With half a century of painting behind her and hundreds of works of art in her studio, one would think that Norma Bridwell would have shown her work publicly before now. But the fact is, the 88-year-old has little interest in selling her work. She’s been painting for pleasure prolifically ever since she and her husband, Norman Bridwell, moved to the Island more than 50 years ago.
While Norman was busy writing and illustrating his popular “Clifford the Big Red Dog” books, his wife was pursuing the passion that she had previously all but abandoned earlier to raise their two children.
Since moving full-time to the Vineyard in 1970 (where the couple raised their two children), Ms. Bridwell has spent a good deal of time traveling around the Island painting en plein air or getting inspiration for works to be completed at her home studio. Currently the lively octogenarian artist is enjoying her first gallery show at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s lobby Art Space. The exhibit is a retrospective of sorts, featuring paintings by the artist from her early days on the Island up to more recent works from the past few years.
The majority of the oil paintings depict scenes around the Island, showing a sense of joy and celebration of the artist’s Island home. Some standouts include a wonderful triptych showing a panoramic stretch of Katama Beach in sunny shades of green, yellow, and blue, and a quiet view of the Edgartown Lighthouse with subtle hues of a sunrise reflected in the water. Other works were painted around Boston, where the couple continued to keep a pied-à-terre after moving to the Vineyard. The work is masterfully executed and vibrantly colored.
While her husband may have enjoyed a career in the spotlight, Bridwell led a very adventurous life of her own before settling down to marriage and children. She served in the Army before studying at the American School of Art in New York City and establishing a career as a commercial artist in New York, something she shared in common with her future husband.
She and Mr. Bridwell married in 1958, and had their first child, Emily (Clifford’s owner’s namesake) shortly afterward. While Mr. Bridwell was making children’s book history, Ms. Bridwell took care of the kids and provided support and inspiration to her husband.
On the Island, the couple would often travel around painting together. A favorite spot was the Bend in the Road Beach, not far from their Edgartown home. Bridwell recalls that she would often use the hood of her “Island car” in lieu of an easel to capture scenes at points all over the Vineyard. “When we first came here, it was still quite rural,” she says.
Although she has put down her paintbrush for now, up until a couple of years ago Bridwell was traveling to Boston regularly to take classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. When the weekly trips became a bit too much for the dedicated artist, she decided to continue painting on her own, but she found that she missed the camaraderie and support of her fellow students. “As soon as I said goodbye to my friends there, who were almost like a family I’ve known over the years, I somehow couldn’t get started again,” says Bridwell. “I’ve tried a couple of groups on the Island, but it’s just not the same.”
The artist seems to be enjoying retirement at the home she shared with Mr. Bridwell up until his death in 2014. She still gets around, and has retained all of the wit and humor that has earned her so many loyal friends on the Island.
The Playhouse hosted a private reception when the show opened in early December, and Bridwell enthusiastically chatted with the friends and patrons who stopped by to support her. It was a pleasure for her to see many of the paintings — representing a lifetime of work — hanging together in the lovely lobby art space, and she was pleased to note that at the close of the event, quite a few had red dots indicating that they had sold.
“I’ve never shown my work, and I’ve never sold anything,” says Bridwell. “I usually just give paintings away to anyone who likes them. This is something new for me, and it’s still a little overwhelming.”
A much-overdue celebration of the artist’s work, the show was scheduled to hang for one month until the end of 2020, but the Playhouse’s director, MJ Bruder Munafo, opted to keep it up through January. “Her work is very beautiful, and we love having it in the Playhouse Art Space,” she says.
Norma Bridwell’s “My Horizons” exhibit at the Art Space at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church St., Vineyard Haven, runs through the end of January. 508-696-6300; mvplayhouse.org.