Let the muse roll on
"Allen Whiting, A Painter at Sixty," by Allen Whiting. Vineyard Stories, 2006. 120 pages. $44.95.
If you ever dreamed of owning an Allen Whiting painting, things are looking up. Now you can have a collection of Allen's paintings - and you can travel with them, take them to bed or out on the deck, or just leave them out on the coffee table. With the publication of "Allen Whiting, A Painter at Sixty," you can feast your eyes whenever you get the urge on more than a hundred paintings and a dozen charcoal drawings - a full, rich sampling Allen's impressive body of work. And given the quality of Allen's paintings and their reproductions in this impressive volume, you'll probably get the urge often.
Almost all of Allen's paintings are landscapes and the great majority of them are scenes in West Tisbury and Chilmark, where his family has lived for generations, where he's lived all his life, and where he's painted for the last 30 years. He's also painted out west and overseas, but his interest and focus as a painter is constant wherever he is. "I have always painted my surroundings, where land meets the sea, where pastures are contoured by agriculture, and where nature sculpts the elements," he writes in the Foreword to the book. And in the Afterward: "Landscape is the arena in which I have chosen to address the issues of painting. It is always welcoming and comfortable. Painting is my way of celebrating the environment."
"Circling The Dredge," 2001, 24 x 36 inches.
While Allen is clearly an interpreter of the landscape around us, he is not about to step forward as some sort of artistic spokesman for this place; that's not his style or his interest. The place can speak for itself, he seems to say, though he's ready to share with us the way it speaks to him.
This generosity, this accessibility, runs through both the man and his work. Allen can be shy, and his privacy is obviously important to him, but he's also very warm, and calm. He pays attention and he asks good questions.
His paintings project a sense of the familiar, many of them, even if we've never been to the actual spot where they were created. Some of them seem almost too easy to grasp at first glance. But I find that the more I look at them, the more I see, and the more I wonder what I haven't discovered yet. They grow on me and they challenge me to grow with them.
Others are loaded with movement or mystery. In "White Bull," from 1977, a beast is sauntering over a shallow rise in a pasture toward an inky, impenetrably dark background that holds who knows what?
The north shore is a new focus.
I bought a painting from Allen in 1976 for $300 - big bucks at the time, but I just loved the painting, and I still do. It's a springtime view of the headwaters of Parsonage Pond, where it disappears into the woods. It's a feast of dark, fertile greens and browns, but it's also very mysterious: What would I find if I tramped up through the muck in the dark shadows, around back of that big tree? A stream? A path? An elf?
I'm a sucker for this kind of imaginary scavenger hunt, where I'm led on by a hint of something just around the corner. Others prefer a landscape that brings back an important memory, that triggers a certain emotional response, that makes them dream.
While his paintings may get some viewers dreaming, Allen comes across as deeply grounded, connected to his surroundings and comfortable with how he fits into what's gone on before and whatever the future holds. "I don't know where I'd rather be," he says. "If I had to cash it in, I'd probably just buy another run-down farm somewhere."
The painting on the cover of the book, called "The Barn," is all about that run-down but still running farm. The building is so rooted to the ground where it sits that it seems alive. This relationship between the man-made and the natural runs through Allen's painting, as a life force, and an artistic purpose.
The barn in the painting is at the heart of his family's farm in West Tisbury where Allen has lived all his life, like generations of Whitings before him. It's important to Allen to keep the farm going; it seems like a kind of underlying family mission. And there's plenty of family still on the farm ready to pitch in, including Allen's three children - Willy, Bea, and Everett - and his sister, Prudy, and brother, Danny, and their children. Allen's wife, Lynne, and Bea, help out on the art side, managing the gallery in the front of the Davis House and organizing an enormous season-opening reception held every June.
Allen Whiting on his family's farm in West Tisbury. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Like farmers everywhere, Allen rises early, has a cup of coffee and checks the weather. Then he feeds the farm animals, has a little breakfast, and heads for his studio, where he'll make some small additions or changes to some of the several paintings that he's got in the works. There are paintings everywhere in the old rambly, musty three-room studio. Eight or ten are hung prominently and seem to be in progress, although they look complete. Hundreds are stored in racks along one long, tall wall. In Allen's principal work space, three large paintings are up, one on an easel, along with several smaller studies. A large north-facing skylight is complemented and at times probably compromised by picture windows facing both east and west, as if Allen can't stand to miss a minute of the ever-changing light show in the outside world.
After an hour, maybe, in the studio, Allen heads off somewhere to paint for three hours or so, often with Bill McClane, another well-known Island painter. It's on the outings that Allen works up small studies, which he uses as the basis for larger works executed back in the studio.
Then he heads home for lunch, which is followed by a few hours of mending and tending around the farm before he heads back out with his painting gear to catch the late afternoon light somewhere beautiful. It sounds like a good life, doesn't it? Especially if you can make a living at it.
Allen knows he's lucky to be doing what he loves: to be out in nature, discovering new ways to look at things and new ways to depict them. And he feels grateful to be the steward of the land he was born on, like his father and his children. He's not about preserving some olde farm look, nor does he project a weighty sense of obligation. He's content to keep on with something that has sustained him and that he thinks will sustain his children and his nieces and nephews. And it seems to be working: his three grown children all live within a half mile of his back door.
Allen also counts himself fortunate, because, "My muse has not yet abandoned me." That's no accident, given the kind of discipline and dedication Allen brings to his craft. As Bill McLane puts it in a passage he wrote for the book, "...every morning, just like a carpenter or plumber, we get up and go to work."
Allen is happy, and a bit relieved, that "A Painter at Sixty" is finally out. "I feel very lucky," he says, about the book. "I always wanted to do something like this, and I got what I asked for." Still, it seems like the fanfare makes him a bit uncomfortable; too much flattery and he gets to crossing his arms, tilting forward a bit and pawing at the dirt in the driveway. He's ready to get out there with the gear and the ground and the water and the sky. After all, he told me, there are parts of the Island that he can't wait to uncover - like Chappaquiddick, Aquinnah, the north shore.
There may also be parts of his artistic self that he's ready to uncover. In recent years, some of his landscapes have taken a slightly abstract turn, and I think it looks good on them. Or he might head off toward some other horizon. Wherever he heads, he'll know how much water he has under him, and he'll record what he sees - to the benefit of us all.
Book signings: Friday, Nov. 24, 3 to 5 pm, Midnight Farm, Vineyard Haven. Friday, Dec. 1, 7:30 pm, Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven.