Light and shadows

Cuttyhunk artist Tamalin Baumgarten draws on her surroundings as inspiration.

Tamalin Baumgarten paints "Lucy." — Tamalin Baumgarten

Cuttyhunk-based artist Tamalin Baumgarten refers to her distinctive style as tonal, melancholic realism. The description is an apt one. She paints portraits and landscapes of her adoptive Island in a very moody, evocative style that is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Andrew Wyeth in the very intimate and forlorn aspect of the paintings. There’s a similar emotional impact, and a sense of mystery. However, Baumgarten’s work is done with exacting precision in the realist tradition.

It is impossible to view the young artist’s work without being affected. Her portraits of children have a sort of haunted quality, not the typical carefree images of youth. Baumgarten’s landscapes, especially the lonely ocean scenes, tend to put the viewer right into the picture — in the middle of the water, in the midst of a quiet nighttime scene that heightens the mysterious quality of the ocean.

Last weekend, the Granary Gallery hosted a reception for a new show featuring the work of Baumgarten and two other artists who represent the newest additions to the gallery’s roster of artists. A dozen paintings by the Cuttyhunk painter will be featured through July 6, along with the work of local artists Dan VanLandingham and Ken Vincent.

Gallery manager David Wallis explains what attracted both owner Chris Morse and himself to Baumgarten’s work. “We were interested in the connection between Cuttyhunk and the Vineyard,” he says, “but primarily we really like the fact that her work has a narrative and a very human quality to the portrait subjects, which are elements not often found with the artists we represent.”

Baumgarten, unlike many artists, is able to expound on her work and inspiration articulately, and she freely shares explanations of the technique she uses to make her images come to life. Her style relies heavily on light and shadow. Explaining what she means by tonal realism, she says, “The light and value structure is important — creating a three-dimensionality out of light and shadow.”

She further explains how she transfers that quality to her work: “My technique is based on the transparent layering of paints — starting out with a luminous ground color applied really thinly so that the light of the gesso shines through. I like to hold on to that luminosity.”

Baumgarten varies the application of paint depending on what she is portraying, and sometimes scrapes back wet paint to reveal the luminous quality beneath. In her artist’s statement she expands on her technique, writing, “Manmade objects in my paintings tend to carry more weight through an application of slightly thicker, more direct paint. The formal elements of painting — composition, light and shadow, color palette, and the nuances of transparent and opaque paint — all play pivotal roles. They are my tools for describing what is natural and what isn’t, reminding us that no matter how small we are in comparison, what we build ‘makes our mark’ upon the eternal, spiritual environment that holds us.”

Living on Cuttyhunk has allowed Baumgarten to truly observe nature and man’s relationship to his environment. For the past 10 years she has served off and on as innkeeper for the tiny island’s only inn — Avalon. Her grandfather owned the inn for many years. In 2016 Baumgarten established the Cuttyhunk Island Artists’ Residency, hosting visual artists and writers at the Avalon in the spring and fall.

The artist notes that the year-round population on Cuttyhunk numbers around a dozen people, while 50 or so stay throughout the eight-month season, and the summer population is only in the hundreds. Living in such a small rural community has informed Baumgarten’s approach to her work in a number of ways.

“There’s something very different about the light there,” she says. “There aren’t big buildings that block the light. You can see very far distances. There aren’t any eyesores on the island. You can really become familiar with the shadows that are cast. Without even looking at a clock, you can tell the time by the shadows.”

The simple, self-sufficient nature of the island appeals to Baumgarten’s artistic sensibility. She writes, “Cuttyhunk is a microcosm of human life on earth. It illuminates a simpler American way of life. There is a Puritan plainness in the buildings that does not compete with the grandness of nature. On the contrary, this simplicity emphasizes the wildness of nature. My paintings focus on this distinction — pristine, humble geometry nestled in a fluid, organic envelope. The environment presides over the people.”

Baumgarten grew up in Spokane, Wash., spending time every summer on Cuttyhunk. She received her M.F.A. from New York Academy of Art in 2015, and her B.F.A. from Cornish College of the Arts in 2010. She has shown her work at numerous galleries in New York City, Washington State, and elsewhere, and has been the recipient of several awards.

In between her studies, Baumgarten took on the role of innkeeper, and started spending two-thirds of the year on Cuttyhunk. She’s rediscovered that sense of wonder that she experienced as a child, visiting the island, and hopes to capture some of that with her work.

She finds similarities between Cuttyhunk and the Vineyard. “There’s a sort of freedom you have on this Island as a kid,” she says. “When kids get to Cuttyhunk, they take off their shoes and run around. They don’t have to be supervised. Even as an adult, there’s this sense when you finally get to an island that you can let your guard down and experience a more casual side of life. Being surrounded by the ocean is just good for our souls. As an adult, I think it’s important to remember our inner child, and these islands help us do that.”