Island life

Artists Colin Ruel and Nettie Kent open a new gallery with family roots.

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Anyone familiar with the village of Menemsha surely knows the tiny Harbor Craft Shop next to the Bite, which operated for decades under the amiable oversight of owner/artisan Roberta Morgan. Now retired at the age of 91, Morgan has turned the building that formerly displayed her handiwork, along with her husband’s carvings, weathervanes, and artwork, over to her grandson Colin Ruel and his wife Nettie Kent. The couple have turned the small space into an art gallery, and it couldn’t be a more perfect spot for the two to show off their respective talents as artist and jeweler.

The new Ruel Gallery, which will officially open once current restrictions allow for businesses to operate again, displays Ruel’s breathtaking landscapes and portraiture work, along with custom-made gold and silver jewelry by Kent.

Both Ruel and Kent were born and raised on the Island. The former’s roots stretch back to the early rural days of the Island. Kent is the daughter of renowned Island artist Doug Kent. The couple currently live in Chilmark. “I grew up right next to the shop,” says Ruel. “In the house that my great-grandfather built himself. A lot of the beams were pulled up from the beach by oxen after shipwrecks.”

The two artists’ Island roots clearly show through in their work. Ruel focuses primarily on Vineyard landscapes and, more recently, rustic portraits of salt-of-the-earth-type Islanders at work or in an appropriate environment. His landscapes demonstrate a clear and abiding love for the Vineyard, and a perspective unique to one fully immersed in Island life. “I thought about painting landscapes for a long time,” says the self-taught artist. “I have a strong connection with fishing and generally being outdoors. I feel like I have a sort of ancestral connection to the Island.”

There’s a very timeless, almost ethereal quality to the artist’s landscape paintings. His palette tends to be soft and muted, his lines effectively blended and underdefined. The scenes evoke the magic of a solitary trip up-Island on an overcast day, where one can almost imagine an earlier time, when Ruel’s ancestors walked the fields and shoreline enjoying the tranquility of the unspoiled land.

Ruel, who is also a musician, began painting on the Island in his twenties. He and Kent lived for a while in Brooklyn, where he worked as assistant to various successful New York-based artists. His work continued to evolve at that time, as he started using small, castoff wooden panels and leftover paint from one of his artist employers, and discovered the effectiveness of painting on wood. He often incorporates the patterns in the wood grain into his work, giving texture and definition to his dramatic skies and grazing pastures circled by rough stone walls.

In another nod to his rural roots, Ruel sometimes incorporates cows or sheep into his landscape work in a way that makes the animals appear an integral part of the scene.

More recently Ruel has begun a series of portraits. “The scenes sort of tell a story,” he says. “People doing Island things — hunting and fishing, people interacting with nature and other people. Right now I’m just doing portraits of Islanders. I try to change things up. Otherwise it gets boring.” Ruel’s portrait work displays a unique, rustic style and perspective.

Nettie Kent primarily works in gold and silver, and tends toward simple, yet effective lines. The designer favors delicate geometric shapes, executed with a bit of roughness to the texture.

Some of her pieces have the look of treasures unearthed from archaeological digs, conjuring up images of simple gold adornments embellishing the shapely throats and delicate wrists of beauties of antiquity.

With two young children, Kent has had less time to work on production, so she is focusing more on custom orders these days. “For the gallery, I’m excited to have real creative freedom in what I make,” she says. “I’ll be doing one-of-a-kind pieces, trying out new processes and techniques, and just making what I want to make, which is a first for me after doing wholesale for so many years. I’ll still be offering my bestsellers and favorites from my collections, because people love them and I do too.”

Lately, Kent says, she has been working a lot with clients on custom wedding and engagement rings, and has recently started creating “new mama” rings and necklaces.

Although it’s uncertain when the new gallery will be able to open to the public, Ruel says that, as appropriate, he hopes to be offering customers the chance to visit by appointment. Until then, he says, people can call him to find out how to view the work. You can also check out Kent’s jewelry and Ruel’s paintings on their respective websites (colinruel.com and nettiekentjewelry.com) and on Instagram.