“I never in a million years thought that I’d ever be a painter,” said Anne Besse-Shepherd in a recent interview with The Times. It seems, however, that life as an artist was in the cards for Besse-Shepherd all along. Her mother, Virgina Weston Besse, was a well-known watercolorist in her day (as well as a champion sailor), and was one of the founders of the Featherstone Center for the Arts.
Reaching a little further back into the past, Besse-Shepherd’s maternal grandparents were original members of the Chilmark Association, a group of New York–based liberal artists, writers, and others who established a communal summer retreat on the property of the historic Barn House. Notable members and guests included journalist Walter Lippman, jurist Felix Frankfurter, artist Thomas Hart Benton, and poet Sylvia Plath. The Besse “chicken coop,” as the individual structures were referred to, was recently redone, according to Besse-Shepherd, although her family sold their share a while back.
With a pedigree like Besse-Shepherd’s, it’s no surprise that she took to the arts early on, but her focus originally was on jewelrymaking. She received her undergraduate degree in studio art from Skidmore College, and then earned an M.F.A. in metalsmithing from the University of Washington. For many years she ran Chrysalis Designs, designing and fabricating one-of-a-kind and limited-production fine art jewelry. Besse-Shepherd was the recipient of a Ford Foundation Grant, and her work is a part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution.
Despite her success as a jeweler, Besse-Shepherd never really enjoyed the pursuit all that much. “It was never a love of mine,” she says, “just a way to make a living in the arts.”
When Weston Besse died in 2008, her daughter gathered up the late artist’s painting supplies and started experimenting on her own. She took to it right away, and has been painting prolifically ever since. Besse-Shepherd and her husband moved to the Island full-time around 10 years ago. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she got involved with Featherstone, helping to fundraise and plan for the arts campus’s Art Barn. She has taken part in many group shows at Featherstone, including one in 2017 which she co-curated.
Besse-Shepherd has found painting landscapes to be a great way to express her connection to and love for the Vineyard. She spends time painting at various isolated spots around the Island and heading out by sailboat, kayak, or her small fishing boat to explore the ponds, harbors, and coastlines of the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. Along with her artistic talent, Besse-Shepherd also inherited a passion for boats, and her forays out on the water allow her to explore areas most people rarely get to see, and provide an unusual perspective, looking from the water toward land. The artist favors soft colors and quiet scenes, and paints in an impressionistic style, capturing the mood and sense of history of the Island as only one as deeply immersed in the Vineyard — past and present — truly can.
Last year Besse-Shepherd was invited to join the Granary Gallery stable of artists, and already a number of her paintings have sold. She is one of three local women artists (along with Alison Shaw and Heidi Lang) to be featured in a show at the West Tisbury gallery that runs through July 15. The exhibit also marks the unveiling of an impressively huge (60 x 120 inches) painting by Cuttyhunk artist Tamalin Baumgarten titled “Vineyard Summer.” If you miss the exhibit, work by all four women will continue to be on display at the Granary throughout the year.