water and Reflections."

Mr. McDowell, who has explored many styles of painting during a long and productive career, spent the past six months pursuing ways to depict ocean surf in a series of works he describes as his "Wave" paintings. Usually exhibiting at the Ott Gallery - his West Tisbury studio - he jumped at the chance to show at the Dragonfly when there was an opening in proprietor Holly Alaimo's schedule and suggested that Ms. Smilack join him.

"My impulse is to go in phases," he says. "I seem to have gotten over my own concern that my work should have evolved into a 'mature' style which has a consistent look, a consistent palette, a consistent application of the paint. Well, it just does not work that way for me."

Most of the wave paintings are 12 inches square and are, in effect, portraits of the ocean in motion. The paintings put the viewer closer to the surf than they would actually be standing, but they are not meant to look as if painted from a boat. Some resemble Squibnocket, and others Quansoo, although all are largely made-up places.

Artist Lanny McDowell. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Artist Lanny McDowell.

"I go out in rough weather, if I can," Mr. McDowell says. "Different textures march at you that relate to where the wave is in its progression. If the wind is really howling, they march in procession."

His fascination with waves and surf comes from their relentless power. "I don't know the physics of it," he says, "but they defy gravity and go absolutely vertical, until they can't stand any more and then they poop out. Their whole process is interrupted."

Mr. McDowell describes in detail how he went about painting one wave portrait he had just finished and hung outside his studio. He decided it had too much blue and added some orange hatch work into the wave's curl.

Hatch-work crisscrosses might not seem a likely way to represent the fluidity of waves, but when the artist explains the process, it makes perfect sense. Wind creates a pattern of wavelets on the surface of the water, and as they spread out, they pick up light, which he captures with brush strokes in a hatch work pattern. The artist made a special brush by cutting its bristles to different lengths to help him put in some of the details.

Mr. McDowell says he often needs to distance himself from a painting of that size with that much detail. One way to do it is by using a mirror to see if it reads well in reverse. Another way is to put it outside or in natural light. When a painting is done or if he gets stuck somewhere, he may take a photo of it and upload it into his computer.

"It almost makes me nauseous," Mr. McDowell says, "since my mind is trying to rearrange the parts the way I did it."

One of the weirdest parts of waves is the frothy soup that spreads out afterwards along the sand, he says. Mr. McDowell finds it one of the hardest parts of a wave to capture. In one of the paintings on display, he uses a tortoise shell pattern to evoke this part of the surf.

Another painting full of reflections resulted when Mr. McDowell visited Naushon Island in a small boat. Since trees lined the water where he was looking, the water's reflections became an entirely different experience for him. Mr. McDowell calls himself a self-taught painter, although he took four or five studio courses as a Yale undergraduate as a relief from an art history major. Growing up in Kent, Conn., he spent summers on the Vineyard in Harthaven, then moved on-Island permanently in 1970, after working for VISTA and as a builder.

Lanny McDowell. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Lanny McDowell overlooks his collection from the loft in his studio/gallery in West Tisbury. Photos by Ralph Stewart
"The waves recently are awesome," he says. "They're just pounding in." Waves as a subject never bored him, but became endlessly fascinating. "I stayed entertained," he says.

"I really like her photographs," Mr. McDowell says of Marcia Smilack, the photographer who is sharing space with him at the Dragonfly Gallery for this exhibit. Ms. Smilack explores the nature of water reflections in her photographs.

She has a Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature and taught on the college level for years, then worked as a feature writer for the Boston Globe before becoming a photographer. Ms. Smilack made the switch to take advantage of her synesthesia, a form of double sense - or joined - perception in which she experiences one sense through another.

"I hear with my eyes," she says. "I hear colors. The first note I played (on the piano) was green."

At first Ms. Smilack did not pay attention to her synesthetic capacity, but while she was staying in Menemsha and working on a book, she found herself fascinated by the way scenes changed when reflected and often fragmented on the water in the harbor. Although she had no training as a photographer, she began to capture what she saw on film.

"I was taking a break from writing, so it didn't count," she says. "I was just completely drawn to the reflections on the water. I hadn't seen anybody (photograph) that."

Novelist and Vineyard summer resident William Styron, who was helping Ms. Smilack with her writing, saw the photographs and told her she'd discovered a new genre. In 1993, she had her first exhibit at the Chilmark Bank. Now she exhibits and speaks worldwide.

"I call myself a reflectionist," Ms. Smilack says. "One night I was walking past the water. This sound of a cello was coming off the water. I couldn't ignore it, so I photographed it." The process requires composing the image upside down, and Ms. Smilack says she never manipulates or crops the images she captures.

"They're like dreams," she says. "I photograph my emotions. It's as if I collaborate with nature."

A number of Ms. Smilack's photographs were taken during a recent trip to Italy and Amsterdam. She most often works with a Canon Elan camera and sometimes uses point-and-shoot or disposable cameras.

Opening reception, Sunday, Oct. 1, 4 to 7 pm, Dragonfly Gallery, Dukes County Avenue, Oak Bluffs. Show runs through Oct. 9. For more information, call 508-693-8877.

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