Marine life inspires three artists at Martha’s Vineyard Museum

From left: assistant curator Anna Carringer, artist Nan Tull, and curator Bonnie Stacey. — Photo by David Welch

Last Friday evening, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum hosted its annual Summer Opening Party. Approximately 100 people enjoyed cocktails and snacks on the lawn and got a chance to view some of the museum’s latest exhibits, including Ladies of the Sea, on display for the first time.

At the early evening gathering, museum director David Nathans spoke briefly about some of the summer initiatives, and then introduced Pam Butterick who sang, in a beautiful soprano voice, one of the songs from the newly acquired collection of sheet music by Will Hardy, bandleader at the Tivoli Ballroom in Oak Bluffs early in the 20th century.

Party guests strolling into the museum had the chance to visit the sheet music exhibit in the Spotlight Gallery and check out the charming illustrations from the century old “Martha’s Vineyard Songbook.”

However, most of the attention was focused on the Northeast Gallery where the latest exhibit will hang through August 17. Ladies of the Sea features the artwork of Laura Jernegan, Rose Treat, and Nan Tull, all of whom found inspiration in marine life. Ms. Tull was on hand at the opening party and talked to guests about her watercolor works.

In the early 1990s, Ms. Tull was commissioned by the museum to create a series of realistic paintings of local seashells. She spent two years on the project and provided dozens of small renderings for a 1995 exhibit. This is only the second time that her work has been on display at the museum.

A professional artist from Boston who summers on the Vineyard, Ms. Tull had been collecting seashells for many years when she was approached by the former director to visually document the variety of Vineyard shells. “I spent two summers going around the Island,” said Ms. Tull. “Our place was on South Beach but I also went up to Gay Head, to Menemsha, Tashmoo, to Chappaquiddick where I found a great variety of shells.” One of her favorites is the jingle, a small bivalve with a translucent shell. “The top is pearlescent. It takes on different colors depending on its diet,” said Ms. Tull.

Altogether she catalogued 40 different species for the 1995 exhibit. A handful of these are included in the current exhibit.

“This was just a special project,” said Ms. Tull. “I wanted to record these findings. On the Vineyard I generally painted in watercolor. It seemed an appropriate medium for connecting with nature.” However, she noted, “These are not typical of my work at all.” Ms. Tull has a studio in South Boston and is represented by the Soprafina Gallery on Thayer Street. She works primarily in encaustics, a process using pigmented melted wax. Her beautiful abstract paintings focus on color combinations and linear elements. She often works on a very large scale.

The other two artists featured in Ladies of the Sea found inspiration in the colors, shapes, and varieties of seaweed.

In the 1800s, Ms. Jernegan traveled the world as a little girl on her father’s whaling ship. She left the Island as a young woman to study music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and later moved with her husband to Baltimore where she studied watercolor painting. After her husband’s death, Ms. Jernegan returned to the Island and opened an antique shop and tea garden. She kept up with her painting and started collecting seaweed, which she pressed and sold as cards and books.

On display at the museum is one of Ms. Jernegan’s handmade books of pressings and a selection of watercolor designs for dinner plates featuring seaweed. “Decorating china was a pretty common hobby among women in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” says the museum’s chief curator, Bonnie Stacy. Ms. Jernegan’s plate designs feature Japanese style scenes ornamented with designs based on sea mosses, as she called them. The artist incorporated the fronds and tendrils of seaweed to create floral borders and embellishments.

“They’re beautiful dreamy watercolors filled with water images and shells,” said Ms. Tull. “The circular quality couldn’t be more appropriate for a child who travelled around the globe.”

Rose Treat, who died in 2011, also created artwork based on seaweed. In Ms. Treat’s case, the plants themselves are the medium. She was an amateur naturalist who developed a way to treat the seaweed, which has managed to preserve the colors surprisingly well. She used a variety of colors and shapes to create quite remarkable works of art.

Ms. Treat was born in Czechoslovakia in 1908 and grew up between New York City and a family farm in New York state. She worked as a nurse for many years and only started creating seaweed art when she came to the Vineyard for a visit in 1959. She eventually relocated here. Her nephew, local wire sculptor Steve Lohman, loaned some pieces from his collection of his aunt’s work for the exhibit.

The selection of Ms. Treat’s work on display features two distinct styles. Some, like a whimsical bird and a portrait of a man with a mass of curly hair, feature simple lines made with thin strands. Others are striking abstracts fashioned from wide flat pieces of seaweed. In some works, such as a small depiction of dancers, Ms. Treat used the natural curves of dried seaweed to represent figures and other forms.

“Rose Treat’s work has a certain sense of humor,” said Ms. Tull. “I think they’re so witty.

“This was a wonderful opportunity to be seen with both of these other artists because we all had some connection with life on Martha’s Vineyard as well as the obvious connection to the sea around us.”

Nan Tull will give a talk on her Vineyard watercolor project at the M.V. Museum, located in Edgartown, on July 23.