Painter Elizabeth Whelan is honoring the town where she lived for a number of years with a show called “A Slice of West Tisbury,” currently on display at the West Tisbury library through the end of the month. The exhibit includes five portraits of people who are closely associated with West Tisbury, and a series of oil sketches of the town’s landscapes.
The opening on Friday, May 6, was the latest in a series of unveiling events which Ms. Whelan has been hosting for the past year. All five of the subjects were on hand, getting a first glimpse of their portraits. Among those honored by Ms. Whelan are mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, musician Will Luckey, Vineyard Artisans Festival founder Andrea Rogers, photographer and Field Gallery director Jennifer Pillsworth, and West Tisbury library director Beth Kramer.
Ms. Whelan also included a handful of other portraits of West Tisbury residents that she had previously painted and gifted to the subjects. These include paintings of Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society president Dale McClure, writer Geraldine Brooks, scientist Howard Attebery, and boat builder Ross Gannon. Also on view are a few charming scenes of the Ag Fair and other West Tisbury landmarks.
“I lived in West Tisbury the whole time I was on the Island,” Ms. Whelan said. “It has such hidden treasures.” Ms. Whelan arrived here in 2006, but has since moved to one of the Elizabeth Islands to serve as a caretaker, along with her longtime boyfriend Bill Benns.
Her decision to focus on West Tisbury was predicated in part by her familiarity with the landscape and the people. Of her choice of subjects, she says, “It was sort of a chain of thought. When I decided to do a show about West Tisbury, certain things popped into my mind. I love the Artisans Festival. I love the library. I’m a fan of Cynthia Riggs’ books. There are so many interesting and talented people in West Tisbury, and on the Island as a whole. I’ll eventually be doing a slice of West Tisbury, part two.”
Before she digs deeper into the population of her former home town, Ms. Whelan plans to tackle all of the other Island towns with portrait celebrations. In September, she will host another unveiling at the Workshop Gallery, representing people associated with the Vineyard Haven harborfront.
The selection to be found in the gallery space at the library is a good representation of Ms. Whelan’s work as a portrait and landscape artist. In the nine portraits, the resemblance to the subjects is striking, and there’s a very inviting quality to the work. Each individual seems to be welcoming the viewer into his or her private world.
In each case, Ms. Whelan painted the subject in a fitting environment. Ms. Rogers, who is a passionate gardener, is surrounded by plants. Ms. Brooks’ love of animals is represented by the inclusion of a favorite horse in her portrait. Ms. Kramer is standing at the entrance to the library with a flurry of books flying out the door. A description of Ms. Whelan’s impressions of the subjects is included in the show.
The evolution of Ms. Whelan’s work is clearly in evidence. In the short time since she began portrait painting, her style has shifted from near photorealism, in the case of the Dale McClure painting, to a softer look in the portrait of Ms. Riggs sitting on the grass with the sun speckling her face. “I’ve very specifically tried to get a little looser with my paint strokes,” Ms. Whelan said. “I’m starting to experiment as I go along. I think eventually my style will be suited to my subject. The outdoors pictures tend to be looser. Indoors tend to be tighter.”
Ms. Whelan spends a good deal of time with her subjects to get a sense of who they are and what they love. This deep familiarity with the people she paints is very apparent in the work. The artist continually hones her craft by painting landscapes, still lifes, and other subjects. She is especially adept with light and mood.
Ms. Whelan formerly worked as a commercial artist, although she painted and drew on the side. When she relocated to the Elizabeth Islands, she decided to focus on portraits. A few intensive classes in New York City prepared her for her new direction. Less than three years later, she was shortlisted for an exhibition at the famed National Portrait Gallery in London, won third place in a contest sponsored by the Portrait Society of America, and established herself as a portrait painter, with a number of commissions.
She has been able to make her mark in such a short time partly by working exhaustively at her craft. So far, she has painted between 30 and 40 portraits. Each of the five unveilings that she has hosted on-Island features paintings that she has donated to the subjects. She has managed to build up a body of work and honor some of her favorite Vineyarders thanks in large part to the paid commissions.
“I want to give a special shout-out to the people who have commissioned portraits,” Ms. Whelan said. “Those people who really care about art have made it possible for me to do the shows where I give my art to the subjects.”