History and craft: Saltwater Gallery

Artist and Saltwater Gallery owner Ashley Medowski stands by the driftwood stair railing she made in her rustic West Tisbury gallery. — Photo courtesy of Ashley Medowski

Step into Ashley Medowski’s Saltwater Gallery on Lambert’s Cove Road, and you’ve entered the magic world of a self-proclaimed jerry-rigger extraordinaire. The building itself, the art on its walls, the found objects and artifacts from a fisherman and farmer’s life that are scattered skillfully about, have been created through Ms. Medowski’s rich imagination.

Some of Ms. Medowski’s art consists of traditional oil or acrylic landscapes, but others are fanciful, three-dimensional assemblages like an oyster with bright blue eyes or an outhouse with a door that opens.

Her artistic foundation lies in jewelry making, which she studied in 1993 after finishing an advertising degree at the University of Vermont. It explains her patience and her ability to create in minute detail.

Ms. Medowski started with sea glass jewelry –— she says she has been collecting it forever — bringing out the shards’ see-through beauty by bezel-setting them in silver. She also sells her jewelry at the Martha’s Vineyard Artisan’s Fair on Sundays, along with sea glass windows, lanterns and other commissioned work.

“I like to put a lot of elements into my art,” she says. “I’m overly inspired. I have an idea, then I think of how to execute it.” Sometimes it’s an old-fashioned oil, sometimes it wants to be a found object /mixed media. She has scrapbooks full of ideas.

The 13th generation of Medowskis to live on the Vineyard, Ms. Medowski spent summers on Lamberts Cove with Mabelle Medowski. “I love history,” she says, “My grandmother is a real historian and I’ve learned a lot from her.”

She began work on the 1869 barn in 1993 after college, asking her grandmother if she could clean out one section of the barn for a studio. In 2001, it became her’s.

“I had to think for a long time, to ponder the most efficient ways of doing things,” she says. “I knew this barn project would be forever.” She spent time thinking out each part, in what she calls “old Vineyard style.”

Now that it is a gallery, the barn is filled with light from rows of windows, the casements of which are made of recycled wood. Sea glass dots the mortar she used to repair the foundation.

It has taken her years to restore the gallery, which has a bird’s eye view of James Pond, to where it looks finished to her satisfaction. Along the way, she turned herself into a jack-of-all-trades both as barn restorer and as artist and relied on the help of family and friends.

“Practically everything I found in the barn I used,” she says. Old outboard motors line the entrance the gallery. The sides of a wagon she found in the root cellar became a door casement. To maintain its vintage feel as she transformed the barn into her gallery, Ms. Medowski faux-finished all the new wood she needed to use.

A stair railing to the second floor has driftwood spokes. Found objects — which also make their way into her assemblages — are scattered throughout the interior in nooks and crannies. A caterpillar has even suspended its cocoon from two threads like a swing on a pair of rusty scissors in a tin can.

“One of my secrets is, if I think an object has found its place, I know it’s perfect when it looks as if it was born there,” she says. “I find beauty in the relics. Every year I find some rusty old gem. Most people would throw them out.”

Picking up an old pair of leather and glass welder’s goggles lying on a crossbeam near art assemblages in progress, she points out how they were made by hand. A specimen jar tucked in a counter corner holds a giant shrimp, one of the specimens her grandfather collected for the Woods Hole Institute.

“I’m a recycler,” she says. That is how she and her gallery survive. “Everyone knows I don’t buy things.” She shops only at the hardware store and for art supplies.

Two old copies of the 1971 book, “Saltwater in My Veins,” on which her great-grandfather Norman Benson collaborated with the late Dr. William Peltz lie on a woodstove near the gallery’s front door. The book is full of Island lore about trap fishing, of which Capt. Benson was the Island’s last practitioner, and Ms. Medowski has recently received permission to reprint the book.

“I think what sets me apart is a little spirit in my art, not really whimsy but something that makes it alive,” she says. “It’s a huge struggle, but as I figure it out, it gets easier. Lucky for me, I’m in love with my art and I love this place.”

“Historic Island Landmarks” is showing at Saltwater Gallery through Labor Day. 367 Lamberts Cove Road, West TIsbury. 508-696-8822.