Island life year-round is portrayed in Elizabeth Whelan’s latest exhibit


How many times have I been asked about living here, “Isn’t it bleak in the wintertime? Is there even anyone around?” Elizabeth Whelan’s exhibition at the Vineyard Haven library, “As We Live,” lifts the veil on some of the essence of what it’s like to be here off-season. It’s about two things really — the stark but breathtaking beauty of the Island, and the people who live here.

While I’m a warm, sunny-weather person by nature, I love how striking the trails and vistas are off-season. Whelan’s primarily cool palette of blues and browns and variations thereof captures the mood and the feel of the weather in her nature scenes. While she doesn’t use photorealism, her pieces are very specific to place and the light of the moment. Her fluid technique makes it feel like I’m actually on the snow-covered path that opens at my feet in “Mill Pond Bench,” or have just come upon the two large, twisting trees in the winter woods on swampy ground in “Jive Talkin’.” And likewise, I can hear the cold water lapping up against the stone jetty in “Slow — No Wake” in Vineyard Haven Harbor.

But it’s not just about the beauty of the location. Whelan paints portraits of people who are here year-round. Even if you don’t know the specific person, her paintings are so evocative it feels as if you do. Of “Sophie at the Island Theater,” Whelan shares, “The centerpiece for the show is a portrait of my friend Sophie standing in front of the Island Theater in Oak Bluffs. Her winter hat is not one you typically see in paintings of the Vineyard, nor is the crumbling exterior. Her enigmatic expression speaks to me of our lives here year-round.”

Another portrait is “Captain Brad — Chappy Ferry.” As with “Sophie,” we can’t discern what Captain Brad is thinking because the reflections in his sunglasses keep you from seeing his eyes. In her portraits, Whelan uses the hard-edge geometry of manmade objects to define straight linear, vertical, or diagonal lines and shapes that create interesting compositions around her subjects. Other examples include the physical structure of the bus stop near the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal in “Sketch — Waiting for the No. 13” that frames the worker, the interior setting of the young woman at the cash register, in “Sketch — Bookstore in February,” and a young man working with the shingles on a Edgartown house in “Sketch — Up On the Roof.”

Whelan talks about her process: “This winter I began the first of what will be many paintings on the theme of our off-season Island. These are small and quiet paintings, like the scenes I encountered. Some are quick thoughts, rendered in acrylic on canvas as notes for a possibly larger, more in-depth exploration in oil at some later point. Others are small oil paintings where I could capture what I saw in the scene in one go — the harbor in early winter, the Chappy ferry on-ramp in snow.

“Many Vineyard artists spend their winters painting for the summer folk; it is their eyes, their sensibilities that are taken into account when choosing subject matter. And with fabulous results. Summer on the Vineyard is rich with possibilities for subject matter. and is one of the reasons those same artists love their life here. Now I count myself amongst them, and am attracted by those same landscapes, scenes of life, and stories of the Island.”

She says there’s another, more quiet story to be told. One that’s often less colorful and dramatic, but no less important. “It is the story of Island life in the off-season. It doesn’t make for postcard scenes, doesn’t sell million-dollar mansions. In fact, the residents of those mansions often don’t know that this aspect of the Island exists. It is the story of our regular lives, which we live in this beautiful spot year-round. We have our day to day, our ups and downs, our real life lived in a setting as beautiful on the cold, quiet days as it is in midsummer.”

The Friends of the Vineyard Haven Library present “Martha’s Vineyard: As We Live,” an exhibit of new paintings by Elizabeth Whelan. The exhibit will be on display on the lower level of the library during regular library hours throughout the month of June.