‘Art on the Avenue’ revives shuttered storefronts

Basia Jaworska stands in front of the Martha's Vineyard Cafe & Bakery, where she filled the windows with her work. — Photo by Sam Moore

It’s a sad look in the off season: All up and down Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, nine out of 10 stores are closed. Some owners leave a few tokens on display — a pair of sandals, a wilted plant, and, of course, the obligatory sign: “Thank you for a great summer!” A mostly deserted commercial block can leave a winter resident feeling a bit deserted herself, although appreciation blossoms for those businesses that stay open, such as Third World Trading at the top of the street; high on its steepled roof, pale blue lights glow, telling us there’s still a town here with a few live souls in it.

The idea to display art in the closed-for-the-season shops has been percolating in some of the Island’s most creative minds for some time. Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts, had received a few pitches for the idea along the way. And simultaneously, art dealer Holly Alaimo and artist Renee Balter, both on the board of the Oak Bluffs Association, had started to hatch a plan. Ms. Alaimo told The Times this past weekend, “Renee and I thought it would perk up the town in the dead of winter.”

It was time to take action. Ms. Smith turned the project over to her two lieutenants, Emme Brown and Veronica Modini, and “Art on the Avenue” was born. Last fall, the two ladies took advantage of still-open stores to pass out fliers and strike up conversations. The takers were few, but the results, now on display in Oak Bluffs, are striking. (A visitor on Sunday afternoon was overheard describing one of the storefronts as “scrumptious!”) Certainly, more participants will be inspired next year.

The event began last Saturday night at the ever-romantic candlelit Park Corner Bistro, where drinks and a buffet of nibbles were on hand. The night was frosty, with a recent snowfall still coating rooftops and flower planters, but the chosen artists gamely faced the chill to pose for pictures before their display windows.

At Park Corner itself, the windows gleamed with the reclaimed art of Isaiah Phillips, who scavenges Island beaches for sea glass, driftwood, and any manner of natural treasure, which he then molds into wood-framed lacy glass displays of uncommon beauty. He also finds reusable materials in his work as a carpenter: antique hemlock barn boards, heart-pine paneling, and rough oak flooring. He wrote in his “Art on the Avenue” bio, “From the unique nail holes and the water stains to the knots and cracks in the boards, to each piece of individual glass, it’s all one of a kind.”

Across the square, in the normally pitch-black windows of Martha’s Vineyard Bakery, where most of us O.B. townies gaze in sad longing for absent apple fritters, the space is now filled with the dynamic oil paintings of Basia Jaworska, who pays homage to musicians in her portraiture. The bold figures include “Lady Day,” tall and young and gorgeous in a blue dress with a white bustier, singing into an old-time microphone. There’s James Booker on piano, and Rosie Ledet on accordion, with flowing black bands of hair and icicle-length white earrings. Bass player and “poet laureate of the blues” Willie Dixon is front and center in a porkpie hat and a snappy blue-and-gold-striped tie. To his left you’ll find Sister Rosetta Tharpe, lookin’ good in a knee-length white coat, white high heels, and holding a white-enameled electric guitar.

A quarter of a block north on Circuit, at Carousel Ice Cream, the window is agleam with Valerie Sonnenthal’s photographs, soft and surreal as paintings, grouped in a stunning vast quilt, with a peyote dream of silver glints on the surface of a lake, to a water tower against a mauve-and-pink sky, a leaf in broken segments on shattered ice, and human shadows etched on fractured backgrounds.

Across the street and south a bit, Eastaway Clothing presents two artists, Minor Knight and Judi Schubert. Ms. Knight’s scenic displays light up the windows on either side of the front doors. In her bio taped to the glass, Ms. Knight declares, “I have been playing dress-up for as long as I can remember.” Her aesthetics were sharpened by 15 years spent in Paris. The frontispiece of her windows is vintage barkcloth blouses with Kabuki-accented patterns. The flooring is awash in broken conch shells, and rearing above are narrow tall canvases of exotic yellow birds; hybrid swans and cockatoos, set alongside bouquets of flamingo feathers and chartreuse branches.

In Eastaway’s corner window, pastoral watercolors by Judi Schubert face the square: random cows in pastures and paddocks amid seascapes and, improbable as it sounds, a lovely still life with onions.

All the players behind this event are happy with the rollout, even as a blizzard pounded down on our shores this Monday, obliterating any hope of sightseers. Ms. Alaimo is encouraged by festivities at Park Corner Bistro, and the collaboration between Oak Bluffs businesses, artists, and Featherstone. She said, “We’re hoping that next year there will be many more closed stores that will lend their widows to support the variety of great Island artists who appreciate the exposure.”

She also added with a dash of whimsy, “I can see hot chocolate or Irish coffee as a treat at the end of the stroll.”

“Art on the Avenue” will continue until stores reopen again in the spring. For more information, visit featherstoneart.org.