Whitney Cleary brings her muted palette to A Gallery

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"Beyond," oil on wood panel, 20 x 24 inches. — Whitney Cleary

Whitney Cleary’s move to the Vineyard seven years ago heralded a new chapter in her life. It wasn’t until she had relocated to the Island that she began painting. Before that, she had written poetry and dabbled in fiber arts. Starting over in a new place seemed like an opportunity to reinvent herself.

Since then, Cleary has managed to gain a following for her work, and this summer she will join the group of artists represented by A Gallery. Her recent paintings will be featured in a show at the gallery, running until July 17.

“I like the moody and ambiguous feel to her work,” says A Gallery owner Tanya Augustinos. “I appreciate her muted palette. It really allows you to travel.” Augostinos, who represents contemporary artists and does not generally lean toward landscapes, adds, “She’s inspired by what she sees on the Vineyard, but she’s not representing specific places. It’s more about those moments of inspiration that she captures.”

Although she was raised in an artistic family, Cleary has no formal art education. She’s originally from Northampton; her mother is an art teacher, and her sister is an artist. She studied English at UMass Amherst, and then came to the Vineyard on the advice of a friend. “I was kind of bounding around for a while,” she says. “I tried several different creative pursuits before landing on painting.”

Despite her lack of training, Cleary’s maturity and sophistication as an artist are evident in her work. She gains a lot of mood from expert use of light and layering. She favors a far distant perspective, which lends an air of mystery. Cleary also manages to imply a lot of detail with her brushstrokes, while keeping much of her work in a pleasing soft focus.

The resulting work is atmospheric and mood-inspiring. Cleary tends toward depictions of overcast scenes, and creates remarkably vivid skies, considering that she works from memory and imagination. “I’m embracing moodiness,” she says. The artist builds each piece up with layers of oil paint on wood, and often utilizes a palette knife to really bring out a textural quality.

“My paintings can sometimes feel more like sculptures when I’m working on them,” says Cleary. “I like using oils. Oils feel more manipulative and have a slower drying time. I like to work in little bursts at a time, then revisit the work.”

Cleary sometimes uses photos as reference, but generally her work is nonspecific. “They’re not of any particular place,” she says. “It’s interesting that people tend to have an idea of where the scene is before they ask me, and I just say, ‘Well, that’s where it is.’ Wherever they imagine it to be.”

The artist originally started painting just for herself. It was a while before she felt confident enough to show some of her paintings to friends. Eventually her coworkers at the Plane View restaurant, where she works during the summer months, convinced Cleary to show her work there. She has sold to customers at the restaurant for the past two years. The positive response encouraged her to show her work at the Chilmark library and Mocha Mott’s in Oak Bluffs. The latter exhibit caught the attention of Augostinos, who invited Cleary to show her work at Pathways Arts this past winter and join her group of artists at A Gallery.

Despite her early success, the young artist is still very modest about her talent. She calls herself a “closet painter.”

“At first I kind of did it in secret,” she says. “I felt like it was the other people in my family who were the artists. I identified more as a writer. I did a couple of shows in Northampton as a poet, together with my sister’s artwork.”

When she moved to the Vineyard, Cleary decided the time had come to experiment with the visual arts. She was baking for Morning Glory half of the year, and needed a creative outlet for the off-season. “The baking and the painting feel kind of connected,” she says. “I came to the Vineyard to find a new path and figure out what I wanted to do. That led to baking for one season and painting for the other — trying to make use of that free time.”

Cleary still writes poetry, and has published a couple of chapbooks. She sees a connection between her two creative pursuits. “It feels like the same outcome creatively,” says Cleary. “The things that I like about writing are the same things that I like about painting. With my poetry, as well as my paintings, I’m trying to create one simple feeling. You can’t really define it. It’s just a moment.”