Margaret Emerson’s show, “Ocean Movement,” at the Vineyard Haven library for the month of April is a visceral walk-through the watery landscapes inspired by the Island, its shores, and aquatic vistas. She incorporates physical materials that augment and also alter her ocean-inspired paintings to evoke a nearly kinetic response within us.
“These compositions develop during creative moments, and are not often planned,” Emerson says. “Adding pieces of texture makes a painting more three-dimensional. The added media play with or add to the feeling of the piece, and often accent the colors in a way paint alone cannot. [They] are collected treasures that catch my eye. Sometimes I find an object, like the fiberglass wave on the painting ‘Sand and Surf,’ and let it play with my mind until an idea develops. The work was inspired by the piece of fiberglass that was dug up in our yard. I loved the muted, aged colors and the wavy shape. I asked our neighbors if they knew where it came from, and I was told it was a roof of a carport from 30 or so years ago. I grabbed it for safekeeping until the painting took shape in my head. I followed the colors in the fiberglass to paint the sky and sand.” The fiberglass ripples gently across the canvas, inviting eyes to travel along with it. The sand on a beach is not uniform. As with her other works, Emerson plays with the surface here, using a palette knife to create rhythmic swathes of pigment, as well as the tines of a fork to create the striations at the edge of the beige sand.
Emerson’s art has evolved over time, becoming ever more abstract. “I am expressing my emotional reactions to living close to the ocean through paint, shapes, and texture,” she explains. “These pieces are more action-oriented than most of my previous work. They are also less planned. I used to paint from a scene or a photograph of a landscape. When I look back at how my style has changed, I see my earlier work as learning phases toward becoming comfortable with abstraction. Now my art comes from within.”
“Blue Edge,” one of the large pieces in the show, is fully abstract, although the dark aqua blue, reaching from “edge to edge” of a good part of the canvas, does certainly cast connotations of deep ocean waters. Less immediately obvious is the implication of the bubble wrap. Emerson explains, “The bubble wrap in ‘Blue Edge’ was water waiting to be splashed, but only after I started the painting. It was in a box in my studio, calling to me in a quiet voice that I could not ignore. [The piece] came together as I was painting. I was thinking of the vastness of the ocean and how that could be expressed in two or three colors. The minimal paint has movement like a current. When I added the bubble wrap, I felt the water churning. This is how my process works.”
Emerson’s titles too allude to the abstract nature of her paintings. “Salty Memory,” “Innocence Adolescence,” “Circadian Metronome,” and “Perinatal Ocean” are just a few of them. Their imprecise allusions allow room for our own interpretations. One in which the title and image are clearly connected is “Tempest,” in which the wildly energetic brushstrokes roil about. Emerson says of the piece, “It was an attempt to include green in an ocean painting. The result was several areas of churning watery scenes on the canvas. By adding the green plastic pieces, I was connecting the separate parts together. The transparency of the green plastic feels liquid.”
One of the few works with immediately recognizable imagery is the intriguing small painting “Sail Away,” which, Emerson explains, “was one of a series of sailboats done with window screening. I experimented with putting paint both over and under the screen and found satisfaction with both techniques. I love the lightness the screen gives to the sail, and the fact that you can see through it like it’s catching the wind.”
While Emerson incorporates found materials for artistic purposes, they might also raise allusions to the debris either left or washing up on Island shores, given the ever-increasing environmental concern about man-made waste tainting the natural beauty of our coastline. Emerson’s work seems to both bring to the forefront the issue while simultaneously cherishing the luscious natural beauty in which we are fortunate enough to live.
Emerson only devoted herself entirely to her passion relatively recently. “I loved art in high school. When I began college in Detroit, Mich., where I grew up, I was an art major. My father convinced me that this was such a competitive field that I would be better off studying something I could get a job with, so I followed my mother’s career path and became a nurse,” Emerson says. “I had a rich and rewarding career as a nurse, and always kept up my interest in art. When I retired from teaching nursing at Northeastern University in Boston and retired to the Vineyard in 2009, I immersed myself in art. My style has evolved from landscapes to abstract painting. It is a wonderful opportunity to have the time and space to be creative.”
Emerson’s show is part of the Vineyard Haven Public Library’s Art in the Stacks program, which features rotating monthly exhibits and is managed by the Friends of the Library. As the warmer weather tentatively comes upon us, you have until the end of the month to get a taste of the beach life that soon awaits us.