Paintings that pack an emotional punch


Frances McGuire’s paintings are intimate images of, as she says, modest, manmade structures that relate to a sense of place. They are “portraits” — even though most are without human figures — that make time and place tangible. McGuire steers clear of photorealism, and helps us see in a new way.

“For me, a typical ocean scene does not forcefully speak about what it is because it’s so obvious what it is, so what is the point of painting it?” she says. “A camera can do that. Snap, you have the ocean. I need something to amp up the visual experience of where you are and throw it forcefully back at you. It’s not about the site per se, it heightens and defines the site in a different way. I have no use for ‘beautiful scenes,’ because they are not compelling … I would never paint just a beach in a million years.”

McGuire’s paintings include windsocks, flags, signage, motels, and more. You can see windsocks in her Katama airfield hanger series, in which she uses pigments not so much to define the composition as to serve as a palette for her opaque swathes of paint that dance across the canvas. Our eyes get lost in the colors of her brushwork, which knit together the abstract composition.

McGuire pushes abstraction even further in “Steam Ship” so that it becomes a flat, geometric surface. She comments, “Here the fins are part of the ventilation system, but I’ve also painted many air conditioners inserted into the walls of motels, a standalone air conditioner, and louvered windows where the glass appears as fins,” she says. “It’s an abstracted take on the bright, industrial voyage. I use colors to balance the composition.”

The artist likes objects that have an emotional punch, and her works depicting the Oak Bluffs’ Island Theater carry this resonance. “Island Theater (Jewel Box)” situates us right at the theater entrance in deep perspective, with jewel-like colors that pull us into the scene. Looking carefully to the right and left, you see orange lines that seem to disappear into the composition. The piece has gone through a reincarnation. 

“This painting was done during the beginning of COVID,” McGuire says. “For a time, there was a full orange plastic tape barrier painted across it to symbolize the fact that the theater is closed, because it has been closed and also because COVID added another closure. Recently, I painted over the orange tape, but hints of it can be found at the left and right edges. Hints of it also skirt across the surface. I love this theater, and it has been the subject of many of my paintings. I call this the ‘Jewel Box’ because that’s the way I see it. I used playful colors, and abstracted it to heighten its sense of visual importance.”

Another in the series is “Island Theater Poster Box, 2017,” which shows her interest and love of aged concrete, which lock the abandoned, ornate poster frames in place. Done in 2017, the “ghosts” of the embellished elements encircling the empty box are gone, it’s neglected but beautiful in its austerity. The concrete wall that dominates the piece is particularly appealing to McGuire for its fissures, which function both compositionally and speak of age.

McGuire is deeply attracted to the building with its deep sense of space that for her, calls out how emblematic it is that we are on an Island. She explains, “I’ve painted the Island Theater countless times because the theater powerfully anchors the town of Oak Bluffs. The façade shouts Island, it speaks of the past, it is a carnival of sorts. I argue again and again that the Island Theater is Oak Bluffs’ version of Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster, or the Wonder Wheel. If those historic seaside structures, which define good times, were demolished, neither Coney Island nor Oak Bluffs would ever be the same.”

McGuire first came to the Island in 1975, and returned to stay at the then Wesley House with her friends for the following two summers, followed by working there for the next five seasons. After coming here on and off over the years, she and her family come every year since they bought a house in 2011. Oak Bluffs holds a special place in her heart. She says, “I started painting scenes of it in the 1970s. Several months ago, it occurred to me that taken together, my Oak Bluffs paintings serve as a painting tour of Oak Bluffs from boundary to boundary. I’ve painted it all, the stores, the theaters, the Campground, the pipe rail fence along the beach, and on and on. I am a visual storyteller of Oak Bluffs.”

An outlier, “Towards the Vermillion Cliffs” shows her love of objects that punctuate a landscape. While not a beach, the distant countryside rolls in the light like waves across the canvas, which we see through the striking architectural structure. McGuire shares, “Although this is based on an abandoned Navajo trading post, the beauty of the undulating landscape can be like the sea in its vastness.”

“I filter my subject matter through my soul, and then begin my work using artistic skills honed over a lifetime to let it speak in an interesting and compelling way,” the artist sums up her work. “I wish for viewers to enter, and experience, seeing things anew.”

“Frances McGuire: Paintings” is on view through July 18 at the Featherstone for the Arts Feldman Family Artspace at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, 79 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven.