Don McKillop
An oil on board by Don McKillop. photos Courtesy of Dragonfly Gallery

Sailing, African-American culture inspire Dragonfly painters

By Brooks Robards - September 6, 2007

Impressionist landscape painter Don McKillop is paired this week at the Oak Bluffs Dragonfly Gallery with realist Harry N. Seymour, who specializes in paintings of African-American life on the Vineyard. Mr. McKillop has exhibited at the Dragonfly for ten years, while Mr. Seymour is returning for the second year.

Although Mr. McKillop is based in Jamaica Plain, he frequently sails to the Vineyard and usually spends several weeks painting on-Island. The current series of 25 paintings are primarily small square works, an unusual format for landscape. Heavily textured, many are executed with a palette knife and rely on a vibrant palette.

"You feel the activity in his work," says gallery owner Holly Alaimo, who believes that his painting reflects the energy of sailing. She also points out the way Mr. McKillop uses color in different ways to create different moods.

"My work has been changing," the artist says. "I go in and out of abstract work. Now I'm thinking of changing to collage and pastels." In his most recent work, he chose a square format as a way to challenge himself.

Harry N. Seymour
Seymour's "Against the Rail."

The results are evident in the innovative way he composes his paintings. In "Southside," the artist has arranged a series of almost square rocks in a satisfyingly heavy-textured marine landscape where the composition reflects elements of abstraction. "Vineyard Idyll" offers a new way of understanding linearity in nature, with its rows of sky, clouds, dark water and lighter sand.

"Salt Marsh" incorporates a spiral of marshland executed with a palette knife, while in "Gray Day" Mr. McKillop surprises the viewer by filling his canvas with a plethora of subtle colors. The painting's somber gray sky includes pink and white, and out of the drab olive marsh emerge shades of purple, red and orange. Use of a palette knife creates the effect of currents in the water.

"Marsh Panorama" consists of two square works paired to create the effect of the more traditional rectangular format used in landscape. In this semi-diptych, the painter has switched to a powerful yellow sky over a nearly black skyline of foliage. Each canvas also has three areas of gray-green-yellow water. The twin canvases provide a refreshing perspective and a pleasing sense of balance.

Another of Mr. McKillop's square paintings, "Harbor Rest," depicts a sailboat resting peacefully in an expanse of blue water with the mere suggestion of trees and greenery in the background. Stylistically it would fit in easily with 19th century impressionists like Monet and Manet. "Last Light" provides a strong contrast in style, since its surge of pink, white and blue water moves into almost pure abstraction.

Don McKillop
An oil by Don McKillop.

Amherst-based retired linguistics professor Harry N. Seymour, also a professor emeritus of the Department of Communication Disorders at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has summered in Oak Bluffs for many years. The self-taught artist says of painting, "It's always been my escape."

Because he is allergic to the materials of conventional oil painting, he uses egg tempera, a yolk-based paint and one of the oldest painting techniques; casein, where pigments are mixed with milk protein; and scratchboard etching. The latter format is akin to scratch art and employs a Masonite board with a white clay coating and a layer of black ink. The artist uses etching tools, knives, pins or fiberglass brushes to create finely detailed works in either black and white or color.

Mr. Seymour uses casein paint in "Bridge Jumper," an elegantly composed study in grays and browns of African-American children jumping off the bridge at State Beach. Another striking painting, done in egg tempera, is "Against the Rail." The subject is a bicycle, stylized in shape with thin wheels and handlebars, leaning against the metal rail fence along Seaview Avenue in Oak Bluffs. The sidewalk in front of the bike is depicted in fine detail, and the blue water in the background washes out on the right, as if into a sunny reflection.

"Freedom Fighter" is a portrait in egg tempera of NPR correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Also included in the exhibit is a series of African-American mothers and children, often shown at the beach, like "Stay Still," "Time to Go" and "In My Space," a hot-red portrait of mother and child done in genesis oil, an acrylic-polymer paint. In another bicycle-themed egg tempera painting, "A Pause in Time," a cyclist seated on one of the concrete benches along Seaview Avenue looks out to sea. His bicycle leans against the bench next to him. A row of long brown shadows of bench backs catches the eye, and Mr. Seymour has turned the Sound into a heady mix of brick red and green.

"Dressage Rider" catches horse and rider in show attire from behind. The unusual angle allows the painter to concentrate on the horse's muscular back, the rider's carriage and long, spurred boot, and the high arch of the horse's head.

"Vineyard at Dusk" is a scratchboard etching of a harbor scene, rendered in fine detail. Two sailboats, one with a red, furled sail and both with delicate, finely drawn rigging, are balanced in the composition by a speedboat with a yellow and blue sky behind them.

The McKillop-Seymour exhibit will be on view at the Dragonfly Gallery at 91 Dukes County Avenue through Sept. 9.

The Dragonfly Gallery is open from Wed. to Sun., 12 noon to 7 pm. The gallery is located on 91 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs. For more information, call 508-693-8877.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.