This summer, Oak Bluffs’ Knowhere Gallery, now in its sophomore year, is showcasing the work of a handful of women artists. Joining the forces of three established artists who have shown with the gallery since last year are two new faces. The new additions — Rafaela (“Ella”) Santos and Daryl Royster Alexander — will join existing Knowhere artists Rhonda K. Brown, Stephanie Danforth, and Wendy Weldon to round out a season dedicated to strong women artists.
Ella Santos lives in the Bronx and visits the Vineyard whenever she can. She creates figurative drawings and paintings in an energetic, primitive style. In her artist statement Santos writes, “I am a Black Puerto Rican, and my work centers on explorations of my identity as a Black Latina in an urban environment.”
“In all of my work the theme is about identity,” Santos said in a phone interview. “About my saying, ‘OK, I don’t have to fit into a category.’”
Santos first began creating art after she received a diagnosis of vertigo about 10 years ago. “I was home all day,” she recalls. “I couldn’t go to work. I started painting with the view from the window. I realized that something had happened. I began to see more clearly. My lens changed — the way I see the world. Color became vibrant, and shapes and outlines clearer, and my interactions with the world deepened.”
As well as painting, Santos had also started teaching art when another major life change influenced a new direction in her work. She recently discovered that she had developed ocular nerve damage. “That was a devastating diagnosis,” she says. “I did a whole series — 365 images that make up a visual diary, I wanted to explore whether I would be changing from the diagnosis. Would my eyes change? Would I see life change psychologically?” Of this series she writes, “I set out to document everyday life as it relates to the past and the present. My idea of beauty, sights and smells, as well as touch, greatly influence my work as an artist.”
Now, it’s a shift in the world rather than a personal experience that has helped Santos to evolve further as an artist. “I had been focusing on black-and-white images. With COVID, there was a sense of sadness. I started using color as a way to liven things up for me.”
Santos has also responded to increasing racial tension through her work. “During this time, I think we’re all looking for hope. We are looking for that light. My newest body of work is heavily influenced by this heavy time. I cried a lot during the demonstrations. With the virus there is such racial disparity, even though it’s not as in your face as someone’s knee on another person’s neck. There is so much angst — it’s reflected in my work.”
However, there is also a message of hope in Santos’ work. “I’m so happy that this sort of heightened consciousness has resulted,” she says. “I think that the Black Lives Matter movement has risen to the occasion. It’s going to be instrumental in changing how people act. This whole situation has informed my work. We don’t live in a vacuum. We need more people to be awake. Even one person has the power to change humanity. I have hope.”
The other new addition to Knowhere Gallery also pursued art as a profession as a second career. Daryl Royster Alexander of Brooklyn and Oak Bluffs enjoyed a long, successful career as a journalist before returning to her roots as an artist. She was an editor at the New York Times for many years after serving as editor-in-chief for Essence magazine.
After retiring from the NYT, Alexander returned to her first passion. Previously she studied under established artists at the Art Students League in NYC and at the University of Minneapolis. She is now finding her place in the art world, having shown her work at Paris’ Galerie Intemporel, a venue that showcases the art of the African diaspora.
At the Knowhere Gallery, the artist is showing primarily portraits from a series called “Image & Mask.” She describes the theme of the work in her artist’s statement. “We project identity, individually and collectively, through clothes, language, dance, and costumes. They help build powerful images of ourselves. They also serve as masks that hide vulnerability. Masking also hides who we are while indulging in subterfuge, camouflage, and often necessary fantasy.”
Some of the images on display feature subjects who have literally altered their identities — participants in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities. “With the Mardi Gras images, you have a masking of the entire body,” says Alexander. “They call the ritual ‘masking.’ It’s as old as Africa — the way that someone who may be a fry cook can be a chef. He becomes this person. He commands dignity and respect and obeisance in his krewe.”
In other images, men and women are depicted in a more day-to-day perspective, although the identity each has chosen for her or himself is shown through a choice of clothing and hairstyle. “Root Man” wears a very large hat and mirrored sunglasses. The female figure in “Metro Passenger” is seen in a fetching three-quarter view, draped in a colorful head wrap and scarf.
Alexander and her husband settled into their Vineyard home at the beginning of the pandemic, and plan to stay on indefinitely. “The Vineyard is just a wonderful place to be,” she says. “Everything about it inspires me — from colors to conversations with people to that sensibility that you get out here from the very air. It’s the people here who make the Vineyard.”
Knowhere Gallery, 91 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs. 570-350-5642; knowhereart.com.