Galleries : Portrait Of An Original: Ellen McCluskey
Ellen McCluskey leans back in a chair in West Tisbury's Granary Gallery, a gallery she has been connected with since 1981. "I come from a family of Dutch artists," says Ms. McCluskey, explaining how she finds herself gazing at the exhibit of her pastel landscapes, and remembering: "My grandmother came from Amsterdam, and when I was a young girl I'd look at all the paintings in her house, all landscapes, and I'd think, I'd like to do that."
Ms. McCluskey's transformation from art appreciator to artist occurred while she was employed at The Granary in the mid-80s, working as artist coordinator for former owners Bruce Blackwell and Brandon Wight.
"I was in my late 40s. I'd been at the gallery for a few years, and my husband had just retired. I needed something to do to get out of the house," she says, smiling. "So, I went out in the dead of winter with some pastels. And yes, I was cold and my paper was blowing around, but I learned things."
A stylish, almost theatrical figure with pale blonde hair, sweeping gestures, and elegant, long-fingered hands, Ms. McCluskey was trained in baroque music, not fine art, and for many years taught piano on Martha's Vineyard.
"Not all artists went to art school," she says, referring to the fact that her pastel painting technique is self taught and instinctive. "There are many self-taught artists and musicians. It takes a while, and you have to learn many things the hard way. But I've always preferred the hard way. I'm independent. I never liked someone standing over me saying, 'No, that's wrong!'"
Mr. Wight admits, "We didn't realize her innate talent as a painter, but it came out when she put the time into it. When we saw a slide of her work we thought - my God, she's good. Let's have a show."
Mr. Blackwell concurs: "Ellen was a surprise to us. We didn't realize what she was doing."
The artist remembers being shocked when Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Wight called her from their winter home in Florida with an invitation to present a show of her work. Seventeen successful shows later, she's still stunned by their belief in her and that first incredible opportunity.
"I guess we discovered her," says Mr. Blackwell, adding, "We discovered Chris Morse too [who with his wife Sheila, now owns the gallery]. He came to us as a bartender. One day we were busy, and put him out on the floor to help. He never went back behind that bar again."
Mr. Wight believes Ms. McCluskey's success is not only due to her talent and technique as a painter, but also because, "she's a real individual. She's always herself and completely honest."
Courtesy of Ellen McCluskey
"People really feel that Ellen singularly captures the Vineyard look," says Mr. Morse, who has known her since he was in high school, and both were working together at The Granary. He describes her textured and richly colored landscapes as "soft and mood-filled."
Ms. McCluskey begins by using the broad side of the pastels like a paintbrush. She is attracted by the shapes the light makes on the landscape, rather than the landscape itself, especially before sunset, when she thinks colors are richest and the shadows long and beautiful.
"I try to avoid too much detail because I feel it can become self-conscious," Ms. McCluskey says. "At first glance my paintings may appear realistic, but it's really not, compared to true realists. My goal is to be suggestive.
"Sometimes you're working on a painting and in the process you see something else. It becomes something other than your original idea, and it's a wonderful idea that you'd never imagined. It evolves on its own. That's why I love pastel. You can make changes. It's very forgiving. All artists hope they capture what drew them to the subject, but we don't get it right all the time. We strive to create certain elements; the beautiful light, the shape, the shadow."
Ten years ago, Featherstone Center for the Arts approached Ms. McCluskey, inviting her to teach pastel painting. She now teaches two six-week sessions in the off-season, one four-week outdoor painting class in summer, and an all-day workshop in August. She describes teaching as "one of the most fulfilling, rewarding things I've done with my life."
Many of Ms. McCluskey's students stay in touch, attend her shows, and go on to show their own work. She says that nothing makes her happier than helping her students find what they can do. "I encourage my students to do something with their work; frame it, give it as a gift, show it. Of course, you shouldn't teach them so much that they sell more paintings than you," she says, erupting with laughter. "Actually," she says, "when that happens, I'll be thrilled."
Currently, Ms. McCluskey is working on the Farm Neck Golf Club's member book. She is creating 28 original paintings of Farm Neck scenery and views, an inspirational experience for her. "It's a beautiful course," she says. "You actually forget it's a golf course when you're out there. I like to capture the randomness of nature. I don't want the landscape to be too idealistic."
The project, an impressive undertaking, is not quite finished. "It's been hard, I won't deny that," Ms. McCluskey admits. Still, she sounds energized by the challenge - after all, this is the artist who prefers to do things "the hard way."
Elissa Lash is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.