Art of the Personal Altar: A show from the heart

Last Sunday's opening for The Art of the Personal Altar was jam-packed. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

On Sunday’s blustery grey afternoon the Virginia Weston Besse Gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts was an oasis of warmth, creativity, and community. More than 30 artists representing every possible medium were on hand to share their entries in a new show, The Art of the Personal Altar.

The captivating collection reflects the many faces of spirituality and spirit, what it is that enlivens, inspires, comforts, and enraptures. Each is deeply individual, deeply felt, adding up to an exhibit that comes from the heart.

The pieces run the gamut of formats from large, intricate installations to smaller arrangements, sculptural creations, triptychs, and framed paintings and drawings.

Some are clearly informed by recognizable religion. Patrice Donofrio’s beckoning corner features her late mother’s antique mirror, a prayer table, a filigreed candle stand, an image of Madonna and child. There is a stack of religious books, a statue of the Buddha, a glistening glass offering bowl with prayer cards depicting Mother Mary, a crucifix.

“I believe in keeping Buddha and Jesus close together,” she confided.

Jo Scotford Rice displays a pen and ink drawing of the Buddha statue at the Insight Meditation Society. Above that hangs her brilliant-hued representation of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus in which she used the ancient medium of egg tempera and gold leaf. Strikingly simple but no less powerful is the sweet-faced icon of Green Tara, Hindu goddess of enlightened activity, protection, compassion and more, suspended in an airy nest of slender twigs done by Kanta Lipsky and Valentine Estabrook. A soft, serene monoprint and watercolor by Fae Kontje-Gibbs evokes an uplifting sense of hope and “the peace that passes all understanding,” which is the essence of every religion and spiritual practice.

But there is also a rich variety of work infused by the many other things that touch the human heart, lift our spirits, and shape our lives.

Artist Edie Yoder has heaped a pine farmhouse table with colorful produce and sketches of fruits and vegetables, explaining the sturdy table is where she works, gets inspiration, and prepares nourishing food as well.

Photographer Kathy Rose’s Tribute to Martin Luther King pairs a photo of the charismatic Baptist minister with one of Mahatma Gandhi, bespeaking their shared commitment to nonviolence. Resting on top of the display case is a simple, carved wooden headrest once belonging to Gandhi himself, which Ms. Rose acquired by sheer luck many years ago.

Honoring her late mother, Marsha Winsryg assembled a collection of personal and domestic items: buttons, because her mother was a good seamstress, cinnamon sticks —”She was a wonderful cook”, a miniature tea cup recalling her mother’s collection of demitasse cups. Even her mother’s own thimble is here, and a homemade card sent by Ms. Winsryg’s young daughter when the older woman was ill. All are housed in a tall structure of many compartments, suggesting a sprawling family home, a rich and multi-faceted life.

Artists let their passions and creativity flow freely as they chose their materials. There are stones, feathers, shells, beads, family photos, cards, bones, jewelry, fabric, printed paper, buttons, branches, wampum, and so much more. Some contributors replicated their own home altars for the show.

Sunday’s convivial opening reception was a fine opportunity to chat with the artists and other art fans. But really, this show cries out to be seen at leisure, in quiet, when it may be contemplated and perhaps touch the viewer’s heart too. It is a gently powerful exhibit, as restorative and balancing as a deep, slow breath.

Visit “The Art of the Personal Altar,” now through Nov. 2, daily 12 to 4 pm, Featherstone Center for the Arts, Oak Bluffs. For information, call 508-693-1850 or visit