Local man draws a new path with pastel art

Tom Mullins, who has become an artist late in life, and his partner Julia Norman at their West Tisbury Home. —Photo by Gwyn McAllister

At 79, Tom Mullins of Cambridge and West Tisbury has embarked on a third career of sorts. He only began experimenting with drawing earlier this year, yet his work has already been featured in two galleries, and he has sold a handful of his small pastel drawings — an auspicious start that many newcomers to the art world might envy. Furthermore, Mr. Mullins has managed these accomplishments despite the fact that he is limited physically by Parkinson’s disease.

“So much has been taken away from him,” says Julia Norman, Mr. Mullins’s life partner. “To be given this [artistic success] at this point is just amazing.” It was not luck, but innate talent, perseverance, and some fortunate timing that accounts for Mr. Mullins success as an artist. At a summer fundraising auction, the couple purchased a package of private lessons from artist Valentine Estabrook. Both Ms. Norman and Mr. Mullins tried their hand at pastel drawing, but it was the latter who immediately showed real talent for the medium.

Mr. Mullins focuses mainly on Vineyard landscapes. His small works are both lovely and professionally rendered. There’s a simplicity of style that’s very appealing, taking full advantage of the medium. The artist has a real sense for line and composition.

Unlike many other landscape artists, Mr. Mullins’s work impresses one more for the style than the subject. His drawings derive their effectiveness from a few well placed strokes and dabs of color and an expert use of texture and variation of colors to create land and seascapes.

It’s amazing that someone who never studied drawing could be so expert at defining subjects with so little, no easy feat. Many of Mr. Mullins’s small pastels could stand up against professional works hanging in a high-end gallery or museum.

During his working life, Mr. Mullins took a completely different path. A native of Pittsburgh, he accepted a job with the Gulf Oil Company upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the next 20 years working as a Gulf executive. He was based in London, but travelled all over the world for work.

“Gulf was a good place to work,” Mr. Mullins says. “You could keep one foot in the corporate office and the other foot in the rest of the world.” He spent almost three years living in Beirut. Eventually, Mr. Mullins decided to return to the U.S.

“I decided it was time to change,” says Mr. Mullins. “I didn’t want to end up as another American businessman lapping up the substance of some club in the West End of London.” He took a job as associate director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. During this time, Mr. Mullins spent weekends and part of each summer with his three children and his late wife, Coco, at her family’s seasonal home in Lambert’s Cove. Now, he and Ms. Norman enjoy a winterized home that Mr. Mullins built almost 20 years ago.

Mr. Mullins and Ms. Norman were introduced by a mutual friend who was visiting Mr. Mullins from London. As it turns out, Ms. Norman had lived just a few blocks from Mr. Mullins in London, though the two had never met. The couple has been together for seven years now, and their closeness and shared interests are apparent upon meeting the two.

One of their mutual passions is for exploring distant locales. Mr. Mullins and Ms. Norman travel frequently. Their two most recent trips were to Alaska and Greece.

While they were in Greece in September, Ms. Norman got a phone call informing her that Tanya Augostinos of the A Gallery was interested in showing Mr. Mullins’s work. Ms. Augostinos had spotted two of his drawings at Featherstone and was impressed enough to track him down. One of the works was the first thing to sell at Featherstone’s pastel show earlier this year. Ms. Augostinos included Mr. Mullins in her recent Small Works show. A few have been purchased, but two are still on exhibit at the gallery.

Mr. Mullins continues to produce work. He doesn’t have to travel far for inspiration. His Lambert’s Cove home has a spectacular view of James Pond, with the ocean and Naushon Island in the distance. “During the year, as the sun moves, you’re always getting different views” he says. “It’s ever-changing.”

Mr. Mullins’ and Ms. Norman’s apartment in Cambridge has a lovely view of Boston, but Mr. Mullins finds no inspiration in an urban vista. “For some people, the lights of Boston are beautiful,” he says. “But that doesn’t really move me.”

During the warmer months, Mr. Mullins spends a good deal of time drawing on his deck. Now, he has moved indoors, but he can still enjoy the stunning view and spectacular sunsets from an armchair in the living room. “It is interesting to watch Tom work,” Ms. Norman says. “He will go into this meditative state for two hours.”

Creating art is clearly more than a passing fancy for Mr. Mullins. He continues to take lessons with Ms. Estabrook, and he has devoted himself to this latest endeavor. While trying his hand at artwork may have been on his bucket list for decades, Mr. Mullins has certainly put everything into his new passion. Any success he is enjoying is just the icing on the cake.