Photographer Alison Shaw. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Photographer Alison Shaw, right at home in her new gallery in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Alison Shaw takes over the Fire House Gallery

By Brooks Robards - October 12, 2006

On a sunny afternoon last week, the broad doors to the new Alison Shaw Gallery in the Oak Bluffs Arts District stood wide open. Ms. Shaw sat at a desk in the front corner, and customers wandered in and out, looking at her large, handsome Island photographs, framed and unframed, that lined the little gallery's walls; chatting with the much-celebrated Island photographer and asking questions. Note cards, posters and postcards were displayed on shelves and racks, ready for small-budget purchase.

The gallery looks as though it has been there a long time, but Ms. Shaw and her partner Sue Dawson are still just settling in. When the Oak Bluffs Firehouse Gallery announced last winter it planned to sell its building on the edge of the Campground, the timing was perfect. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Dawson, who manages the gallery as well as being co-owner, were ready to move from Circuit Avenue into a spot in the town's new arts district on Dukes County Avenue.

They felt strongly about carrying on the spirit of the Firehouse Gallery, run there for more than 10 years by the Martha's Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts, after the organization decided it would no longer maintain its space. Ms. Dawson wrote a proposal and put in their bid.

Alison Shaw Gallery. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The small but airy gallery is a comfortable, attractive space for Ms. Shaw to display her work.

"We loved the building," Ms. Shaw says. "Eventually we'll have our workshop upstairs and stay open year-round. In the winter we'll have an intercom or bell." The convenience of being able to work upstairs will allow the photographer to show interested customers how she prints her photographs or to look quickly for prints filed but not on display.

All proceeds of the building's sale, which is pending, will go into a scholarship fund for seniors at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. "We're going to kick off next season with a show of the scholarship winners' work," says Ms. Shaw. She also hopes to coordinate with the high school's graduation at the Tabernacle. The building itself is on leased Campmeeting Association property.

"We feel so supported and welcomed by the Campground and the art district," Ms. Shaw says. People from both groups have come by to say hello and Ms. Shaw and Ms. Dawson have already been invited to a potluck supper.

The Alison Shaw Gallery had its official grand opening on August 5, and the event was tied in with openings for the four other arts venues in the district: Annie Parr's Island Interiors, Lucinda Sheldon Jewelry, Pik-nik Antiques and Vintage House Wares, and Dragonfly Gallery. According to Ms. Shaw, the Oak Bluffs Arts District is the only place on the Island where so many galleries are within walking distance of each other. They coordinate their Saturday openings to ensure a successful turnout from the public.

Alison Shaw Photo. Photo by Ralph Stewart
One of the many colorful photographs by Alison Shaw hanging in her new gallery.

"We're all keeping an eye on the corner lot across the street, hoping an artsy commercial operation will go in there, too," Ms. Shaw says. She plans to cooperate with next season's openings by the other galleries by rotating displays of her photographs according to different themes.

"It's a hug-your-neighbor kind of neighborhood," the photographer says. "One person will walk out with one (photo) card, and someone else will walk out with a $1,000 photograph."

The Granary in West Tisbury, which also carries a room full of Alison Shaw photographs, gets first crack at the newest Shaw work, although a sample of the newest works also appear in her Oak Bluffs gallery, with a commission going to the Granary.

Coinciding with establishment of the new gallery is a series of new Alison Shaw photography workshops that will start this fall. Ms. Shaw has for some time led workshops on-Island for the Rocky Mountain School of photography and the Maine and Santa Fe photography schools, and she has plans to teach classes in New Zealand for Rocky Mountain and in Spain for the Maine school this winter.

Her own workshops will be held at the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven. Ms. Shaw describes them as week-long, intense immersions in photography for the serious amateur. After an introductory meeting on Sunday night, the classes begin at 5:30 am and continue until 8 pm Monday through Saturday.

"They get their money's worth," Ms. Shaw says. "You've got to be out there early and late to get the light." Nine out of fifteen of the students in the last workshop are repeating the class.

Ms. Shaw's plans for the gallery include installation of a dormers upstairs to provide more light for her workshop. Pointing to the many doors along the back wall of the building, she adds, "We're keeping all those doors. They'll lead somewhere. We want to keep it looking like a firehouse."

The Alison Shaw Gallery does not have regular hours this fall, but will be open by appointment during renovations.

Alison Shaw Gallery, 88 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs, 508-696-7429.