From birds to canvas: Lanny McDowell’s flights of imagination

"Sun Moon Barn Owl." —Art by Lanny McDowell

Vineyard Haven artist Lanny McDowell’s love for birds led him to devote much of his creative energy to avian photography in recent years. His new show at the West Tisbury Library puts his painterly talents back on the front burner.

Mr. McDowell has drawn from his newer work since he returned with gusto to painting in 2011, as well as throwing in a few of his old favorites. Vineyard art lovers may remember that Mr. McDowell built a reputation for painting portraits of waves that were on display at his West Tisbury Ott gallery before he closed it in 2007. But as the new exhibit illustrates, that represents only one area of work for this prolific painter.

“In the fall of 2011, I started painting like mad,” Mr. McDowell says. The work he produced during that period through June 2012 went on exhibit briefly at Tashmoo Springs. There, he showed a body of work that mixed abstraction and representational images like “Sun Moon Barn Owl,” a 2012 painting that consists of a 12- by 12-inch canvas of multicolored squares with the image of an airborne white owl superimposed over them. The combination prods the viewer to think about how the two forms feed off each other.

Much of the pleasure of the West Tisbury Library exhibit comes in seeing the variety of styles Mr. McDowell explores. “Allen Farm Vista” is a purely representational painting in strong shades of green and gold with touches of blue and orange that dates from 2004, while “Piers,” a 2014 work, unites a series of representational images by placing them in squares within squares. “Rise Up” and “Delivery” are wave portraits that both date from 2007, before the artist turned toward avian photography, while in “Wave Remake,” from 2013, he returns to a wave portrait in a renewed integration of abstraction and representation.

A preoccupation with color unites Mr. McDowell’s many stylistic ventures, as he notes in a statement accompanying the West Tisbury Library show. “If I have one thread of continuity in my artwork over the years, it’s an infatuation with color. Color reaches me,” he says. “I might have been at home with many of the American abstract expressionists who celebrate expanses of resonant color.” His investigations of color through patterns of squares encourage the viewer to respond to the way colors feed each other.

As those who receive his avian photographs online or in other venues know, Mr. McDowell’s fascination with birds has not lessened now that he has refocused on painting.  As he says, “My art –– paintings and avian photographs –– is about expressing awe of the wondrous life cycles that energize our planet and inspire us. I believe in the connectedness of all things, in respect for the forces of nature.”

“The Work of Painter and Photographer Lanny McDowell,” West Tisbury Free Public Library, West Tisbury, through October. For hours and information, see