Nine artists, 15 years

A group of nine women artists on Martha’s Vineyard critique one another’s work.

"Dune," by Claire Chalfoun. — Courtesy Claire Chalfoun

I stood in the doorway of the Program Room looking in at the art arranged along the walls. We had hung the show earlier in the day. The nine of us are: Leslie Baker, Claire Chalfoun, Nancy Furino, Lyn Hinds, Ruth Kirchmeier, Jeanne Staples, Liz Taft, Wendy Weldon, and me, Hermine Hull.

Beth Kramer, listening from the circulation desk, called our way of working together “collaborative engagement,” another way of saying we discussed everything. It was like making a painting, deciding on design, shape, color, balance, the flow of one’s eye from one piece to the next. Analyzing. Assessing. Making a decision. Yes or no? Here, or in another place? In our studios we make these decisions for ourselves and our work is all of a piece. This was different. Agreement had to be by consensus here. Even what to title this exhibition; are we “artists” or “women artists?” “Nine Women Artists” was our choice.

We are artists who have been meeting monthly for 15 years now, an outgrowth from Tom Maley’s drawing group. We began meeting for critiques, a useful several other sets of eyes and critical judgment for our work in progress. It can be helpful to have fresh eyes look at things we have been wrestling with in our separate studios, so studio visits for critiques were our original raison d’être. There were dinners too, and lively conversations, the shared experience of making art and passion for our work. We have all been professional artists our whole lives.

We decided the most important view was from the doorway, so the first pieces we set out had to be strong. Lyn Hinds’ painting, “Yellow and Blue Landscape,”fit perfectly to one side. “First Choice”by Wendy Weldon became its complement. Both powerful abstract compositions, strong colors and shapes, a square next to a long horizontal bank of windows visually stopped by a vertical. Perfect. Then two monotypes by Leslie Baker on the adjacent wall, geometry and gestural markmaking, visual poetry.

Ruth Kirchmeier’s woodcuts come next, hung together in a section between windows. Her newest woodcut is seen for the first time here, “House by the Hospital”;she has been working on it all summer. “Pathway With Bittersweet, Duarte’s Pond” is Ruth’s masterpiece of twisted vines and branches covering a sun-dappled path. “River Through the Trees”is all rushing water, just as it sounds.

Liz Taft’s “Menemsha Marsh” comes next, a large painting all done on site at the right time of day, the right time of year, studied and described over time and close observation, big enough to envelop the viewer in brushmarks and green space. Nancy Furino’s “Herring Creek Farm”shimmers in pale sunlight and infinite contrasts of broken brushwork and smoothly-colored areas, warm and cool, light and shadow.

Three paintings by Claire Chalfoun string across the back wall beside the doorway. You have to look from inside. The light makes them magic, subtle and inviting places, private worlds to enter. Claire describes the grasses and sand grains, leaves and brushy shrubbery.

Nancy Furino painted “West Tisbury” at haying time. Midsummer green fields stripped pale, now golden hay rolls drying in the sun. The painting stands alone in a space with just the right lighting and space for it.

A vertical space, a doorway, becomes an element in the ongoing composition. A large, mostly green complexity of integrated shapes and colors, moving in and out, “Insider,”by Wendy Weldon. Then three small square landscapes I painted on site, places I have explored and painted over and over again: “Murphy’s Pond,” “Our Woods to the South Side,” and “My Favorite View,”autumn, winter, and early spring. “Yellow Roses and My Paintings”is just what it sounds, painted in my studio with part of a painting above and another on a table easel. The roses appear and disappear, visible and invisible in front of the yellow painting on the wall.

Then softness, an abstract vertical painting by Leslie Baker, “Breaking Light.”Orange light slashes through a lilac and pale blue surface, analogous to the orange and lilac sky in its companion piece, “Portrait of Drack”by Jeanne Staples. Jeanne’s painting is luminous realism; Leslie’s is luminous in its way too. Different. Still, they complement each other.

We did it. We hung our work, so different in medium, style, intention, color, and presentation, and made it a homogeneous whole. It was like making a painting, bringing the elements together to create something other than its parts. A composition or an exhibition. Complete. We are all excellent composers of visual space.

I have marveled over the years at our work. Every month some of us or all of us bring what we are working on at that moment. Whether it’s a piece of simplicity or complexity, a fixed vision to be perfected or something newly tried, I marvel at our capacity to continue working, to keep figuring it out anew.

Read the artists’ statements in the book accompanying the exhibition. Everyone writes about walking into their studios, the arrangement of the studio, the different ways of working, of seeing, of approaching painting or printmaking, the full engagement of making art, the delicious process. It’s what we do, as simple as that.

Nine Women Artists – 15 Years will remain on view at the West Tisbury library through September. Artist Talk on Monday, Sept. 15, 5:30 pm, in the Program Room. For more information, call 508-693-3366 or visit