Painter Julia Russell couldn’t have chosen a better title for her new exhibit at the Featherstone for the Arts Feldman Family Artspace at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. “The Certain Slant of Light” derives from an Emily Dickenson poem, indicating Russell’s desire to resist painting photorealistically but, as she says, “to tell it with a slant … to tell it differently.”
Her show is all about the feeling of the light here on the Vineyard, which can be allusive. But Russell’s thickly layered oils gives this ephemeral quality a certain tangibility, whether it be the heavy atmosphere of a snowy field, the soupiness of the “Foggy Lucy Vincent Beach” on a late winter afternoon, or the slant of the sunlight and shadows in early summer on the field in “North Road.”
Russell says about her process, “Most of my works begin with an emotional attachment to the place I am painting. They could be places I return to time and time again — certain meadows, paths, and coves on Martha’s Vineyard. I generally work from photographs that I have taken. It’s kind of a cliché about the Vineyard light, but it’s true. It’s really about looking at lights and darks and shape, and not what you’re looking at, which is kind of freeing. It’s not logical. I look for where the energy is and then play with it.”
Before she picks up a brush, Russell asks herself, “What am I really seeing? Not a pond, but a yellow streak of light here and a purple one there, a swoop of maroon shadow down here. It is a kind of focus that is hard to come by in a busy life, and yet when it happens, the clutter just goes away, and time stops.”
Russell begins by sketching with a neutral color, and then puts in the darks and lights before starting to layer on paint with a palette knife or big brush. Sticking with these artists’ tools is key because Russell knows that, for her, working with smaller brushes leads her down the path to wanting to get too caught up in the details. “I have to push against the impulse to be literal. I know that when I start picking smaller and smaller brushes to recreate things exactly as they appear in the photograph, I am going down a disappointing path,” she says.
She has been an English teacher for 30 years, and says she finds painting very different from all her years of reading books, writing fiction, and staring at a computer screen. “There is just something that happens on the canvas that seems to be more rewarding, more physical … the colors, the smells … moving the paint around. The best paintings I do are much freer.” You can see in many of her works, such as “Long Point Square,” she depicts the scene with great swathes of color that vibrate with an energy from the landscape itself.
Russell’s gestural strokes give her surfaces a textural quality that enhances the atmosphere that they depict. In “Deep Bottom Cove,” for instance, her thickly layered oils appear heavy with moisture in both the water and swelling clouds.
Russell came to art about 20 years ago, when she took a painting class at the school where she teaches, and fell in love with it. “I’m largely untrained. I’ve taken a couple of classes,” Russell explains. She paints often with her mentor, and feels there is always so much to learn about the oils and the many things you can do to create different effects.
The artist says she is excited about her new direction, in which she literally melds her English teacher background with her artwork. She has begun incorporating texts from poems or newspaper clippings and sometimes pictures that speak to her, putting them underneath the paint, thus infusing even greater tactile depth to the compositions.
“I love the Island. I have deep roots there since being a little kid, and it’s just such a source of inspiration for me, walking along the ponds, on the beaches, and in the meadows; and if I can capture just a fraction of the beauty of the place, then I’m happy,” Russell says.
“The Certain Slant of Light” runs through Jan. 2 at the Featherstone for the Arts Feldman Family Artspace at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, 79 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. Find a link to the application for Featherstone’s final call for artists to apply to showcase their work at the Feldman Family Artspace in 2022 at featherstoneart.org/feldmanfamilyartspace.html.