Artist Jeanne Staples is drawn to many subjects


Edgartown artist Jeanne Staples ended her exhibition at the Granary Gallery a few weeks ago, and there are still a few works on display. But it was hardly an end for her. She gets back to work, and the ideas start percolating. She finds herself going in different directions until something captures her attention, and she explores it to give it a permanent home.

“I’m drawn to a mix of subjects — landscape, still life, narrative, figurative,” Staples says. “I always have several paintings I’m working on, moving from one to another, which keeps it fresh for me.”

“This year I got intrigued with patterns and decorative objects,” this prolific artist said in a recent interview. Staples suggests that underlying her interest in decorative patterns is the work of 19th century British textile designer William Morris and that of the Pre-Raphaelites. “I’ve always been a fan of Pre-Raphaelite work,” she says. “It lives in my subconscious.”

One example of her interest in the decorative is “Almost Apple Pie,” a still life including a metal strainer filled with apples on a beautifully patterned tablecloth. On one side of the strainer is a glass jar containing brown sugar, and on the other, a lemon. The light in this still life about a patterned tablecloth is a Staples signature. It brightens the lush blue-and-red design, its edge melding into the shaded drop side of the tablecloth. It covers the metal strainer in patterns of shine and shade, animates lettering on the jar, and enriches the apples and lemon in bright colors reinforced by shadows. The result is a lively and surprisingly complex work, full of color, a statement about a patterned tablecloth.

Another direction Staples goes in is portraits. “Every year I try to do a person,” Staples says. This year, that person is Delores Stevens, co-founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society and its former artistic director. The Chamber Music Society planned a concert and reception on August 15 in celebration of her 50 years of leadership, and Staples was asked to do a portrait. “It was not just a great honor but an engaging project,” she said. “It was a tall order!”

“It was so much fun,” she added. “I told her to bring some brightly colored outfits, and she proceeded to play a concert for me. I took dozens of photographs.” The portrait employs a masterful cascade of light onto the subject and piano that enriches the work. Light is also an important element in the landscapes and narrative paintings for which she is well known.

Many of Staples’ paintings are studies. “It’s a way of working out the composition,” she says. She starts with photographs and drawings, then takes them back to her studio. “It’s information that gives you more resources to finish the work with,” she says.

An example is a study in pencil of a boy in profile who is wearing a bill hat. The finished painting uses light and shadow to define his face and bare shoulder. Pencil lines remain, providing an echo of the pencil study. “I wanted some of the process of creating the work to show in the finished pieces — for the viewer to see evidence of the under drawing that usually gets covered up.” She used the same technique in her “Rite of Passage” trio of paintings.

Staples works a lot on board. She puts aluminum panels on the back, which she buys from sign companies. “It makes an extremely stable and lasting work,” she says. Another example of her interest in the mechanics of painting is what happens when she adds varnish to a painting. “All the colors become rich and gorgeous.”

She and her husband, Doug Jones, will soon head to Nova Scotia for six weeks, to the small fishing village founded by her ancestor in 1653. She’s related to three-fourths of the village, and she and her husband bought their house there 20 years ago. It takes some planning to get ready: “I’ve got to plan what I need. It’s not so easy to get art [supplies] up there.”

To see more of the artist’s work, visit