Many careers, one love – for Chris Hughes, it’s art

A selection of Mr. Hughes's work currently hangs at Mocha Mott's in Vineyard Haven. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

From high school football star to corrections officer to graphic designer to pest control technician, Chris Hughes’s career path has taken a number of twists and turns. But one thing has remained a constant — his love of art. A Cape Cod to Vineyard commuter, Mr. Hughes says he has been drawing and painting, “since the day I was born.”

However, along with multiple changes in job description, the 48-year-old Onset resident has had to change his approach to art. Since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2007, Mr. Hughes has switched from oil painting to pen and ink drawings. “I just adapted my art style to what I can do,” he says. A selection of his work — small hand-colored drawings, mainly of wildlife — are on display at Mocha Mott’s in Vineyard Haven through Monday, November 5.

Mr. Hughes’s five- by seven-inch sketches enhanced with a watercolor wash are skilled little snapshots of nature. They make up a charming catalogue of the affable artist’s interests. There are tiny drawings of fish, shells and other marine subjects, an extreme close-up of the side of a ship, a deer, and small landscapes. His work is meticulously rendered and enhanced with soft colors.

Mr. Hughes’s ability to adapt and remain optimistic no matter what life throws his way has proved his salvation. Throughout his many ups and downs, his sense of humor has also remained intact. Joking about a missed connection, he says, “It’s Murphy’s Law. I know Mr. Murphy very well.”

And though, according to the old adage, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” Mr. Hughes has managed to make the most of a number of setbacks, and he has found ways to convert misfortune into opportunity.

A former offensive lineman at Brockton High School, Mr. Hughes attended the University of Rhode Island on a football scholarship. He was recruited by other schools, including Holy Cross and the University of New Hampshire but says of URI, “They were the only school that was serious about my intentions to study art.”

He earned a degree in studio art and spent a few years working in graphic design for newspapers and print shops, but found that he was having a tough time supporting a family. At the suggestion of a friend, he applied for a job with the Plymouth County Correctional Facility where he ran the graphic arts department for many years. “It started out as just a small print shop,” Mr. Hughes said. “But by the time I left, we were able to support the shop.” Among other things, the inmates did all the silk screening for the corrections department’s uniforms.

A diagnosis of Young Onset Parkinson’s provided another change in plans for Mr. Hughes. After 17 years in corrections, he had to retire from that work. “The medication they put me on made me quite sick,” he said. “My neurologist didn’t think it was a good idea to work in a stressful environment.”

For a couple of years, Mr. Hughes and his wife operated a graphics design business and small ad agency, but the business had slowed down considerably when Mr. Hughes ran into an old friend, a branch manager for Griggs and Browne, who was looking for another technician for the Vineyard. “He said, ‘I think your personality suits the Island,” Mr. Hughes recalled. “Someone must be looking out for me,” he says of the serendipitous meeting.

Mr. Hughes currently covers the Edgartown area for the New England-based pest control company. He commutes five days a week from his home on the Cape. “I still love it,” he said of his trips back and forth on the ferry. “It’s such a subculture.”

Although he is constantly sketching — on the boat and at spots around the Island, Mr. Hughes has had to limit himself to pen and ink drawings, and he has reduced the scale of his artwork. His hand doesn’t shake, but he doesn’t have enough manual range of motion for oil painting. “It gets frustrating but you just adapt and do things a different way,” he said. “I work really small in pen and ink and then I do watercolor washes.”

Mr. Hughes loves to fish and hunt and he enjoys his daily trips to the Vineyard. He says that he often uses his lunch break to paint or sketch at South Beach. “I’d love to move over here,” he said. “I’ve always liked it here. I’m a Pisces so I need to be near the water.” For now, with both his teenage kids in Catholic School on the Cape, he will continue commuting. However, there’s no telling what the future may bring to a man who has seen many changes in his life.

One thing is certain. Mr. Hughes will continue creating art for as long as possible. “I want to do as much as I can before I can’t do it anymore,” he said without bitterness or regret. Just good natured optimism — and gratitude.