Nature reflects life in artist Pepe Conley’s new exhibit

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There’s something that sets artist Pepe Conley apart from other artists who exhibit their work on Martha’s Vineyard. Well, a couple of things, in fact. For one, Conley’s stunning wife Amy is often pictured in the foreground of his scenes of nature. And, on a less personal level, Conley, who lives in Hawaii, paints his striking scenes in the style of the West Coast plein air artists. He works in crisp colors with a lot of detail, heightening the landscape through various tricks of perspective, color, and contrast. There’s a sort of fantasy element to the work.

“I work from a series of photos taken from different angles and create an image that’s actually better than real,” says Conley. “It’s a scene that could theoretically exist, but it’s really my own invention.”

Conley has made a name for himself in Hawaii for his stunning paintings of waterfalls, shoreline, quiet coves, and majestic mountains, often featuring Amy as a sort of earth goddess. He also depicts various types of boats, marine life, and water images with a heightened sense of reality. In the past few years, Conley has transferred his style to scenes of the Vineyard, a handful of which he is now showing at the Louisa Gould Gallery.

“It’s been really fun applying my style to the beautiful scenes of Martha’s Vineyard,” says Conley. “It’s a different color palette, a different quality of light.”

Among the paintings included in the curent group show at the gallery are an image of the Gay Head Cliffs with Amy wrapped in a traditional Wampanoag woven blanket, one of Dogfish Bar Beach under a dramatic sky, and another of Amy halfway submerged in the water, which is depicted from a curved fisheye-lens view. The other images include one of an Atlantic white marlin, a wonderfully detailed multirigged sailing vessel with its reflection providing an inverse image. Another boat painting of a dory sitting unmanned in a foggy cove sold almost as soon as it was hung.

Although he grew up in Hawaii, the son of vagabond parents who finally chose the Hawaiian Islands as their permanent home, Conley spent a great deal of time on the East Coast during his childhood and young adult years. His parents are originally from Connecticut, and the family would visit New England every year. “I spent my summers sailing around Groton Long Point and Mystic with my uncles and cousins,” says the artist. “I was around boats a lot. I have a real love for the historic Eastern Seaboard.”

Conley met his wife, a Wampanoag native of Martha’s Vineyard, in Kauai, where the couple currently reside. It was during his first visit to the Island, when the couple were still dating, that Conley discovered a new passion.

“I got to meet Amy’s father [famed fishing charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop] and her tribe on the Vineyard,” recalls Conley. “I’ve been a fisherman my whole life, but when I got to go fishing with Buddy, it really blew my mind. In about three hours we must have gotten over $1,000 worth of seafood. I couldn’t believe how much food you can get out of the ocean if you know what you’re doing. That one fishing trip changed my life.”

Upon his return to Kauai, Conley earned his captain’s licence, bought a boat, and went into business chartering fishing trips and sightseeing tours, and began working part-time as a commercial fisherman: “Because of the high cost of living on Kauai, you have to have two or three jobs.” Still, Conley has found time to paint, and is represented by a couple of galleries on the Hawaiian islands. This summer he is showing his work on the Vineyard for the first time.

Amy is an artist as well. She works in bronze sculpture, ceramics, and mosaics. The couple have a foundry on their property, as well as a studio where Conley paints.

Conely is the son of a schoolteacher and architect who both created artwork. He started drawing at an early age, and took a number of art classes while living in Colorado. During his time there he went to culinary school, and worked as a private chef. He met his wife after returning to Hawaii. Amy was living there and working as an artist. The two found a connection through the art world.

Since then, Conley has developed a real connection with the Vineyard and the Wampanoag community. “This is the start of a new chapter in my art career,” says Conley. “I want to do some more paintings onsite. The Vineyard is almost a more concentrated version of New England. Everything is so picturesque and more beautiful overall than the rest of the East Coast.”