Nurturing creativity

Alison Shaw and Sue Dawson mentor emerging photographers with Advanced Mentorship program.


Photographer Alison Shaw is turning the walls of her gallery over to the work of students of her Advanced Mentorship program through May 24. Currently photos by five individuals who have been involved with the intensive program for the past six months are on display at the Oak Bluffs gallery. Each has a unique perspective, style, and focus on subject matter.

“They each have their own story,” says Alison’s partner, Sue Dawson, who leads the mentorship along with the photographer every year. “We just step aside and allow them to be in the limelight.”

Each of the five students showing this year has worked with Shaw and Dawson for a number of years now, having previously participated in the Mentorship program and, in some cases, completed the Advanced Mentorship more than once.

Students of the program come from all over the country. The majority of the six-month intensive course involves one-on-one instruction offered remotely through video conferencing. However, all but one of the current participants either lives on the Vineyard or has strong ties to the Island. All five were on hand for the opening of the show last Sunday, May 5.

Brooke  Bartletta of West Tisbury and Hingham was raised in New Zealand and Australia. Since setting down roots in coastal Massachusetts 18 years ago, she has grown to love the area. “This mentorship has deepened my connection to New England in a meaningful way,” she writes in her artist’s statement.

Many of  Bartletta’s images were shot on the Vineyard. Although they are not your typical shots of seashore, boats, and Island landmarks, each clearly tells a very Vineyard, very human story. The selection includes color photos of folks hanging out on their Campground cottage porches and candid black and white shots from the Agricultural Fair.

“My approach is similar to street photographers, always looking for things that are authentic, a little different, sometimes quirky or nostalgic,” she writes. “My images are honest moments, aiming to illustrate the charm, grit, and character of New England. They are an homage to my home, a reflection of who I am.”

Pathologist, photographer, and artist Andrea Dawson of Ohio specializes in nature photography. She tends to find beauty in simplicity. Many of her shots are closeups that capture simple details like twigs, grasses, or a single dried leaf hanging from a branch in sharp focus, illuminated against a soft focus backdrop. “I often am drawn to the expanse of colors and textures in the overall view of my world,” writes Dawson. “I also explore the details — abstracting the patterns in a field of grass, or the petals of a flower.”

Beth Horstman lives on an organic farm in Maryland. Her photos perfectly capture the serenity of rural life. Whether moody black-and-white shots of cows grazing in a snowy field, an old barn, or a color closeup of a wooden bowl filled with eggs, Horstman’s images display a very intimate connection to the land and her agricultural roots. As she writes in her artist’s statement, “I’m always looking for the simplest way of showing my subjects, so people can see what I’m seeing, and feel my sense of place.”

Being an avid outdoorsman, Rob Skinnon often points his lens toward the ocean. He captures his chosen subject in a very specific way, with a personal interpretation to his style. “It’s very difficult to swim in open water for long distances, battling the current,” he writes. “To be honest, the ocean often feels overwhelming to me. So I shoot with a long shutter speed to slow it down and make it feel more peaceful. I push myself through the chaos, to find the calm.”

Lucy Dahl of Edgartown is an adventurer. Her most recent expedition found her living in a tent for months in the wilds of Big Sur with just her two dogs for companionship. Form and illusion are important elements of her vaguely abstract images. She has captured scenes of a single crashing wave and an interesting driftwood formation with the same sense of the mysterious and unexpected quality of nature. Dahl includes a quote from her father, author Roald Dahl, in her artist’s statement. “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

It’s not surprising that each of the five mentees included in the show has a very specific defining style. Shaw and Dawson place great stress in their teaching on discovering a unique individual viewpoint. “Alison’s and my approach is to help students identify and develop their own creative style,” says Dawson. “We each have very different ways of teaching, and people find either one or both of our techniques very helpful.”

Dawson, who has a background in art direction and design, takes a personal approach to her instruction. “My technique is to start off with an intuitive interview with each person, and do some writing and exercises with them to get deeper into where their creative expression is coming from,” she says. “The more insight that they have can propel them down the road to discovering more about themselves as artists.” She likes to compare her role to a that of a miner walking behind each student with a headlamp. “They’re leading the way and I’m shining a light down the path,” she explains. “The light starts to shine on where their creative energy is coming from.”

Shaw, who has won many awards for her work and has established herself as perhaps the most recognized of Vineyard photographers, focuses more on the technical side of the process. “My role is more in talking about the images themselves,” she says. “Critiquing the images and leading them in the process of becoming fine art photographers.”

“Ninety percent of the students are coming to us having photographed a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says Shaw. “It’s really about trying to go deeper and find out what that thread is that really makes them an artist. We’re trying to go beyond the idea of ‘Let’s just take some pretty pictures.’”

Advanced Mentorship Show, through May 24 at the Alison Shaw Gallery, open Monday to Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm, Arts District, 88 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs. 508-696-7429;