Art heals

Beth Smith connects with her late daughter through brushstrokes on canvas.

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Although she started painting in her 60s, Beth Smith of Edgartown already demonstrates the talent of a professional. For the month of February, her work can be seen at the Feldman Family Art Space at the M.V. Film Center, where she has a solo show.

Having worked as a nurse for the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for 35 years, primarily in the ER, Smith recently retired, and is devoting herself solely to her art, a second career that it took a tragedy to inspire.

In 2010, Smith’s daughter Alison died from a septic infection. The family had little warning, and had to rush to Boston at a moment’s notice. It was Mother’s Day. Her daughter’s passing at age 27 was devastating to Smith. “My world stopped that day,” she says. “Everything looked different to me after that.” After a six-month leave, Smith returned to work, but found that she didn’t find the same comfort and sense of purpose that her patients had previously provided for her.

At first Smith couldn’t bring herself to even enter Alison’s room, with its memories of happier days, yet she found herself inexplicably drawn to the space. She felt that she wanted to spend time there painting, something that she had very much enjoyed as a child and young teen. On Christmas Day 2013, Smith’s daughter Meredith surprised her mother. She and her father had set up a studio in Alison’s room, complete with easel, paints, and art books.

It took some time, but eventually Smith threw herself into her new adventure, and through it she found a source of healing. “It’s been really rewarding,” says Smith. “It took that part of me that needed to be nurtured. I felt surrounded by peace and solace as I spent hours putting brushstroke to canvas.”

Since that time, Smith has grown as an artist, and has graduated from using her talent as a hobby and means of therapy to sharing her work with the public. She has shown paintings at the gallery at Featherstone, the Vineyard Artisans Festival, Portobello Road in Edgartown, the Featherstone Flea Market, and Polly Hill Arboretum. As an emerging artist, Smith has won numerous honors for her work, including awards from the All-Island Art Show and the Agricultural Fair. In 2018 she was selected for a special award for Best Impressionist from the Cousen Rose Gallery.

Viewing the selection of Smith’s paintings at the Film Center, it’s easy to see why the artist has earned such acclaim so early on in her artistic career. Her impressionist landscapes incorporate light, texture, and expert use of a very few well-chosen colors to capture the mood of various Vineyard scenes, which she paints from memory. “I scrub off a lot and use a lot of water,” Smith explains of the technique she employs in her acrylic work. “I do paintings in layers. I try to get that soft look.”

Since embarking on her venture into painting, Smith has grown considerably as an artist. In her artist’s statement she writes, “Although I had always enjoyed the splendor of the Island’s various landscapes and sunsets, my visual lens is now more focused on the rays of light penetrating through sunsets, the effects of breeze and light on the blades of grass in the marshes, the various hues within the greens of the trees around me.”

More recently, Smith has been experimenting with semi-abstracts and oversimplified images. An example of the latter, a large painting titled “That Ol’ Red Barn,” features bolder, yet still muted colors and a primitive style, perfect for the subject matter. For “Loading the Freight Boat,” Smith used even stronger colors to punctuate a dark palette, quick brushstrokes, and scraping techniques, even continuing the image onto the frame. All three styles of painting demonstrate superior artistic skills and an expert eye for color and composition.

At work in her studio, Smith feels a close connection with her late daughter. “When I first started painting, I could feel her presence,” she says. “She was connecting me to this. I just gave in and let go.”

Alison herself was very creative. Before her passing, she had started experimenting with fashion design, and hoped to pursue a career in that field. Smith recalls that her daughter would pick up clothing items at thrift shops and repurpose them into her own designs. Like daughter, like mother, Smith has continued the practice of scouring Island thrift shops for old frames and canvases. “I love old things,” she says. “I love antiques. Sometimes a gorgeous frame will inspire me. I’m at the thrift shop weekly.”

In so many ways, Alison continues to guide and influence her mother. “I get signs from her. It was such a good thing for me,” says Smith of her work as an artist. “I know that she’s happy. It’s grown into something else now.”

Smith credits her other family members with supporting and encouraging her work. “My daughter Meredith has been so instrumental in always believing in me,” she says. “I’m blessed with my husband, who built the walls for my shows and lugged paintings around every week, not to mention always repairing my old frames. We are all a good team, I guess.”

Beth Smith’s paintings will hang at the Feldman Family Art Space at the M.V. Film Center from Feb. 10 to 23.