You know artist Margot Datz’s murals at the two Steamship terminals: In Vineyard Haven, a schemata of a wavelet-spewed harbor, sailboats, docks, and puffy white clouds over a pastoral littoral; in Oak Bluffs, romantic scallops of windows disclosing blue summer skies and gulls on the wing. This well-known Island artist has also supplied us, most recently, with a Kelp Forest mural at the children’s library in Edgartown.
You’ll also recognize her work, as with tipsy delight you’ve viewed a Datz exhibit at her annual show at the Grange Hall, paintings of, let us say to home you in, a panel of frogs with Baryshnikov legs, gelid green torsos hung with costume jewelry and red petals stuck to their bottoms, submerged in an indigo sea amid irradiated tiny mushrooms.
Datz, who lives off a country road in Edgartown, is also well known for mermaids strolling on beaches past joyous kids and sandcastles. Her mermaid fetish — if we can term something so exquisitely beautiful a fetish — was enshrined in her book, “A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids,” which over the years has put so many of us in touch with our own inner mermaid.
My favorite Datz painting — well, it’s more of a grand design — is the phenomenal trompe l‘oeil embedded at the front altar of the Whaling Church. Trompe l’oeil, of course, means to fool the eye, a favorite bit of art-speak for any of us who’ve enjoyed a fake window enclosed in a gray clapboard cottage, such as the one you see if you glance left at the corner of Franklin and Spring Streets in Vineyard Haven.
Some years ago, Datz was called upon to enrich the imagery between the tall windows of the Whaling Church. Now, you can sit listening to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major as your eyes feast on archways and courtyards leading to inner sanctum sanctorum that are not actually there. Or are they? The viewer’s imagination mingles with the artist’s to create a multiverse we can chillax in, for at least as long as the music plays, and we remain in our pews.
In 2016, Chris Scott of the Vineyard Trust reached out to Datz for a recreation of several badly damaged panels inside the central octagon of the Flying Horses carousel in Oak Bluffs. For all those of us who’ve been coming to, or living on, the Island for a spell, we know that this jewel of a carousel is the oldest still-in-operation merry-go-round in our country. Some 140 years, to be moderately exact.
Or not so exact. The carousel was moved to the Island from NYC in the 1880s, and how long it operated in that location is not precisely known. May I suggest, dear reader, that you do the math? It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and it’s among only a handful of carousels that still offer brass rings extended from a high metal sleeve as the horses circle.
I myself noted when I first rode the carousel in 1976 that the rings-element helped offset the fact that the horses remain stationary as the platform revolves, whereas more modern merry-go-rounds do involve hippity-hopping rides. The wonderful bellow of the Wurlitzer band organ also amplifies a sensation of horses plunging up and down.
When the talented Ms. M was engaged to paint the panels, the scenes depicted had grown damaged by time and salt air. In the central octagonal core, comprised of eight rectangular panels, only one original restored panel was on display. A second original panel, highly damaged and torn, was archived. The rest of the panels had vanished. The artist was asked to recreate this second existing panel based upon whatever evidence could be sussed out.
The artist says, “I do not restore or remove paint. I recreated, from the stretcher up, the second of eight panels.” The originals, she learned, fostered a feeling of European or Hudson River school landscapes.
Investigations showed that earlier refurbishments also yielded a cowboys-and-Indians theme, another an Age of Aquarius motif. The latter materialized in the 1980s which, yes, to answer your question, followed on the heels of the Broadway musical “Hair,” which introduced virtually all Americans to an Aquarian astrological guide for our planet, and a fun song. “There are family members still on-Island whose dad painted them, and they were beautiful,” Datz says.
All of which led to the Vineyard Trust handing Datz the go-ahead to recreate the remaining six panel recreations, replacing the previous blank burgundy canvases with gaily painted panels. The decorative motif was lifted directly from two original panels, based upon existing ornamental evidence. Each large panel was composed of two separate artistic elements — the decorative surround and a central oval vignette that featured a landscape. While the decorative surround was a given for all the panels, the subject matter of the vignettes was unknown. Because this is a National Historic Landmark, only documented evidence could be recreated.
Working in the netherworld shadows of her basement studio, the painter has developed a unified decorative central core for the carousel, which much more closely resembles the original carousel. Six vignettes await illumination. Datz is plunging into further forensic digging to discover what once rested therein. “It’s like an historical CSI art course to divine the original panels. I yearn to learn more,” she says.
Aiding her in this project, as he has in the past, is Island philanthropist Tim Goodman, who also rendered financial support for Datz’s work at the YMCA, along with the kelp forest at the Edgartown children’s library.
Fabled as are Margot Datz’s paintings locally, they’re so distinctively pretty, so easy to spot, and to hold our hands over our hearts as we pause to enjoy a chipmunk-with-a-chalice here, a mermaid seated before an underwater mirror there, this lady arty genius will undoubtedly sail out into the broader world as the next Ludwig Bemelmans, Maurice Sendak, and — our own — Roald Dahl — only two letters short from Datz, come to think of it.
The Flying Horses reopened over Memorial Day weekend, so we can all see firsthand the refurbished interior octagon of painted panels, with more to be revealed.