Galleries : Sculptor Heather Sommers: Doing what she loves
On the way to Aquinnah, not quite a mile past the Chilmark Store, a sign in front of 76 State Road, reading Chilmark Gallery, swings in the breeze. But the gallery, which still displays the sculptures and paintings of Heather Sommers (aka Sussman) is closed for the time being - an experiment tried and learned from.
"I had some personal circumstances where I was distracted, and I couldn't run the gallery any longer," Ms. Sommers says. "I can do my own work, but I realized that I'm not cut out for marketing my own work."
A serious and articulate woman who has been working as a professional artist for more than 35 years, Ms. Sommers explains that making the decision to redirect her energies solely to her work helped her recognize her strengths and weaknesses. Although she enjoyed the creative aspect of owning her own gallery, she says she lacked the business savvy to promote herself. Some of her art is on display at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven.
"I'm not much of a businesswoman," Ms. Sommers admits. "I will leave that to people who are great at it. I'm not good at guessing what the market is all about."
Over the years, the sculptor became known for the inventive series of work on a theme that she creates, such as her humorous depictions of fisherman and fish in boats done in porcelain, or her couch series, miniature couches painted in glazes that translated Island landscapes.
An able painter, Ms. Sommers thinks of herself first and foremost as a sculptor. "I work mainly with clay," she says. "Also with bronze, cast from clay. And, painting is a newer venture of mine."
With two kilns in the studio adjacent to the gallery - which is next to her home - she continues to experiment with different types of glazing. Ms. Sommers also continually explores different ways of expressing her ideas: forms, glazes, subjects. Her work has a cerebral quality, appropriate to her thoughtful intent.
All of Ms. Sommers's clay creations, usually terracotta , are done in the process of slab work, built section by section, as opposed to being spun on a wheel. She motions to a newer series of once-fired vases, each with a inventive flair and original interpretation. "I like looking at them unfinished," she says. "It inspires me to work."
As far as the span of her work is concerned, Ms. Sommers admits to her focus on vessels - often boats, which she says possess a passage type of imagery - as her primary points of inspiration. "I think it's more about a boat being a passage, or a conveyance between one place and another," she said. "I go between illustrating, and telling a story."
An example is one of her most recent series, which she calls "Sea Purses." In elongated pod-like glazed terracotta shapes, she creates variously shaped receptacles in which she inserts carefully designed rock and or shells. She often finds seashells, bone and driftwood on Squibnocket Beach.
"I like figure, and I like organic abstraction," Ms. Sommers says about these particular series of work. "I sometimes find that I will spend the entire day searching for one thing and all I find is something else entirely."
Influenced by French painters of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras - notably Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin - Ms. Sommers says that as an admirer with a wandering eye, it is sometimes difficult not to create derivative work of an artist she admires. "Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes not," she said. "Sometimes I will pick one focus to follow for a year or two, then back off and try something else."
Though she has no plans to re-open the Chilmark Gallery, Ms. Sommers might consider using the gallery as a studio space to share with other working artists. "It's a big space," she said. "I would like to share it. I have no one particular in mind now, but I would like to share it sometime along the road."
In terms of what can be expected from her in the future, Ms. Sommers says, "I'm going to explore painting a bit more now, and continue working with clay structure and organic materials."