Pastel master Petlin at A Gallery

Nicolas Marailhac Atelier AE

By Mathea Morais

When I was a younger, going to Irving Petlin’s home was like stepping into another sphere — where beauty existed everywhere. It was in the sweeping curve of the lawn, the old Wayside Farm barn that had been turned into a house, and it was in the colorful, poignant stories that Mr. Petlin told about this tree, that collection of white stones.

As I got older, that beauty was especially alive at the end of summer when the doors to his studio were opened and those lucky enough were invited in to witness what he’d been doing since June — pastels that were breathtaking and quieting — the way art can be when it speaks directly to you.

Mr. Petlin is considered a master pastel artist; he works with pastels made by the Roche family who’ve made pastels for nearly 300 years for artists such as Manet and Degas. His love of the medium started in 1961 in the blazing sun of the South of France. “Pastels are like heat itself, they are minerals of the earth — compressed, crushed, turned into powder,” he said in a recent interview. “The light they give is quite different. I associate them with the heat and dust of summer.”

Mr. Petlin, who lives in Paris during the winter, has shown all over the world, but even though he has summered on Martha’s Vineyard for nearly 40 years, this summer, for the first time, he will hold a show on Martha’s Vineyard at the A Gallery in Oak Bluffs.

When I met with him recently in the stonewalled studio that once kept the horses of Wayside Farm in Chilmark, I asked, “Why now?”

“I am almost 80 years old and this is a turning of a page that I’ve never turned before. At my age, turning pages becomes more interesting than almost anything.”

Mr. Petlin originally came to the Vineyard to fulfill a pledge he made to himself after leaving Chicago for the first time at 17: to make sure his children did not have “the city life as the only mirror to look into” at a much earlier age. Since then, Petlin has brought his family to the Island and has spent his summers, not swimming or boating, but producing significant works of art.

Last summer, after visiting Mr. Petlin’s open studio, Tanya Augoustinos of A Gallery immediately asked if he would do a show. At first he wasn’t sure, but then, after finishing the work for a show this winter in Paris, he realized he’d already started a continuation for a show here and reached out to Augoustinos.

“When you only come to the Vineyard once a year, it is on your mind in a very symbolic way,” said Mr. Petlin. “It is a place of a special nature that you don’t experience any place else and I thought, I could do something about the mythology of the Island that I carry around with me. It’s not the mythology of the Island itself, it’s my mythology about being on the Island over all this time, despite all that happens in the world.”

Mr. Petlin’s art has always been driven by what is happening politically and socially in the world. However, the pieces for this show are what he calls a pause from those struggles, to take time out and create works for Martha’s Vineyard. A pause that, he says, for someone so connected to that upheaval for so long, is very important.

Mr. Petlin chose three aspects of the Vineyard as visual metaphors for this pause. These include the cottage that the Petlins return to every summer, the Island’s devotion to both the boat and the fish, and the Island as we see it from the beach and in our mind. Finally, there are pieces from Shakespeare’s Lear on the beach. “Lear, who imagines that he has fallen on a beach in his old age, relates to me more than anyone else,” he laughs. The other, Petlin calls a personal memoir about a visit from his three brothers to the Island that never happened, though he always wished it would.

Ms. Auguostinos realizes hosting Mr. Petlin is quite an achievement. “I can’t believe he’s doing the show,” she said, her excitement obvious. “He’s a serious artist with very rare depth. I’m thrilled at the idea of introducing more people to his perspective and history and what goes into his work.”

Mythology… And the Island – Pastels by Irving Petlin, Opening Reception Saturday, August 23, 5–7 pm. An Artist Talk will take place on Wednesday, August 27, 6 pm, both events at A Gallery, Oak Bluffs. For more information, call 917-378-0662 or visit

Mathea Morais has been the lucky neighbor and friend of Irving Petlin and his family for many years. She is the former editor of Martha’s Vineyard Patch and currently teaches high school at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.