Jennifer Christy explores the places between things

"Structure II," 52 x 70 inches, acrylic on linen. — Art by Jennifer Christy

Jennifer Christy grew up on the Island from the time she was 7. During our conversation she spoke of paddling around Quitsa Pond in an old canoe, observing the shorelines and inlets, the edges where water and land meet, where rocks and water or land come up against one another.

Edges. Space. Connections. Boundaries.

These are some of the words that Jennifer uses to describe what her paintings are about. As many abstract painters do, she sees landscape and landforms as simplified combinations of shapes and colors, brushstrokes, sweeping openings and closings, the places between things, the tension as those edges meet. “What I see in nature is extremely abstract, but when you live on this Island with all these boundaries, especially the edges of these forms, it’s a way I translate nature. Forms and edges, water to Island forms. Sky and island, water, cliffs, sand. The interstices between them interest me.”

Jennifer’s parents were both artists, and after they divorced, her stepfather too was an artist. She began making art as a sculptor. Art school in the 1980s was an exciting place to be, and Jennifer chose Franklin Marshall because of its proximity to New York City. Her teachers would teach for a few days, then go back to their city lives as working and exhibiting artists. She admired Eva Hesse, a postminimalist who worked in fiberglass and plastics, creating work that dripped and glowed, and looked like nothing else one had ever seen.

Jennifer began using fiberglass and resin to make translucent forms that were lit from within. She became Carol Kreeger Davidson’s studio assistant, immersing herself in the creative, working life of an artist and the vitality of SoHo when it was still filled with galleries and artists. In 1988 she attended the School of Visual Arts, where she took her first painting class and began to focus on painting and drawing in daylong studio sessions.

Back to the Island after school, Jennifer became absorbed with all the things one needs to do to work and live here. She worked at Marianne’s, her mother’s design and printing business, then at Bramhall & Dunn (the Main Street, Vineyard Haven, clothing and furnishings shop that shuttered in 2011 after 28 years in business). A master’s degree in art education from UMass gave her the credentials to teach middle and high school–level art at the Charter School. She went to Florence, Italy, to paint, then worked at the Chilmark and Aquinnah libraries, had three children with her husband (Todd Christy of Chilmark Coffee Co. fame), and began her current job as town clerk in Chilmark. In her mind there were always images to explore.

Even when painters are not painting, they are always painting in their minds; painting at night, carving out time “to get back to making physical things from the forms and images in my head,” says Jennifer. “Once you see it on the canvas, it becomes alive, and I can start to know what to do with it. The edges are a result of multiple layers of paint, eight to 10 maybe, to build up what I need to see there, the way I’ve developed to give a shimmery depth to the forms. My paintings happen organically rather than strategically. I sketch, settle on a form that I like, then sketch it onto the canvas. Then I start by painting the form, next painting the background — and back and forth, back and forth, until I’ve built up an edge that is the result of the ebb and flow of the background painting and the form painting,” says Jennifer.

This is the best part of painting, and Jennifer described it well. I asked about her mark-making and what I call “the story of the painting,” the bits of all that came throughout the process, just enough left for the viewer to see. If you look up close, it’s all there. Maybe the forms were laid in in yellow or orange or red. A soft, light, neutral background gets painted up to the colored shape, pushing it forward, defining it by painting over it, up to it. Another color refines the form, broadening it or lengthening it; then back to the neutral background color to cut into the form, to soften or strengthen the edges. The forms relate to one another, pushing against or pulling back, the spaces between them tension-filled. Bits of the underpainting remains, brushed-out remnants of all the colors that came before. They make a fuzzy sort of tale. The heavy, solid form itself feels massive, even in the smallest paintings, all those layers of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes thickly evident. The surface may be shiny or matte, depending on what the painting needs.

She has begun making sculpture again, small bronzes. “One informs the other,” she says. “The sculptures are like the paintings in 3D.” She will continue working in both, and plans to show them together.

Jennifer exhibited her first paintings at the Gay Head Gallery in 2014. Owner Megan Ottens-Sargent had watched Jennifer grow up, and she took great pleasure in showing her paintings. She said, “Jenny builds a beautiful surface with evidence of a wide range of color subtly shining through. Her edges — the borders — are ephemeral, and at the same time connect and define the shapes that are themselves hard to define.”

This year Jennifer has moved to the Field Gallery. That is where I first saw her work, hanging outside along the long side wall facing State Road. They made a dramatic statement, and I wanted to know more, to see them up close. I found work that made me want to explore its subtleties.

In a conversation with Field Gallery director Jennifer Pillsworth, who is also an artist, we spoke about showing and selling more abstract art on the Island. “I find it so fascinating that artists who are here, and like Jenny who grew up here, and who are painters working with the landscape but with a more abstract, less literal quality. We become filters. Our work is based on constantly looking at the landscape and filtering it into something else.”

I realize that Jennifer is part of this next generation of Island artists, and how exciting it will be to see where they will set their bar.